(first posted 4/20/2015) In the form in which it burst to popularity after World War Two, the station wagon is largely dead, at least in the United States. It was conceived as a multipurpose family hauler during the great Baby Boom; a vehicle with which Mom could haul a gaggle of kids to school when it was raining, Dad could haul sheets of paneling for the basement rec-room on Saturday morning, and yet be suitable for taking the Jones’ out to the supper club on Saturday night.
A vehicle well suited for all purposes of suburban life, it came into its glory in the 50s, and flourished into the 60s and 70s, despite the growing fragmentation of the market. But by the mid 80s, it met its inevitable demise, at the hands of the minivan and the SUV/CUV; what’s left are a few life-style sportwagons. With one or two notable import-brand exceptions, there hasn’t been a family and budget-friendly classic American station wagon in some time. Let the homage to another automotive dinosaur begin.
The arrival and success of the all-steel post-war wagon was a pivotal event, as it marked a key turning point in the relationship of the automobile to its owners during that exceptional period: Americans wanted it all, or at least a lot more than what they had experienced during the difficult thirties and the war years. And the station wagon was going to deliver it all, the first multipurpose vehicle that could encompass their expanded horizons: a large family, a suburban house, hobbies, recreation, and even prestige.
Quite a large bill to fill, but during a time when the full-size car was the only size the Big Three were building, the wagon was able to satisfy just about every need a family could want, except of course for a small, economical car. That’s where the great import boom of the fifties came in, as well as the domestic compacts, when they finally came along.
Prior to WW2, the station wagon was quite a different vehicle than afterwards. They were essentially custom-bodied vehicles, built on a small scale either by outside suppliers or in special shops by the manufacturers. They were expensive, and used primarily for commercial purposes, as in the original meaning of the word: a wagon to meet passengers at the train station and take them to their hotel or lodge.
Or kept at private country estates or hunting lodges. Prior to the war, station wagons were not bought by typical families, and their production numbers were low. Increasingly, the fine joinery and varnish of wood-bodied vehicles became the province of the affluent–just not as their daily drivers. Strictly speaking, these woody wagons were more like trucks, and often built on the light truck or commercial chassis, and as such, don’t even meet the definition of the modern wagon.
Chrysler’s 1941 Town and Country first changed all that. According to Richard Langworth’s “Chrysler and Imperial“, Paul Hafer, of Boyertown Body Works, first doodled a sketch of a jaunty wagon that he titled “Town and Country”. At the time, virtually every city-dweller who was well-off had a place in the country, and here was a vehicle that would look smart in both places and on the drive between them.
They weren’t even true station wagons, with their sloped rear tails that rather anticipated the modern sport wagon, as pioneered by the Audi Avant. Although the T&C was a short-lived fad, it anticipated several trends, most of all the plush SUVs and CUVs of more recent decades.
The 1946 Willys Jeep Station Wagon was the first family-sized all-steel production wagon (despite the fake woody-look sides). Although it was a bit out of the mainstream, and did not become a big seller, it did expand American’s idea of what a modern, multi-purpose wagon could be. And of course, the four-wheel drive versions were essentially the proto-SUV. In fact, the Jeep wagon challenges exactly what the definition of a station wagon is, and one that is as much or more of a conundrum nowadays.
Are the extremely popular CUVs of today really just station wagons? There’s plenty of very convincing arguments in favor of that. One could argue that they’re more so than the Jeep wagon (and its successor , the Wagoneer) was, since it sat on a lengthened Jeep frame and was quite trucky.
But in our fragmented times, the modern definition of a station wagon has generally come to mean a long-roof sedan, and we’ll stick with that, for our purposes. We don’t want to get bogged down in semantics.
In the immediate post-war era, other than the Willys wagon, station wagons were still old school woodies, and not at all a common family vehicle, if for not other reason than the fact that its woodwork required annual maintenance to keep it looking half-way decent. They were typically three-row wagons, with a capacity of up to nine, and were the functional equivalent of a van or Suburban. And they commanded a hefty premium: even this basic 1947 Chevy wagon listed at almost 50% more than a four door sedan.
The 1949 Plymouth Suburban all-steel wagon changed all of that. It sat on the short 111″ P-17 chassis, and had only two rows of seats. But it was much more suited to the realities of the typical family, and it made the wagon a true household word.
Strictly speaking, Chevrolet offered both an all-steel and a woodie version of their ’49s, but the steel version was so much more popular that the woodie was dropped mid-year.
Genuine Woodie wagons would persist for a few more years, and Ford’s ’49 had a steel body with plywood overlay, but the writing was on the wood: it would soon become an affectation, and one that had surprisingly long legs.
No one exploited that more successfully than Ford, with its famous line of Squire wagons. And when Lee Iaccoca moved to Chrysler, he kept the Di-Noc party going…and going…and going.
The wagon’s cachet beyond its mere utility was also confirmed in the first compact wagon, the 1951 Nash Rambler, which was only sold in as the high-trim Custom Wagon, and priced above larger low-trim wagons from the Big Three. This was a harbinger of things to come, the Audi wagon of its time.
The concept of the wagon as an upscale life-style vehicle came to full fruition in the 1955 Chevrolet Nomad, whose list price started at more than a Buick Century Riviera hardtop. The old Sloanian hierarchy had been crumbling for a long time, but the Nomad crushed it rather forcefully. Stealing the thunder from the high priced (GM) cars!
The original upscale Rambler wagon turned out to be a short-lived phenomena; Rambler boomed in the late 1950s with its 108″ Classic and such, and the wagon versions were particularly popular with families, as they were quite roomy yet frugal, affordable and easy to handle with their compact size. They were the Volvo 245 wagons of their times.
Studebaker jumped in the (semi)compact wagon market too, with its 1959 Lark, and made a bold (and failed) attempt to add new versatility to it with its 1963 Wagonaire.
It was the pragmatic 1960 Falcon that led the way in wagon sales in the compact class. The wagon market was fragmenting rapidly, which was hastened along when the Big Three’s mid-size cars appeared in 1963-1964. The station wagon had made itself an indispensable part of just about every car line, except the sporty Corvair, whose wagon was a dud, and soon withdrawn.
full-size wagons, like this 1968 Country Squire, most fully embodied the ideal of the American wagon, along with the American family: upwardly-striving, image-conscious, and appreciative of plenty of stretch out room for everyone, at home or on the go. The world was changing quickly in 1968, but the big station wagon was a pillar of solidity and constancy during a time of prosperity.
