At the moment I write this, the most popular movie on Netflix isn’t some grim true-crime documentary about two families that murder each other over and over, but refreshingly, is a charming animated movie about a relatable and flawed family doing their clumsy best to thwart a brutal global robot uprising. It’s called The Mitchells vs. The Machines and it prominently features a ratty fictional 1993 station wagon that’s even a stick shift. Let’s see if we can figure out the inspiration for this wonderful made-up crapbox.
As an aside, it shouldn’t be too surprising to see some real attention paid to cars in the movie, considering it was done by the same team that made the wonderful 2018 movie Spider-Man Into The Spiderverse, which featured ads for an alternate-universe new Yugo.
In case you know nothing of all of this pop-culture whatever, here’s the trailer that features the car pretty prominently:
Fun, right? Sure it is.
The car actually has a brand name and model name, as well as a year: it’s a 1993 Sturdy Sensible, pretty much exactly the sort of safe-bet car a Midwestern middle-class family would have bought in 1993. The detail of a manual transmission also says a lot about the character of the buyer, too: There’s a bit of frugality, a bit of self-reliance and some patient stubbornness as, in 1993, I bet the local Sturdy dealership likely had to special order a stick model of a mass-market car like the Sensible Wagon. I bet that took a while.
A buyer with less conviction would likely have just gone with one of the three-speed automatic Sensibles on the lot.
I appreciate how carefully the designers and animators of the movie considered the likely wear-and-tear of a car of this class and age; there are warped bars on the black plastic grille, minor dents and dings all over, the rubber has come off one of the bumper guards leaving some telltale adhesive residue, there’s considerable grime below and in creases and crevices — it’s just what you’d expect a cared-for but well-used family car to look like.
Of course, the car does get the shit kicked out of it repeatedly throughout the movie, but, to its great, humble credit, it keeps going.
The Sensible is very familiar to anyone who was aware of cars in the early 1990s. Based on the general design vocabulary of the car, I’d say this is definitely an American car, and the platform it’s based on dates back to the 1980s.
Looking at details like dashboard design, door handles and general style of trim, I’d have to say this is almost definitely based on a GM model. And I think I’ve narrowed it down to a very likely candidate: the Chevy Celebrity Wagon.
I considered the Chevy Cavalier Wagon as well, which is remarkably similar in design (read: boring) but it’s a bit smaller and lacks some key details that I think are directly from the Celebrity.
I’m leaning more toward the Celebrity wagon as the primary inspiration and this shot from the rear shows why pretty well. Those three-stacked-bricks taillights are a dead ringer, and the general body lines and trim line up almost perfectly.
Look at the front fenders of the two cars, especially the lower portion, with the model name badge, wraparound bumper and side marker lamp below.
From the front, we see a lot of Celebrity as well:
Here we can see a lot of similarities: the central black grille, light units that consist of a pair of rectangular sealed-beams with a long parking/indicator lamp below, all housed in a boxy chromed bezel. The bumper design, with its black impact strip and inset aluminum brightwork, is dead-on as well.
The problem here is the year. The Mitchell’s wagon is said to be a 1993 model, and the Celebrity that resembles it the most is from around 1988. By 1990, the last year Celebrities were built, they looked like this:
Like most cars of the era, they had traded the old sealed beam headlights for the now-legal replaceable-bulb custom-shaped lights, pioneered by cars like the Ford Taurus. For the Sturdy Sensible to hang onto sealed beams in 1993 would be a bit odd, but I have an explanation that fits well, I think, within the Mitchell vs. The Machines fictional universe.
In their universe, GM had another division, Sturdy, set below Chevrolet. This was a bargain brand, but they didn’t build crap — instead, the Sturdy marque was where GM shunted outdated models, shipping off all the old tooling to Sturdy’s factory in, let’s say, Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where they cranked out renamed, very lightly re-styled outdated but still very usable models.
A guy like Rick Mitchell would have been all about Sturdy cars, waiting for that fancy-ass Chevy to drop down into the Sturdy family, at which point he’d leap, buying Chevy quality without paying those lavish Chevy prices.
Sturdy would have targeted the people who would have bought a manual, three-on-the-tree Rambler American with radio delete back in 1961: frugal people who liked to think about putting washers on bolts and had opinions on what screw anchor works best in what kind of drywall.
So that’s what I think this car is: A fictional bargain GM brand for outdated cars, but where you could still find a decent, manual wagon with cheap-to-replace sealed-beam lights as late as 1993.
Shit, I think I’m a Sturdy fan now.