[The good Dr. Rudolf Diesel himself.]
In my “Cars of a Lifetime” article, The RWD Diesel Stick-Shift Brown Station Wagon Mythical Beast of the Internet, I touched briefly on the American car enthusiast’s fetishization of this unusual car. With this article, I hope to provide a comprehensive study into why this particular car has become an object of desire, and the realities of actual availability and sales of the rare beast.
In the post-WWII era, Americans were first introduced to the Diesel-engined passenger car , the Mercedes-Benz 180D, in the 1950s. Production and importation figures are unavailable, but it is difficult to imagine that too many Americans would be interested in purchasing a small, slow, and expensive car that required difficult to obtain fuel, in this era. Sales figures were most likely minuscule. For all of the 1950s, 1960s, and into the early 1970s, Diesel-powered passenger cars were barely a blip on the radar of overall passenger-car sales.
All this began to change in October 1973 with the OPEC Oil Embargo. In retaliation for US aid to Israel, the OPEC nations banded together and raise the price of a barrel of crude oil by 70% overnight, and oil production was cut 5% per month. Gasoline rationing ensued in the US. Car buyers looked for alternative-fueled cars with better fuel economy. During the Oil Embargo, Diesel fuel was often more readily available, largely owing to the fact that it was mostly used for commercial trucking, and almost always sold for a lower price per gallon than gasoline. This was the primary reason for the rise of the Diesel passenger car in the 1970s.
During the same period, gasoline-powered cars were beginning to become more complex. Buyers wanted cars that got better fuel economy, and the government was beginning to mandate cleaner, less polluting cars. The engine bays of new cars became filled with these crude emissions controls devices, their electronics, and yards of vacuum hoses.
[This is from a 1985 Honda Civic. Just a wee bit complex.]
In the meantime, since the availability and use of Diesel engines in passenger cars was so minimal, they were essentially ignored by government regulators. Combined with the lack of emission controls, Diesel engines eliminate the entire spark ignition systems (along with their increasingly complex emission-reducing devices) rendering the engine bay of a Diesel car much less complex.
[This is from a 1981 Mercedes 240D. Just a touch more simple.]
Rear-wheel drive and manual transmissions are also incredibly simple and well-understood systems. In a period of ever-increasing automotive complexity, many enthusiasts appreciated the simplicity of cars with Diesel engines, manual transmissions, and RWD. As for the station wagon part, enthusiasts appreciate the utility of that body style when combined with the ride and handling characteristics of a passenger car.
Why brown? It can only be surmised that brown is the perfect color when reminiscing about malaise-era cars. There really isn’t any other reason.
Having established why this mythical beast is so beloved, let’s look at the actual players in the market – who sold these mythical beasts and who did not.
[A 1979 Peugeot 504 Diesel wagon]
The first entry into the US market with a Diesel station wagon, Peugeot introduced the 504 Diesel in 1973, and began exporting cars to the US for the 1974 model year. According to Brian Holm, the proprietor of Peugeot Holm, the premier US source for all things Peugeot, and a well-respected member of the online Peugeot Enthusiasts Group, the Peugeot 504 Diesel Station Wagon was sold in the US from 1974-1983. From 1974-1976 the only transmission choice was a 4-speed manual; from 1977-1983 an automatic transmission was optionally available. The later 505 Station Wagon was never sold in the US with a manual transmission.
Peugeot was never a huge player in the American market. For the 10-year period during which the subject cars were sold, total US Peugeot importation was a mere 119,558 cars. As Peugeot abandoned the US market in 1992, no breakdown of individual models, much less transmission choices or color, is readily available. Even if the wildly optimistic figure of 5% of those cars were brown station wagons with manual transmissions, that is a mere 5978 cars over a 10-year period.
[The author’s 1984 Volvo 245 Diesel.]
Seeing the rise in popularity of Diesel cars, Volvo wanted a Diesel of their own to sell. However, owing to financial restrictions, the decision was made to outsource an engine, rather than design one in-house. Volvo turned to Volkswagen and purchased their 2.4 liter I-6, as used in the VW LT Transporter, a model not sold in North America.
(Side note: For markets outside of North America, Volvo also bought a 2.0 liter, five-cylinder version of the same engine. Both are related to the 4-cylinder Diesel engines that Volkswagen used in their own cars.)
Importation of the 240/260 Diesel models began in 1979 for the 1980 model year. Because of new emissions regulations regarding Diesel cars that became effective 1/1/1980, Volvo could no longer import cars after that date. Volvo got the engine cleaned up enough to resume importation in late 1981 for the 1982 model year. Importation and sales continued through the 1984 model year, but a few leftover cars got new VIN and were titled as 1985 models.