VW tried hard to break the mold of the classic station wagon, and even called its bus ‘Station Wagon’ for years. And although the VW bus was in many ways different than the minivan to come, it can rightfully claim to having paved the way for its rapid embrace.
And that was not just because of the intrinsic practicality of the VW bus and Chrysler minivan; a lot of it had to do with image. The VW bus came to represent the rebellious 60s more than any other vehicle, and even though the rebellion may have been very short-lived or superficial for most boomers, a streak of rebellion would colored many of their lifestyle and consumer choices from then on.
It wasn’t a coincidence that Chrysler used long-haired magician Doug Henning to introduce their new 1984 Plymouth Voyager minivan. Despite the fake-wood, the minivans were aimed directly at the new crop of boomers who were hitting their peak fertility years. The same kids who had grown up riding in the back seat of a Country Squire were now ready for something different. And Chrysler was there to sell it to them, by the millions.
Or if they wanted to project a different image, the Jeep Cherokee was there as the alternative (or both, in our case; we had one of each). These two vehicles were more responsible for the death of the American station wagon than any other.
They may have killed the wagon, but minivans and SUV/CUVs were the critical product in staving off the demise of the whole American industry, at least for a while. They were perfectly acceptable in the otherwise import-loving areas of the country, most of all the West Coast and increasingly the East Coast.
And in the heartland (as well as everywhere else too), the downsizing that happened as a consequence of rising fuel prices and CAFE regulations spurred a huge shift to trucks as personal transportation, both pickups and truck-based SUVs. It left the traditional wagon looking a bit old-fashioned, despite its still considerable capabilities, especially once the worst of the performance penalties of the early-mid 80s were overcome.
But the traditional American wagon’s image suffered, and it was increasingly seen to be associated with older or conservative folks. Or just those a bit out of it.
Ironically, as the American wagon was slowly dying, the import wagon was enjoying a veritable boom. The Volvo wagon is an icon, a practical and rugged vehicle that came to be stereotyped as the being driven by Birkenstock-wearing granola eaters. And the Mercedes wagons enjoyed massive cachet when new, and also came to be embraced by a similar demographic as a would-be perpetual motion device fueled by others’ cast-off cooking oil. Of course, those stereotypes are too narrow; but these and other import wagons have enjoyed a continued success at the same time the American wagon was dying.
Which brings us to the true modern successor of these wagons, the Subaru Outback and Legacy (with a supporting role played by the VW Jetta). Subaru’s tenacity in sticking with a popular-priced wagon when the rest of the market had either disappeared or become increasingly expensive (Volvo and the other European premium brands), has fueled its meteoric success the past twenty years. It is the last of its kind, or should I say was?
The current generation Outback has grown in size and stature, and many are calling it a CUV. But given that there’s still a Legacy sedan on the same basic body, we’ll give it a pass.
In a way, the Outback has come a bit full-circle, given that station wagons were once also very much life-style vehicles, like this 1940 Marmon-Herrington Ford 4WD hunting wagon. Maybe it’s time for Subaru to build a woodie Outback.
But without a rear-facing third seat, it wouldn’t be quite the same.
I wonder about the second-generation Chevrolet Suburban that had all-steel station wagon body in 1935 with option of rear panel doors or tailgates. That seems to precede Willys Jeep Station Wagon by eleven years.
When putting together a comfortable mainstream timeline to advance a specific narrative, there will always be exceptions to that mainstream. A lot of them turn out to be ahead of their time (re: ’41 Town and Country), except that they were either complete failures or just marginal successes – and nobody realized they were ahead of their time when they were new because that time was still far in the future.
The Willys Jeep Station Wagon’s main claim to fame is that it was the first ‘car’ (ok, that’s debatable, except that Willys didn’t make anything that could strictly be called a ‘car’ after Pearl Harbor until the early 50’s – which is why they survived) station wagon that was built of the regular production line. Even the Town and Country, couldn’t claim that.
So it was the first step, although the second wasn’t taken until the ’49 Plymouth.
Yes, I suspect it might have to do with the fact that 1935 Chevrolet Suburban was based on pick-up truck chassis rather than sourced from passenger car. Like Suburban today is not classified as station wagon.
Perhaps the scope of this article is about passenger car version of station wagon…
Yeah but funny then Chevrolet later listed the Suburban as part of the wagons line-up along with the Chevy Van Sportsvan as shown in the 1972 brochure.
Great article Paul. I’m one of those Americans that just fails to see the virtues of a SUV or similar vehicle to a good station wagon. I could be 100% wrong, but I think there may be a small change in the perception of the US public regarding wagons – I sense that there’s a renewed appreciation for the practicality, good gas mileage and driving dynamics of wagons. That, and the styling distinction between hatchbacks, SUVs and wagons seem to be getting smaller – I was quite surprised to see that new 2016 Q7 has a very wagon-like profile.
I’m not typically a VW fan, but the new Golf Sportwagon is a beautiful car – very stylish – in my view much better looking than the 4 dr hatchback.
+1 can’t wait for more,thank you Paul.
As someone who lived in station wagons as a child, has owned a few SUV’s, and a couple of minivans; its readily apparent why the minivan killed the station wagon dead. It’s a simple matter of not enough space between the rear load floor (too high) and the roof (too low). I couldn’t ever consider replacing the current minivan sitting in my driveway with a station wagon. I couldn’t load it high enough with re-enactment gear, sleep in it comfortably, tailgate at a race track in a rainstorm without being miserable, or haul multiple bicycles upright and not touching each other.
Now the SUV/CUV thing. Yeah, it’s a style thing (or so I believe), which started out with the minivan rapidly giving the message “I’m a mommy and have no other purpose in life.” and said mommy was horrified at the thought. (This from a guy who got rid of a Solstice for a minivan, and I don’t have, nor never will have kids.) Admittedly, my late wife and I owned three of those things, two Cherokee’s and a Grand Wagoneer, but that was when she was a real estate agent, and those vehicles would come home muddy at times. And when the real estate career ended, the last one was gone within a year.
Her idea of style was a couple of E36 M3 four door sedans.
