Although it didn’t invent the car, America has embraced it and shaped it like no other nation on earth. And as in so many other forms of popular culture, technology and consumer goods, American cars have often been trend-setters for the world. The revolutionary Model T put America on wheel. Starting in the mid-20s, GM brought style, image and flair to the popular priced and now typically enclosed sedan For the next three decades, big American sedans were seen as universal objects of desire for their unparalleled styling, quality, performance, size and value.
But Americans are always a bit restless and ready for the next new thing. And one of the biggest ones in the 50s was the family station wagon, as epitomized by this 1957 Ford Ranch Wagon. What had once been strictly a utilitarian device was now the symbol of the middle class American family. Just like the pickup is today. The same family that had a Ranch Wagon in 1957 would quite likely be driving a pickup today.
Before WW2, station wagons were primarily commercial vehicles or used by affluent folks at their hunting lodges or such. They were expensive; a 1939 Ford wagon cost almost 50% more than a sedan. The wood required lots of maintenance. And the image wasn’t right for typical families; they preferred the sleek styling of a sedan or coupe, even if it meant the kids had to all squeeze in the back seat.
But that all changed after the war. Americans were embracing a more casual lifestyle as well as more recreational activities. And they were moving to suburbs with larger yards and more hobbies and projects. And the emergence of the affordable all-steel wagon quickly made it a popular choice with families. The 1949 Plymouth Suburban was representative of this new trend.
The all-new 1949 cars by the Big Three reflected differing thought on the subject of wagons. Chrysler covered their bets with both two and four door versions; the two doors were all steel and the four doors were traditional woodies. Chevrolet also played it safe, but with four door wagons in both partial wood (shown) and all-steel versions, although the steel version had wood-effect paint. The steel version soon replaced the woody.
Ford meanwhile put all its chips on genuine wood and the two-door body style for its all-new ’49s. It was both bucking a trend and also establishing a legend.
It was named “Country Squire”, which of course became an icon, and a very effective brand for Ford. After the real wood went away in 1952, Ford became the keeper of the Ni-Doc flame.
The fact that the ’49-’51 Country Squire was only a two door wagon seems not to have hurt, even though these were three-seat wagons, with all seats forward facing. The roofs were higher and Americans were more limber back then.
Ford dropped genuine wood for the new cars in 1952, and added four door wagons for both the Country Squire (with fake wood) and Country Sedan. But they kept a two-door wagon, now dubbed the Ranch Wagon, as an entry level wagon in the low-end Mainline trim. Am economical solution for both young families as well as business use. Families with young kids commonly preferred two door sedans and wagons for the safety aspect, as kid-proof door locks were still in the future. Chevrolet and Plymouth also had low-end two-door wagons in this price class.
Chevrolet’s 1955 Nomad revolutionized the wagon; now suddenly it could be an expensive, sporty image-mobile. Its starting price was a whopping $2608, which was more than a Buick Century Riviera hardtop, and not much less than a Cadillac. The Sloanian ladder, which was largely irrelevant after the war anyway, now was totally rotted out. It was now every GM division for itself from here on forward.
The Nomad wasn’t a big seller, but it, the new V8 and the Corvette clearly changed the image of Chevrolet, as was the intention. And Ford couldn’t afford to be left in the Nomad’s dust.
Ford’s solution was a lot more expedient than the Nomad’s: tart up the two-door Ranch wagon with the trim from the Fairlane and a few other tidbits and call it good. It was also priced some $200 less than the Nomad, and that was good enough for it to outsell the Nomad by about 2:1. The total sales numbers for both these high-trim two-door wagons weren’t really very high, but the unique Nomad clearly had a greater and lasting image and impact. But Ford’s success in the wagon market, where it outsold the next two brands (Chevrolet and Plymouth) combined was certainly never a question.
For its all-new 1957 models, Ford changed its strategy further, by dropping the Parklane and creating a more affordable but higher-trim version of its Ranch Wagon, the Del Rio.
Now priced between the Ranch Wagon and the four door Country Sedan, the Del Rio was targeted to younger families who preferred a two door wagon but with a bit nicer trim and interior than the spartan Ranch Wagon. The Del Rio sold reasonably well in 1957 (46, 105), but sales dropped rapidly in the following two years, as that segment of the market seemed to evaporate quickly. The two-door Ranch Wagon hung in there through 1961, as an entry level model, but the action with families moved quickly to four door wagons in the late 50s. The two door full-size wagon era was quickly ending, in part because compacts were now available for the thrifty buyers.