Production figures from this era are available, but only broken down by body style, not engine, transmission, or color. Combining the 1980 and the 1982-1984 model years, Volvo sold 283,756 station wagons. Once again, if the wildly optimistic figure of 5% of those cars were brown with manual transmissions, that is a mere 14,188 cars over a 4-year period. Anecdotal information suggests that Diesel sales were only a tiny fraction of overall sales, so again, this is an extremely optimistic guess.
[A brown Diesel 745 is too rare. This is a gas model.]
For the 1983 model year, Volvo introduced the 740/760 series of cars. Although a turbocharged version of the same 2.4 liter I-6 that was used in the 240/260 was available that year, no station wagons were produced. In fact, during the entire production of the 740/760 series (1983-1992) the only year in which an American buyer could combine the Diesel engine with a manual transmission in a station wagon body was the 1985 740. Total production of all 1985 740/760 Station Wagons was a mere 8008 units. Once again, using the wildly optimistic figure of 5%, that makes for 400 units.
That’s it. Volvo and Peugeot. Sticking with the ridiculously optimistic 5% figure, that would make for a maximum of 20,566 US sales of brown, RWD, manual transmission station wagons ever sold in the USA.
“But wait!”, I hear you scream. “[Brand X] also sold brown, RWD, manual transmission station wagons!”
No sir, they did not. Here are the almost-rans:
Prior to 1978, Mercedes did not manufacture station wagons, although some aftermarket coachbuilders did offer conversions. In 1978, Mercedes introduced their first factory-built wagon, on the W123 chassis. Official US imports for the 300TD and 300TD-Turbo ran from 1979-1985. None of them – none of them – had manual transmissions.
That is not to say that there weren’t gray-market importations of W123 wagons with manual transmissions, or later importation under the NHTSA 25-year exemption, or homemade conversions (using parts from a manual-transmission W123 sedan). There were, and there are. But Mercedes-Benz USA never officially sold a W123 station wagon with a manual transmission.
Everyone’s favorite Diesel punching bag, Oldsmobile certainly made plenty of Diesel station wagons, in both full-size and mid-size variants. (Buick, Pontiac, and Chevrolet sold station wagons with the Oldsmobile Diesel engines as well.) None of them had manual transmissions. As an interesting bit of trivia, there was a manual-transmission option for the Cutlass in the 1979 model year, but it was not available in the station wagon body. As bad as the Olds 350 Diesel engine was, nobody remembers the Oldsmobile 260ci/4.3 liter V-8 Diesel, which was worse than the 350 by every measure. However, in 1979, a masochist could order this engine under RPO LF7. Tick the box for RPO M75, and you could combine the smaller Diesel with a Borg-Warner T-50 5-speed manual transmission. But again, this combination could only be had in a sedan or coupe – never in a station wagon.
The early 1980s was a transitional period for this Japanese carmaker. What started as the Datsun 810 became known as the Nissan Maxima. Both could be had with the LD28 2.8 liter I-6 Diesel. A 5-speed manual transmission was offered, as was a station wagon body. However, American buyers could not combine all 3 elements into a single car. You could get a Diesel sedan with a stick-shift, but all wagons, both gas and Diesel, required an automatic transmission.
By the time their Diesel engines were produced, VW sold FWD cars exclusively – with one exception. Sold in the US with the model name “Vanagon”, the T3 Transporter was available with a Diesel engine for the 1982 and 1983 model years. While Volkswagen’s marketing department would like to believe that the Vanagon was a combination of a van and a station wagon, it wasn’t a station wagon at all.
It was a van. With seats. Not a station wagon.
By the end of the 1980s, the era of the Diesel passenger car was all but dead in America. Die hard fans were limited to offerings from Mercedes and Volkswagen, but the sullied reputation (mostly due to Oldsmobile’s poor engines) left the Diesel by the wayside. In addition, the widespread adoption of electronic fuel injection for gasoline engines, along with greater understanding of repair of such systems, largely eliminated the rat’s nest engine bays that frightened buyers in the 1970s and early 1980s. With only a few exceptions, the era of the RWD passenger car was over as well.
By any reasonable estimation, less than 10,000 brown, manual transmission, RWD station wagons were ever sold in the USA. Perhaps enthusiasts romanticize this model too much; they certainly never had any real sales when they were available, so why are they desired now?
 source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1973_oil_crisis – accessed 11/17/2016
 source: personal email correspondence with Mr. Holm, dated 6/7/2016
 source: http://www.productioncars.com/production-numbers/peugeot_new.php – accessed 6/5/2016
 source: http://www.vlvworld.com/indexframe.html?production.html – accessed 11/17/2016
 source: http://www.vlvworld.com/indexframe.html?production.html – accessed 11/17/2016