Always enjoy your comments. Do you reenact Civil War? Where you at Appomatox?
Syke, you’ve nailed with the reason why the minivan trumped the station wagon. The wagon just was not amenable to “longer, lower, wider” if you were serious about carrying cargo (or a full load of people for that matter). The minivan was just so much more space-efficient, and continues to be so to this day.
It was also more car-like to drive than big wagons. I remember my family periodically borrowing the grandparents’ full-size Ford station wagon (mid-70s, don’t know the year) and dreading it, both because it was stupendously thirsty and because it was extremely cumbersome to maneuver. I never drove it myself, I don’t think, but compared to our (smaller) cars, it was like an ocean liner, with all that implies.
I thought wagons were making a comeback, but Cadillac discontinued the CTS wagon, Acura killed the TSX wagon, Audi killed the A4 and A6 Avants, and VW killed the Passat wagon.
Our 2001 VW Passat wagon is still the best-sized, best-configured car we have ever owned, with side/rear visibility unmatched anywhere, and we have yet to find anything that could take its place. I don’t want tall — I want a roof low enough for easy loading of cargo and a center of mass low enough for good normal and emergency maneuvering and good fuel economy. Minivans and SUVs and even crossovers don’t cut it.
I was rather shocked to learn that the A4 and A6 Avants had been discontinued. Audi did wagons so well, for so long…and then no longer. Kaput.
If you ever do have to replace that Passat wagon, you’ll probably want to go Volvo. A V70 would satisfy pretty much all of your requirements. They stopped selling them here after 2011, unfortunately. The XC70 version is still available and other than a higher center of gravity due to the raised suspension, still fits the bill.
in 2021, both the A4 and A6 Avant are both alive and kicking…
I absolutely love my 2018 SportWagen EA888.
I love my Alltrack…EA8888 1.8, unitronics Stage 1+ tune…250hp, all wheel drive
I would argue that the post-1990 Suburban has been the closest in concept to the great American station wagon of the 60s. However, it seems to have required 4 wheel drive to merit social acceptability.
Hee hee, here we go! As a certified wagon geek, I am really looking forward to this. And please permit me to be ‘that guy’: Are we there yet? 🙂
No! And if you don’t stop asking, I’m pulling this car over right now!
“Dad I feel sick”
Mommmmm!!! He’s *touching* me!!!
A suggestion for the personalized license plate: PB4UGO
“Waddya mean you have to go to the bathroom? We don’t need gas yet.” 🙂
I kind of agree with your statement about the Suburban. I owned a 1993 Suburban with 2WD for many years. I was looking for another fullsize car when I found this well cared for Suburban that wasn’t selling. This was during the SUV craze years and because the ‘Burb didn’t have 4WD nobody wanted it. In any case, I bought it for a song, and it turned out to be one of the best vehicles I have every owned. It was just as versitaille as my old B-body wagons, but had a superior drivetrain, and at least 50% for cargo room. Plus the passenger seating was more roomy and comfortable. Yet, parked next to my Olds Custom Cruiser they were nearly identical in length. The ‘Burb just had a much shorter hood and was taller. Although not quite a “true” wagon, it shared many attributes with the traditional American wagon.
Great, I’m looking forward to all of them. Regardless their size or who built them.
From my youth, in the seventies, I remember them as a (perfect) family car~commercial vehicle hybrid. Cars like the Ford Taunus and Opel Rekord wagons.
Later on they became “lifestyle-vehicles”, like the Audi 100 and BMW 3-series wagons. And by now the wagon-choice is immense. From B-segment (like a Renault Clio) all the way to the E-segment (like an Audi A6). The main advantages are obvious: more interior room and practicality while it still drives as easy and good as the hatchback or sedan. And often they look better too ! All in all, wagons are popular and sell well.
Here’s a small one (B-segment, sub-compact), the Renault Clio Estate.
We had a Opel Rekord wagon, but it was a little later in the 80s. I really loved that car. Like you say, perfect family car. It hauled all our stuff, like our bikes or dads first computer…
The lesson is that Height Matters. When a vehicle is tall enough, it can hold more people and more cargo without needing extra length. Also, it’s easier to reach the cargo, and it’s easier for the people to get in and out.
In retrospect it’s amazing that we forgot this lesson in 1950 and didn’t re-learn it until 1980. Low station wagons didn’t really hold 9 passengers, and they didn’t securely hold most of the cargo you’d want to carry. They were basically noisy sedans.
Willys kept building sensible TALL vehicles through the low time, and the other makers finally caught on.
This isn’t entirely true. As someone who has owned many station wagons and also “tall vehicles” I can say without a doubt the fullsize wagons were the most versatile cars I have ever owned. I personally prefer cargo areas with longer load floors than short tall spaces. It’s much easier to spread the cargo out, rather than stacking it on top. My old B-body wagons could fit a TON of cargo in the rear area and still not obstruct the rear windows. And yeah, 9 passengers was a stretch, but 8 passengers fit without too much grief.
If it wasn’t for CAFE regulations which allowed SUVs (even car based ones) to follow truck fuel economy standards maybe we’d have more wagons today. Then again, they also fell out of trend with North Americans, so maybe not.
Also, tall inside =/= tall outside. Folded-away third row seats, RWD/AWD and body-on-frame all either eat loadspace height or force an increase in overall height to make up. Load floor-to-ceiling heights aren’t easy to find online but I suspect the Honda Fit and Chevy Suburban’s are in the same ballpark for the above reasons.
@ Bill Mitchell: My 77 Impala Wagon may have been the best work vehicle I ever owned. Most of the performance parts such as brakes, hubs, shocks etc were interchangeable with truck parts.
I’m looking forward to the week of wagons but I think the strict definition of what is a wagon, CUV, SUV etc has been run into the ground. A rose by any other name etc. I think of my 95 4runner as a wagon and it gets better mileage (lots better) than the 57 chev wagon that is parked because of it’s thirst.
I wish I could design my own work vehicle because there are a lot of things that matter. Most have bad designs for the tailgate and the drip/rain grooves that would take a bolt on ladder/canoe rack are sorely needed. For the present, however, having 4wd overcomes a lot of things.
Good choice of theme.
I agree that height makes them more useful. Something that wasn’t a factor back then is handling. I much prefer my dodge magnum over an suv.
