A recent re-run of Paul’s article on the 1946 Willys Jeep Station Wagon prompted this question in me, which I thought I should share with the wider CCommunity. The very definition of the station wagon may be hard to pin down (I will propose mine, but it’s not necessarily yours), but I’m not sure the Peugeot 402 pictured above would agree to a claim by Willys or Plymouth as “the first all-steel wagon”.
Just because all American wagons up to that point were woodies doesn’t mean the 1946 Willys Jeep Station Wagon or the 1949 Plymouth Suburban were global trailblazers – they were American trailblazers, which isn’t quite the same thing. There were quite a few all-steel wagons before these two, just not in the US.
First, let’s try and be clear on the terms we use: a station wagon (a.k.a an estate in British English, a break in French, a combi in German and a giardinetta or giardiniera in Italian) is a vehicle derived from a standard saloon (same front end and doors) and not from a truck chassis, like the Chevrolet Suburban. Wagons have a long roof and a large rear opening – usually, in the early days, a two-piece tailgate – and may have rear passenger doors (a four-door wagon) or not (two-door wagon). All doors have windows and there is an additional window aft of the C pillar. There may be two or three rows of seats for a minimum of four passengers. Note that if we use this definition, the Jeep doesn’t really cut it as a wagon – it is not derived from a standard saloon – but let’s let that one slide for the time being.
The tailgate is the key thing here. Without that, all you have is a family car or a limousine. And without the rear seats or the rear windows, what you get is a delivery / commercial car or panel van (there are many names for those). I will also state here that I’ll focus on what I know best (French cars), but that there may have been other carmakers with similar models in Germany, Italy, Britain and Czechoslovakia. And, just to reiterate, we’re looking for all-steel bodies, not coachbuilt specials or one-off bitzas that never made it to the market. So let’s start with the obvious: Citroën.
What we have here is a 1938 Citroën 11C Commerciale. It is not only made entirely of steel, but also FWD and monocoque. The Commerciale was developed from the long wheelbase 11A Traction Avant model that debuted in 1934 as the “Limousine” or “Familiale”, the main difference being the rear opening, which was absent on these and became a two-door hatch on the 11C. The car came with a rear seat, which had to be unbolted and taken out to make full use of the cargo space.
Around 3500 units were made when the war stopped LWB monocoque production, which only resumed in 1954. By that time, the model was reengineered with a one-piece hatch hinged on the roof – a pretty interesting feature to premiere on a 20-year-old design.
But Citroën had been making all-steel cars since 1924. Were there any RWD Citroëns that might qualify as wagons? The FWD 11C’s immediate predecessor, the RWD 11UA, was available in this configuration. Heck, the 11UA even has a strong claim to being one of the first Diesel cars ever sold to the wider public, let alone the all-steel wagon. But let’s keep to our subject matter.
Before the 11UA, which was made from 1935 to 1938, there was the nearly identical Rosalie in 1933-34. And before that, all the way back in 1928, there was the C4, which also had a Commerciale variant. These were sold specifically as “transformable” cars: the seats popped out, a metal plate could cover the rear windows and Bob’s your uncle, you had a delivery van. Versatility was the main selling point, as we can see from this 1930 advert. Lest you think that the weirdos at Citroën were alone in making these, let’s take a gander at other carmakers.
Renault made these too on their largest pre-war 4-cyl. chassis, the Vivaquatre. What is not clear to me as yet is whether these still had wood-framed bodies. The early ‘30s Vivaquatres, which were ubiquitous in Paris as taxis until the late ‘50s, certainly still had wooden frames, but the 1939 cars, I’m not so sure. So let’s count that one as a maybe. But by the late ’30s, Renault had taken the plunge and gone all-steel monocoque on their new small car, the Juvaquatre.
Renault planned to launch a two-door all-steel Juvaquatre wagon by 1940 or 1941 – the war killed it, though it seems a few prototypes were made and even sold (at least one survived). The Juvaquatre “Break” only came out after the war, initially made by aftermarket specialists out of the panel van that Renault started making in 1945. Renault produced their own station wagon version by 1949. The rear seats could be folded to increase cargo space, but the Juvaquatre Break’s main clientele were folks who wanted cheap wheels with a maximum amount of passenger and/or cargo space. Professionals who wanted the panel van usually preferred to get that rather than the Break. The car was a much bigger hit as a wagon than it ever was as a saloon: the latter was nixed in 1949, while the van and wagon versions soldiered on until 1960, eventually being renamed Dauphinoise and given the Dauphine’s engine.
What about the King of the Wagon, Peugeot? Surely the well-documented string of wagons they made post-war was not born ex nihilo? Peugeot usually called these cars “Limousine Commerciale” back in the day, and always made them on a longer wheelbase than the normal saloons they were based on. The 203 U Limousine Commerciale came out months after the saloon in early 1949 (same time as the Plymouth), soon followed by a deluxe family model.
Digging a few years into Peugeot’s history, though, and it seems wagon-type variants were already there back in the “01” series: the 301 and 401 had Limousine Commerciale versions in 1934. The 401 DL, made only in 1934-35, was particularly interesting, as that wagon had a one-piece tailgate hinged on the roof – a brilliant design that didn’t seem to have made much of an impact at the time. But then the “01” series were still wood-framed cars, not all-steel…
The streamlined “02” series, which came out in 1935 as the 402 and 302, were all-steel. And the 402 had its Limousine Commerciale variant, complete with three rows of seats and rear hatch (alas now back to the two-piece design). As stated above, the seats of this 6/8-seater car could be removed relatively easily. About 5000 of these were made until 1940. Did folks buy these for work or leisure/family transport? Well, if you were a relatively well-heeled winemaker in 1935 France with five or six kids, you bought this car for all your hauling needs — barrels or people. If you were a wealthy Parisian doctor with five or six kids, you would probably opt for the Limousine Familiale (without the rear hatch), because you wouldn’t need the Commerciale‘s extra door. Unless you also used the car as a private ambulance, which some did in those days…
When Peugeot launched the smaller 202, that model also had its all-steel wagon variant, the 202 U Limousine Commerciale, introduced in 1939. That one was made in relatively small quantities (just over 900), as wagon production was stopped by the fall of that year.
When Peugeot resumed the 202 as its only car model in 1945, the Limousine Commerciale’s all-steel body was replaced by wood, which of course was not rationed at the time. The 203, Peugeot’s first unibody, was launched in 1948 and begat a long succession of saloon/wagon models that remains unbroken almost 70 years later. What happened after the war for the French “Big Trois” carmakers is that they deleted one model from their range: the five-seater limousine. Long wheelbase 4-cyl. cars were no longer glitzy enough to box in that category. But as family cars and/or light utilty vehicles (i.e. as station wagons), they were right on target.
I’ll stop there because it’s getting really late and it’s likely that most of the other ’30s French carmakers who made these proto-wagons (Chenard-Walcker, Licorne, Berliet, etc.) still used wood-framed bodies. But who’s to say that (for example) Hillman, Adler, Škoda or Volvo didn’t make all-steel wagons before 1946? I’ll let the CCommentariat provide us with a lively discussion about this particular point. Suffice to say that the Brits could point to the 1948 Austin A40 Countryman or the Standard Vanguard Estate as their own first “true” all-steel wagon, given that the Jeep never was a saloon to start off with. And what about the Italians, who claim that the 1948 Fiat 500 B Giardiniera Belvedere is the first series-produced station wagon (though a woody)?
Ladies and gentlemen, the floor is yours.