Car Show Comparison: Weird Wagons


 Ah, that’s a nice green.

Say it’s 1960 or 1961, and you’re weird.  No full-sized Ford or Chevy wagon is going to work for your family.  That new Falcon wagon is just so average in every way; everyone loves it, immediately eliminating it from consideration. You listen to Art Blakey and Coltrane, wear hip sunglasses, but also like to carry a bunch of junk, or maybe kids. Luckily, it’s a great time for you to be a wagon buyer, whether you like weird looks or weird mechanical specifications.  All aboard!

 Why did everyone like those slanted pickles?

The obvious first stop is the Chrysler-Plymouth dealer to look at the new Valiants.  The above model is a 1960, but ’61s are very similar.  Virgil Exner really went off the deep end with this one; it’s a space alien with wheel bearings.  With wing-like extensions on the front fenders, it’s like a bird in flight: a bird with a great big maw in front.  In a way, that huge grille looks kind of sporty, like a ’50s Ferrari at the Mille Miglia, but when you look at the car as a whole, Maranello is the last thing that comes to mind.  The reverse slant of the side glass echoes the odd eyebrow taillights, and vestigial fins seem to whisper that maybe Exner’s “Forward Look” is just about reaching its sell-by date.  The Valiant looks like Plan 9 from Outer Space in a Bonanza world; in other words, right up your alley.

1960 Valiant-05-06


Mechanically, the Valiant is top dog among the compacts.  Its new 170 and 225-cubic inch “Slant Six” engines are leaps and bounds ahead of the competition from Ford and Chevrolet.  In the short lived NASCAR compact car series, Valiants absolutely clean up with their “Hyper Pak” engines.  Valiants also have the typical Chrysler torsion-bar suspension, which provides fairly crisp handling when compared to the rest of the Big Three. If you order the automatic, it’ll have pushbuttons like a typewriter, which appeals to your oddness gene. You’re not 100 percent sold on the Valiant, however.  “If only,” you think, “Chevrolet would offer a wagon version of its Corvair.”  The next year, they do.

Wagons 4

The new Corvair wagon is called the “Lakewood,” and it is a weird person’s dream machine.  Rear engine like a Volkswagen?  Check.  Swing axles too, unfortunately.  It might be a little more socially acceptable than a VW Bus, but that’s OK.  In the end, you’re almost guaranteed exclusivity, because the Corvair wagon only lasts for two model years.

1961 Chevrolet Corvair-03

The Lakewood also has something no Valiant can lay claim to: two luggage areas.  You can fold your back seat down and carry all of your gear in the back, and still have room for stuff in the trunk up front. Unfortunately, both luggage areas amount to 68 cubic feet, while the Valiant claims 72.  Oops.

At least with the Corvair you get up-to-date styling that doesn’t scream, “Suddenly it’s 1957!”  In fact, most enthusiast publications laud the Chevy’s styling for most of its production life, and many compact foreign cars are seemingly influenced by the early Corvair.  Even today, its styling appears more evolved than the Valiant’s.

If you order an automatic, however, you will be stuck with a two-speed Powerglide, rather than the Valiant’s up-to-date three-speed.  And again, the Valiant has a much more powerful engine lineup. Plus, Chevy dealers often don’t like working on the unorthodox Corvair, with its aluminum engine; any mechanic in America will gladly turn wrenches on the simple Valiant.  Corvairs may be a little easier on gas, but not enough to make that a selling point.  Like everything on earth, there are pros and cons to each. Which will you choose?

Wagons 3

Alas, by 1963, the Corvair wagon was replaced by the more utilitarian Chevy II.  You could still order the Corvair Greenbrier for a few more years, but somehow, workaday Corvairs just never really caught on.  It was the kind of car that worked better as a Monza or Monza Spyder.  Valiant wagons marched on through 1966, with a 1963 update that was far more Engel than Exner: stylish, but much less avant-garde.

1963 Valiant-10

By 1963, the Valiant had pretty much returned to Earth.

In fact, by 1963, weirdos who wanted wagons didn’t have much of a choice, unless they shopped the used car lots.  Fortunately, there are still a few of these wild creations hanging around for iconoclasts to cling to, and some of them end up at car shows.