When the Chrysler minivans came out, the first thing I noticed was that it looked like a K-car wagon that was stretched vertically.
Let wagon week begin!
The traditional full-size, fake wood sided station wagon has always been a source of fascination for me. Their popularity had largely diminished by my childhood, so the ones I saw always seemed like laggard relics of the past. I never really got much first hand experience with any, which is probably why I find them so interesting.
As for modern smaller wagons, I find them really appealing, and think they get a much undeserved bad rap in the U.S. Jack them up a few inches and add some cladding though, and people love them.
Thanks for a great executive summary, Paul, and let wagon’s roll!
I currently own a 2015 Outback….and its spiritual ancestor, a final year 1996 Buick Roadmaster Estate, complete with vinyl woodgrain paneling, vista roof and rear facing third seat!
One of the guys in my college dorm had Grandmother’s 1960 Falcon station wagon, kelvinator white, 144 six and 2 speed Ford-a-Matic automatic transmission, dealer add on, hang down below the dash A/C (that STILL worked!!).
We could pack both of our dorm room stuff in that amazingly spacious wagon! It just kept swallowing up more and more boxes and duffel bags.
But with the A/C on and loaded down, that “ice wagon” was dangerously slow! Merging onto I-10 was an adventure in futility. It “sounded” like it was merging; but traffic always left us behind. We used every inch of the merging lane’s on ramp to get it up to 60 mph.
The first Station Wagon we had was a 1952 Ford with the wood trim. We were a one car family with 3 kids so the extra room was a real bonus. Dad brought it home in ’55 it was V8 3 on the column with overdrive. Dad was a carpenter and kept his tools in the back unless we were traveling or on a frequent Boy Scout outing or camping trip. There were camping trips to the Sierra’s in the summer and the Redwoods every year. All packed up with a home made car top carrier, all the camping gear and baggage fit very well. In 1960 It got traded in on a 1958 Ford Country Squire wagon with the 352 V8 with a four barrell carb and automatic transmission. Yes, it was a gas hog but it went pretty well and was appreciably bigger than the ’52. This was the car I learned to drive in and the car I borrowed for my first dates. This was the first car we ever drove on freeways, LA for a visit to Disneyland and Seattle for the worlds fair. It made a believer out of me and as soon as I had a family we bought VW Van’s ( a ’62 and then a new ’70 which I kept 14 years) and years later a ’91 Toyota Previa that I still have (268K miles). Can’t beat the versatility and comfort of a good station wagon or van. My current work vehicle is a ’91 Jeep Waggoneer (i 6) (163K miles). There may be a Suburu somewhere in our future but only if we have a Sienna or Oddessy first. We are enjoying our ’13 Prius a lot.
This topic may be covered better as wagon week advances, but there’s another bit of fuzziness currently–when does a 5-door hatchback end and a wagon begin? Forget the whole CUV thing for a moment and focus on smaller creatures. Is the Toyota Matrix not a Corolla wagon? It certainly wasn’t marketed as such, but that’s what it always struck me as. And what about the two-box types–xB, Soul, Cube? Granted they don’t come in a three-box flavor, but I’ve never had any clarity on why those are classified as hatches rather than wagons. Is it solely a matter of rear overhang? That seems to be the only thing that differentiates the Golf wagon from its 5-door sibling. And if so, how much?
Yeah, my ’05 Mazda3 was merely a vertical rear window away from being a station wagon. And if I’m going to buy a four-door anything car, that’s my preferred body style.
I tend to think of the distinction as being based on whether the vehicle actually has D-pillars, but it is a very slippery slope.
I don’t know about the xB or Cube, but the EPA classifies the Soul as a small wagon. That’s good enough for me, as I would rather call my 2019 Soul a wagon than a CUV.
Great question! Personally, I’ve always differentiated the two by their length/rear overhang: if it’s shorter than the sedan, it’s a hatchback, and if it’s longer than the sedan, it’s a wagon. Now, what about if it’s exactly the same length? Then it might come down to rear window angle.
Can we get the Austin Allegro estate out of the way before things really get going, and then not mention it again?
Hell no!! We need an article on that one, puleeeeeze!!!!!!!!!!
You can even title it “The World’s Worst Wagon.” I’d completely forgotten that they’d even made those.
Ugh! Even by Allegro standards that thing is awful.
Dad had a blue ’64 Chevy Impala wagon just like below. On vacation, the thing was packed with 8 (6 kids, plus mom & dad). No A/C, no power steering or brakes, base 6 cylinder engine, 3 on a tree transmission. He finally gave it up 10 years later when the rear end gave out due to the over loading of the car.
Very similar to the wagon my family had throughout my childhood. Ours was the 1963 BelAir wagon with the same 250ci straight six. It had an automatic, but no power anything. It fit the seven of us just fine. Dad added a new Chevy Kingswood in 1972, but that old ’63 hung around four more years before the rust finally did it in. Dad said it “junked itself. At the time I thought that was a legitimate automotive term. In a way I guess it was.
To me, the 1964 full-size Chevy was an ugly duckling shoehorned between two swans – the ’63 and the ’65.
I really enjoy theme weeks and the depth of coverage they bring.
For a long time, like most people, I thought in terms of the “death of the station wagon.” But, ownership of the somewhat obscure 2005 Ford Freestyle changed my thinking.
Through the magic of arcane rules, the Freestyle shows up on my registration as a minivan. The reality of the vehicle is that it is a very mildly re bodied Ford 500 sedan, given a few SUV cues in the styling – a recognition that the public had mostly lost interest in wagons that look like modified sedans. Nevertheless, it is a three row station wagon with conventional opening rear doors.
My thinking has changed to the belief that the station wagon is more popular then ever, and that its current evolution was driven by a combination of CAFE rules and consumer tastes that had tired of sedan based looks, especially with fake woody sides. Proportions of today’s wagon are similar to late 1940’s cars with taller bodies that provide better passenger room.
My thought is that whether you drive a Suburban, a Forester, a MDX, a Durango, an Explorer, etc., you are driving a station wagon.
This is a picture I found on the web, but it is an exact representation of my minivan, err….., CUV, oh heck, station wagon!!!!