I spotted this fine example one recent summer evening at the South Eugene High playing fields; the owner was apparently practicing with or coaching the baseball team; more likely the latter. This Del Rio Ranch Wagon is a lot more baseball than soccer.
The ’57 Fords were a handsome design for the most part, which clearly helped it unseat the Chevy for the sales crown that year. But in a similar but not quite as extreme situation with the all-new ’57 Chryslers, the Fords suffered from first-yearitis: various assembly quality shortcomings. It explains why ’55-’57 Chevrolets became the overwhelmingly-preferred used car starting in 1957-1958: they were rock solid compared to the Chryslers and Fords.
As handsome as it generally is, the ’57 Ford’s front end styling is a bit off.
The protruding headlights seem to be suffering from Grave’s disease.
The ’57 Ford was all new under the body too, with a new “cowbelly” frame that bulged out towards the rear, allowing footwells in the rear seat to preserve leg room despite the lower body. But the new frame did not allow for footwells at the front, so the seating was now decidedly more “on the floor” up in front than in the past. Ford kept this basic frame and suspension through 1964, after which it was replaced by the full perimeter frame, which allowed footwells in the front too.
This car has been very nicely restored, although I can’t vouch for just how precisely correct the upholstery is. But it looks to be much closer to original than that common nubby blue or tan fabric I see in so many older reupholstered cars.
This is a manual transmission car. The dash is reasonably nice, but not exactly lust-inducing.
It also has overdrive, which adds to its appeal. Engine choices were the standard 223 six, and three optional Y-Block V8s: the 190 hp 272, 212 hp 292, and the 245 hp 312. There’s no question that Chevy had Ford outgunned in the performance department in 1957, with its new larger 283 V8 that was available with up to 270 hp with carbs and 283 hp with fuel injection. But for family use, the 292 and 312 certainly were well suited for the job. Ford’s new FE series would arrive in 1958, to do battle with Chevy’s new 348 big block.
I do remember riding in the back of two-seat wagons as a kid. In fact my friend Johnny’s family had a ’56 Parklane in the same blue and white color scheme, and it was used to tow their beautiful 19′ Thompson wood runabout to the reservoir. That boat sported a big Mercury six cylinder outboard, and the two made quite a dashing combination. As kids, we didn’t even give two door wagons a second thought; it was easy to scamper in back there. And it did feel somehow snug and secure without a door.
Sliding rear side windows may seem a bit archaic, but they were actually a very pragmatic solution on a two door wagon.
Of course kids often hopped in the back too, which was also considered a safe place for them.
The Ford had a two piece tailgate, with the upper half flipping up and the lower dropping in typical tailgate fashion. That was the norm at the time, and worked well enough.
The dual exhausts on this wagon suggest it either came with the 312, or has has just been upgraded. Either way, the distinctive exhaust sound of the Y block undoubtedly leaves some nice music in its wake.
The tailgate latch included the then-current Ford logo. The blue oval was still some years in the future,as well as the past.
The wagon became an American icon, but one that like so many other American innovations/fads would soon be popularized around the globe. In Europe it would not be until the ’80s when wagons were elevated from their utilitarian plumber/painter image and become a chic alternative to the sedan. In fact Europe took it much father: in Western Europe, wagon versions soon came to outsell their sedan counterparts by large margins. But by then, Americans had discovered the next hot new automotive things: minivans and SUVs. And of course these two would soon be taken up globally. And then came the pickup.
And although many bemoan the extinction of the classic big American wagon/car, it’s just morphed, into the big American pickup. Same idea: big, roomy, thirsty, a bit brash, but a practical enabler of the American lifestyle, which means embracing the freedom to drive something that can haul or tow almost anything, even if it never does haul or tow anything. Americans like to live big, or at least imagine they do, and the rest of the world has either admired that or reviled that.
But they eventually embrace it too, to one extent or another. And the pickup’s popularity is growing world-wide. Just how far the pickup will go globally is yet to be seen. But if the impact of the American wagon, pony car, minivan and SUV are any indicators, it might be quite a run.