2005 Ford Freestyle Limited in Merlot
And the Freestyle became the Taurus X furthering the thought that it was a Taurus wagon on the one hand but the X of course was supposed to imply that it was a X-over. In theory it should have appealed to those looking for a traditional wagon and those looking for one of the new CUVs. Of course it wasn’t popular with either.
The Flex is certainly a full size wagon at heart. Based on a full size car without being lifted up like the rest of the CUV crowd.
There’s one point I’d like to make about this. Early in the article you said the Wagons got their demise in the 1980s; Really, the last full-size (that could have a third seat and 4×8 plywood in them) American type wagons were the G.M. makes (minus Pontiacs) from 1991-1996. Sure, Station Wagons weren’t as popular by that point but they were still around even if they ended up looking like the aerodynamic cars of the 1990s.
They were around on the fringes, but the minivan and SUVs had taken virtually all of their market. Those Caprice wagons did make great state police cruisers though. Seeing that big rounded back wagon with a big light bar on the roof was an intimidating sight. Certainly not what I wanted to see in my rear view mirror.
Excellent article,one of CCs best. As an unabashed station wagon fan, it was good to see these great old wagons from the past, not to mention those fine old ads, a style that we will probably never see again. I owned a few wagons, but my `82 Grand Marquis Colony Park was the best. Luxury combined with utility and seating for 8.A shame that minivans and SUVs replaced them, but, hey thats progress.Couldn`t have described those Volvo wagons any better myself! How true, how true. BTW,Chrysler did not “invent” the minivan. Even though they credited themselves with it, it was VW with the VW bus-the “bug in a box”.
They were around on the fringes, but the minivan and SUVs had taken virtually all of their market. Those Caprice wagons did make great state police cruisers though. Seeing that big rounded back wagon with a big light bar on the roof was an intimidating sight. Certainly not what I wanted to see in my rear view mirror.
I click on this topic and lo and behold….a wagon like one my family had: a 58 Chevy. Ours was a Brookwood, 2 tone turquoise with white, and one of the few cars my mother really hated. Supposedly, she hated that Chevy so much my father was forbidden buying ANY Chevy product again. So my father went back to Ford. We had a 55 and 60 Country Sedan and a 64 Country Squire before it was decided we no longer needed a wagon and my Dad switched to LTD 4 door hardtops.
I wasn’t aware that Rambler offered a side opening rear door on their wagon in the late 50s. I wonder if the similarity to a truck’s rear door kept other makes from copying it….aside from Ford’s 2 way tailgate?
I owned a 72 Vega Panel Express (I didn’t want a wagon) and almost bought a Pinto Squire instead. The Pinto with automatic was ridiculously slow, so no sale.
I often kicked myself for not buying that Focus wagon I looked at 10 years ago but the Ford salesperson was a maroon…so I bought another Honda instead.
This caught my eye (6 years later than you) too.
My Dad bought both a ’61 and a ’63 Rambler Wagon, don’t recall that either of them had the side-opening tailgate. I too remember Ford as having them first, in the late 60’s….maybe ’66 or ’67? First ones I think needed to have the window down to open sideways, then they allowed you to open with it closed (think they called this 3 way, though I’d still think of it as a variation of 2 way). We had both a ’69 Country Squire and a ’73 Ranch Wagon that had it. My Father liked these much better than the GM clamshells but finally bought a ’78 Caprice Classic Wagon which finally also had the “3 way” tailgate (it was his last wagon).
We took our Rambler wagon from Southern California when we moved from there to Pittsbugh, PA in 1961 or so (talk about bucking trends!). We have a picture of my sister and I sitting on booster chairs eating a picnic lunch on the window portion of the tailgate, it was lowered in the “1 way” fashon but I think my Dad had rolled the window out after opening it. I recall these were manual windows, our first one with electric was a ’65 F85 wagon, indeed it was the only electric window as the others were the normal crank windows.
The 2 way door was great for getting close enough to load what my Dad called “the well” which was the deep storage where the side facing (on Fords) rear seats would normally go. Neither of his Ford Wagons had the seats, and “the well” was packed tight as an artform so that much of the wagon area was free for my sisters to sleep and roam around in (not much seatbelt use in our family back then). We pulled a tent camper and being able to store stuff in “the well” required less of it to go in the trailer…with young kids, always lots of stuff went with us on the trips. I had my own tent, but more than once got flooded out and spent the night in the back of the wagon, so I was glad the well was holding our stuff instead of having it strewn above in the wagon bed.
Big wagon fan, we missed the minivan epoch, by then only my youngest sister was at home and parents transitioned to sedans.
We never a wagon in the family as kids. Family of five and dad was big on long road-trip vacations so you’d think a wagon would have been a natural fit. Not sure which parent was anti-wagon…likely mom as she always railed against dad’s car choices – she wanted something sportier, faster than what he would pick out. I think she missed her ’63 Impala 409.
When I purchased my one and only new car in 1991 I was most interested in a small pickup truck. I did a fair amount of camping with the Boy Scouts (was an adult leader at the time) But would as often have to haul boys as their equipment so small pickup not so helpful. Minivan mad the most sense, and I knew it at the time….but there was no damn way I was buying a minivan as a mid-twenties single male.
I ended up with a two-wheel drive, four-door, Five speed stick S10 Blazer (no, I didn’t find that thing on the lot.) I knew I wasn’t going to do any real off-road driving, and I’d found that good tires and limited slip differential were all I needed for north-east Ohio winters. Because of my thought process in the purchase I don’t feel I was really part of the SUV craze at the time – I’d liked the”baby-Bazer” since it was introduced.
All the proceeding to say I always told people what I had purchased was an over-sized, ugly station wagon rather than an SUV. I’ve not driven it in over ten years (gonna’ fix it up someday!) but I still have it with 235,000 miles on it.
My wife and I each had many happy childhood station wagon experiences.
Therefore, when the Ford Flex was introduced we were curious. The Flex looks like station wagons of our youth. We decided to take the plunge and we are now in our sixth year of Flex ownership.
It is by far the best vehicle we’ve ever owned — and we’ve owned almost everything!
Love a Flex. I look at them and see IH written all over them.
“I look at them and see IH written all over them.”
I did not see that before, but I sure do now. Very good point. Count me as another Flex fan. They have not sold particularly well, which should make them a good older used car buy if they prove to have a decent reliability record (particularly the transmission.)
I love the Flex also–some may see it as a CUV but to me it’s a “tall wagon” through and through. If I ever need that kind of space I’ll probably buy one (would take it over a minivan or any other SUV/CUV).
Station wagon, wagon, minivan, SUV, CUV. They’re all variations on a theme of practical, load-hauling / people-hauling cars of various size. It’s all about marketing. The term “station wagon” seems old and obsolete, yet many new cars (e.g. Chevy Traverse) are simply modern versions of those cars of the 60s and 70s, with only slightly different proportions. A Toyota Rav-4 has more in common with many of the station wagons of the 1930s and 40s than does a 1975 Oldsmobuick station wagon.
I’ve always loved the ’58 Chevy ad in the header, because it’s so ridiculous by today’s standards…the woman is up hours before the men, perfectly dressed and made up, making breakfast, and those lazy bums get extra sleep and probably bound through the day without taking a shower. 🙂
That’s exactly what happens when my family goes tent camping. (Yeah, I wish.)
You hit the nail on the head. Isn’t it wonderful that on a campout Mom can be up early dressed to the nines in a nice white jacket and frying eggs and she does not even need an apron? Sort of reminiscent of June Cleaver in Leave it to Beaver. She was always very dressed up, pearls included! I’m sure the 58 Chevy has something to do with all of this but I can’t figure out what the ad people are trying to convey.
Dad and the kid are in pajamas…did Mom REALLY start that fire herself? Before or after putting on lipstick?
Great article Paul. I am looking forward to reading more on Wagon Week since I have been a long time fan. I grew up with wagons and owned several myself. However, I haven’t owned a station wagon of any sort for quite some time now. I have been thinking though when we replace our current car in a couple of years the Outback is in top contention. We will probably need to upgrade to something a little larger and I really like the Outback wagon like features over the small SUV/CUV competition.
Having owned two Caprice wagons over the last 20 years and currently awaiting the day when I can tear into my ’57 Chevy 210 Handyman (feel free to repost “The Short And Odd Life Of The Two-Door Station Wagon”!), I’m really lookin’ forward to this week at CC.
My mom drove a ’68 LTD Country Squire just like the one pictured. The 4bbl 390 was kind of fun. Ford!…It’s a goin thing!
Great article. As a child, our family went from a 2-door Volvo (even with 2 kids and a big dog) to a Volvo 122S wagon and it must have made a huge impression on me as I’ve only owned two 3-box sedans, one being my first car as a teen and one owned only briefly when we had 2 kids, and replaced by a smaller wagon. And we’ve never owned a minivan. While I agree that cargo height favors the minivan, even a compact wagon or 4-door hatch like a Prius is exceptionally versatile with really no downside in fuel economy or handling vs it’s sedan counterpart. In my opinion, the whole compact sedan (vs hatch) trend in the US, started by the four door Accord, was incomprehensible. And the final discontinuing of the Accord wagon and Corolla and Camry wagons was the end of an era for those brands.
Wagon week and I dont have a pic of my latest buy, a 74 Hillman Hunter wagon I only want it for mechanical upgrade parts and for a bottle of red the price is right plus towing fee to get it home.
What is the history of the British term for a station wagon, the “shooting brake”?
Blue blood’s hunting equipment & game hauler.
But what’s a “brake”? I looked it up – Wikipedia says, with citation, “The term brake was initially a chassis used to break in horses — and was subsequently used to describe a motorized vehicle.”
So why isn’t it a “shooting break”? Oh, well.
The French call their station wagons a break. Without the shooting.
Break de chasse
Estate or Shooting Brake I had a A60 Morris Ozford Estate and a Humber 80 estate but just used the generic Kiwi term wagon to describe them, Ive owned many Aussie wagons also known as Station Sedans in the early Holden range before wagon got adopted for them.
Looking forward to this; I love station wagons, especially the 80s Country Squire and the ’71-’76 GM biggies with the tailfins!
I was a kid during the transition years. When I was in nursery school through about 5th or 6th grade, parents and especially moms were still driving station wagons…the Bs and Panthers and also a fair number of Ford Tauri. There were those who had the minivans but wagons were not unusual.
About 1993-94 that began to change quickly. By the time I was in high school in the late 90s, there were no big wagons made and everyone had an Explorer…or something even bigger.
The pinnacle era of the American wagon had to be the late ’50’s, when you could not only get them in 4 door, 2 door, with wood, w/o wood, 2 seat or 3 seat versions, but HARDTOP versions as well!. Olds, Buick, Chrysler, Mercury, Desoto, Rambler and perhaps others all had stylish 4 door hardtop wagons that made one the envy of the neighborhood. I was a short-lived styling phase however, and by the early ’60’s they were all gone.
Great to see that it’s station wagon week- I’m excited to read all of the stories, history and articles that will evolve from this. Might even have to try and contribute for once!
Station wagons are still a thing in Norway. Bust mostly what you would call midsize, or compact, compared to these older beasts. Common offerings are mercedes e, c and S class wagons ( in some cases AMG versions)
Bmw 3/m3 wagons, 5/m5 wagons, Audi A4/s4, Volvo of various kinds, Skoda superb wagon ( beautiful car ), volkswagen passat, peugeot 508, ford mondeo, etc, etc
Skoda superb W:
VW passat wagon: http://i.kinja-img.com/gawker-media/image/upload/s–kwKEB6i8–/c_fit,fl_progressive,q_80,w_636/jdrabyf9qhbqoot0c3d3.jpg
Mercedes E class AMG:
Peugeot 508 wagon:
Ford Mondeo wagon:
Tons of options really, and that’s just the European brands, the Japanese offerings of stationwagons is quite vast too.
And to top it all off. There was at some point even offered station wagons of American cars. Such as the Chrysler 300 C touring.
The previous gen Citroën C5 Break was a big lump of wagon. Comfortable and a lot of car for the money.
I grew up in a succession of these (Ford), Paul, and am determined to keep my Taurus wagon going a while longer.
FWIW, here’s a showroom poster (eBay) to add to your image collection–it was tough not to bid on this one:
Ooh! Very nice.
Great summary Paul! Although my wife and I grew up in the 50s and 60s, neither of our families ever had a station wagon. In my case, I had only one other sibling. She had 2 sisters and a brother, but they were so far apart in age that all 4 were seldom together under the same roof.
Lots of people we knew did have wagons though; one that I remember especially was a 1962 Mercury Colony Park owned by the parents of one of my classmates.
In July 1962 my dad came home with a new ’62 Olds Dynamic 88 wagon. It sure was a step up from the 1960 Ford Custom Tudor it replaced. We took that thing on many vacations with luggage and camping gear stowed in a plywood box on the roof rack. It was a 6 passenger model so Mom & Dad rode up front, my year younger brother and I in the second row and our younger brother and sister in the back. Yep, no car seat laws back then. I got my license with that car, drove it to my first prom, saw my first personal 100 mph while driving in it and years later got dropped off at Ft Campbell , Ky. after Christmas leave. But that last one was during the car’s second life with my family. In May of 1966 just before I graduated from high school, Dad traded it in on a new Ford Galaxie sedan. In 1970 he asked me to help him find a good second car for Mom to drive since he was now working out of town all week. I told him that his local small town Ford dealer still had the Olds stashed in the back of the service department. Well, he bought it back for a lot less than he had gotten on trade. After new tires, belts, hoses, and an oil change he started driving it again. Dad finally rented a garage in Indy and spent evenings for a month overhauling the engine. Following that he insisted we christen the engine with a Champaign toast with one glass poured in the radiator. This was in their backyard which really embarrassed my youngest siblings. In 1972 Dad also had a 10 year birthday cake for it too. They got another 10 years out of that car pulling a camper all over the place and taking kids and grandkids on trips. I missed out on that part as I was out on my own. My folks loved that car and they were not car people. When they finally stopped driving it Dad parked it in a field by my grandma’s house for a couple of years. When they sold the place we had to move it. Jumper cables and a shot of either and it started right up. Dad later sold it to a man in a distant town who wanted an Olds wagon to restore. Even though they had many vehicles in the following years I always think of them as traveling in it. Mom told me many times she sure missed “Betsy” as she called it.
They are both gone now, but I like to think they are somewhere driving a white Olds wagon.
Thanks for that sweet story.
Thanks. I left out one part. After they passed away my sister had a nice headstone made with a picture of their camper in a campsite with their dog standing by. I told her and the other sibs that the one thing missing was the Olds. She said that she couldn’t find a picture of it. I told her that I had found one on the internet just like it. Too bad, that would have been perfect.
Another interesting thing is, despite Dad’s love for that car, he was always a Ford guy.
1962 Olds 88 white station wagon
Love wagon week. In my family my Dad started out with an early 60s Corvair passenger van then moved to a series of wagons. Mostly mid size they fullfilled his need for a family vehicle and one he could use in his tv repair business. My favorite was the first, a white Pontiac Tempest wagon with a red vinyl interior and a sweet 326/auto. Pretty much a stripper, no power steering, brakes or ac. His one extravagance was a power tailgate window. He continued to drive wagons thru the 70s 80s and 90s with a truck and minivan thrown in.
Thank you Paul! Very much looking forward to this; I love classic American station wagons.
For me, its perfect timing; just this past weekend I picked up a one-owner 1979 Volare wagon to add to my daily driver stable.
Hopefully a feature on a Dodge Magnum?
The picture of the Model T looks almost exactly like my ’21 Depot Hack. Mine can seat eight (skinny) people. While growing up, my parents had a ’77 Impala wagon and later, a ’91 Taurus wagon. The Impala was great, the Taurus…..not so much. Now, my brother has the CUVish Subaru Outback like the one in the final Subaru photo. So yeah, we’ve starred in the wagon movie.
I could never understand why Clark Griswold traded in his cool Olds Vista Cruiser for that hideous horrible Family Truckster.
Talk about the CC effect. I just read this article early this evening and later, had to respond to an alarm at work when, what should be following me along Dundas St. in Toronto but a Falcon wagon in the same colour as the ones pictured in the add. It has been many years since I have seen any Falcon of that vintage on the street, let alone at 11:30 at night.
We had a tan ’66 Ford Ranch Wagon growing up – with the marvelous two-way rear door. That made it all the way to ’75 or so…
There’s no slicing it otherwise – my Outback is a tallish wagon. I love this thing – especially like after this weekend’s massive rainfall here in Texas, where the 8″ ground clearance is useful for high water, light trails, or steep driveway approaches. It handles superbly, especially coming after an SUV. But yeah, it’s a wagon. I was also a huge fan of the Taurus X.
I still believe Volvo could get their mojo back if they went back to premium squarish cars and wagons.
Mom’s suburban status symbol, 1966 Ford Country Sedan wagon, parked in front of her 2 story “demand area” house. (Dad’s 260 V8 ’63 Falcon Futura at the curb).
Back in the days when Mom and Dad would produce children on an annual basis.
….because Herr Pfarrer told you so…or at least asked.
The transition to prestige estate wagon from simply a utility vehicle found its first expressions in various custom-bodied efforts on luxury car chassis in the 1930’s. One 1934 Packard Eight station wagon by Bridgeport is extant, photos of those on Pierce-Arrow, LaSalle, Chrysler Imperial and others are documented.
To take nothing from the 1941 Chrysler Royal Town & Country, but just the prior year Buick catalogued the Super Series 50 Model 59 Estate Wagon, 6 passenger and Packard initiated the One-Twenty, 18th Series, Body Style No. 1393 Station Wagon, 8 passenger. These were the first regular factory production offerings by upper-medium/luxury segment carmakers.
Postwar, the move upmarket further would see Buick Roadmaster and Chrysler New Yorker estate wagons arrive to respond to the burgeoning affluence.
Excellent article, Paul, on one of my favorite body styles. I always learn something new here. I didnt know it was wagon week, but if the comments are true I’m excited!
I never had the pleasure of driving a Wagon Queen Family Truckster type of wagon, but I’ve had as regular drivers a number of Antarctic Blue Super Sports Wagon type of wagons. From the last car I ever actually owned, a 97 Accord wagon with a 5-speed, to a succession of nimble, roomy, and fun to drive long term rental and lease cars since moving to Europe, including multiple Opel Astras, a Ford Focus, and the Skoda Octavia I’m now driving.
I like being low to the ground with good handling, and lots of luggage room, so I’m not totally on board with the CUV craze…but to a level I can understand the appeal. Plus most/all CUVs handle better and get better mileage than the Colony Parks of yore.
Excellent treatise on American wagons. Special mention to the downsized ’78–’83 Malibu wagons (and clones), which were much needed after GM dumped the Nova wagon ten years earlier and the Greenbrier, which Chevrolet called Sportswagon but was really a minivan.
Hooray for Wagon Week!
First off here’s a photo of my Flex, which I just picked up last night! A 2017, 30,000 mile, well optioned example. Ingot silver with the Shadow Black top and tailgate plus those 20 in. glossy black rollers. I guess that Ford found their “Urban” demographic buyer in me. I chose the base V6 FWD configuration. I liked these and went to look at them at the dealer when they debuted, but didn’t really need a new car then and couldn’t afford a new one at the time, anyway.
During my 45 minute freeway test drive, I saw a steady 23 mpg. on the electronic read out so I’m satisfied I can beat that a bit on a long trip. I grew up with wagons, had a couple of minivans over twenty years, but it was my recent experience with my old ’97 Explorer with 5.0 V8 (loved everything but the gas mileage!) that got me interested in the Flex again.
Last week I had to drive 400 miles down south due to a family emergency. My old Explorer broke down in the LA County desert. My paradigm of old car driving came to a sudden halt due to some deferred maintenance. Unfortunately I still had the needed parts sitting in the Rock Auto box at home! A long story, I rented a car to get back. Once home, my Wife and I decided that we really needed a newer car so we finally pried open the wallet and spent some money!
I wanted a roomy four door that could carry a lot of cargo or luggage. I did not want another minivan, though we had rented a new Dodge Grand Caravan for our Summer trip to Oregon, last year. It was well finished and rode and handled nicely and it achieved low to mid twenties in gas mileage. The Flex really fills the bill. I didn’t want anything smaller than this, my measure was whether or not it could hold a refrigerator in back with the hatch closed, like my old Explorer. The Flex has much more passenger space, and is actually just a minvan in another body, but there are plenty of FWD Explorers out there too. I’m really looking forward to putting some miles down!
Great topic here! It got me to thinking my brother and I both had a wagon for our first cars. He bought a ’57 Ford, blue and white with the gold quarter panel inlay. Somebody tested the cigar lighter by burning a hole in the otherwise nice padded dash. Lots of memories in that car, camping and sneaking his skinny friend into the drive in under the folded down second seat.
My first was a ’63 Rambler Ambassador, white with red interior. I literally drove the wheels off that thing, and at 144,000 miles the left upper ball joint gave way. By that time there was so much wrong with it I decided to cut my losses and send it off to the scrapper. Supremely comfortable seats though!
and finally, raising a new family got me thinking about some creature comforts, and I scored a root beer brown 1973 LeMans with a 400, turbo 400, dual exhausts and power everything . It did everything I asked it usually without complaint as long as you kept feeding it lots of gasoline. 12 sheets of drywall on the roof rack on one trip, 27 bags of concrete mix on another , and finally it gave up its transmission at 170,000 miles. What a tank it was!
We own a Honda Pilot. It has big wheels and AWD. But it is a wagon. And Honda can be proud of it.
My parents never had a station wagon although it would have made a lot of sense. My father was very attached to his roof racks (rubber suction cups and clips for the drip rails). I think he felt that getting a wagon would be giving in and taking the easy way out. The first wagon I remember riding in was my uncle’s 57 Ford 2 door. It was also the first car I was in that had seat belts. Because my uncle had worked in aviation (building de Havilland Mosquitoes) that I thought that he got some from an aircraft, but it seems they were a factory option. The other thing I remember was the rear windows were sliders.
I actually owned a wagon as my second car, although now we would probably call it a 3 door hatchback. It was a 69 Vauxhall Viva HB with the 1600 OHC engine. Quite an interesting and practical design with abysmal build quality, but it was good looking.
Ages and ages ago, I had just graduated from high school and was now driving a ’62 Valiant station wagon. That car came in handy for all kinds of things that would have defeated a sedan. For instance, when I finished my big project from woodworking class (a good-sized desk, 2 feet deep by 4 feet wide), I was able to load the thing into the wagon.
In college, I made the acquaintance of a local guy who was a mail carrier by day and an organ builder/technician the rest of the time. He had a knack for cobbling together pipe organs for churches who couldn’t afford to spend very much; he knew where to find used pipe, etc., etc. His work vehicle was a ’64 Ford Country Sedan. He could carry a good bit in that–wind chests and reservoirs, blowers and the like, and he would have been able to carry quite a few pipes, if they weren’t too long. (We actually have in our home a small organ he built for a local church. I played for that church for a time when I was in college. Much later, I heard that the church was closing, and long story short, we had to gather up some friends, rent a truck with a lift, and get the organ out of the church. Yep, we needed a truck to do it.)
We had three station wagons before getting a van. ’59 Chevy, ’63 Rambler and ’65 Chevy. A ’69 Dodge A-108 Sportsman fit our outdoor lifestyle far better than traditional wagons. Not only did it carry more, exploring the desert on dirt roads did not damage it.
Our family had a series of 4 Chevrolet station wagons throughout my childhood. Here’s my sister and our family dog with our 1968 Impala.
Dont be saying wagons arent popular I just bought another one ok its an Estate according to the people who built it but I prefer wagon rare new and rarer now its a nice car to drive just in need of some minor fettling
Nice Superminx. And there’s another wagon – a Nissan Wingroad – in the same picture (is it JDM or NZ-new, and if the latter does it have a manual instead of Nissan’s disposable CVT?)
The lady in the first picture sure is well-dressed for a camping trip. Is it Donna Reed, maybe?
Could be. Dad and Junior are just out of their sleeping bags (pajamas on a camping trip?) and mom is already up, dressed to the nines and making breakfast. Those Mad Men really sold fantasies, didn’t they?
Imagine to make an ad like this today. Unthinkable
I like to think I’m doing my part, but this truly was the end of an era.
It seems that in the 1950’s station wagons were thinly-disguised fertility symbols. In the low-birthrate 21st century, the pickup/SUV has become a more ‘stand-in’ symbol of virility. 🙂
About 4 or 5 paragraphs into this article, you mention that Station Wagons were now being referred to as “long tops” and you were going to stick with that rather than get bogged down with semantics. Then, you use the term “long top” ONCE and Wagon/Station Wagon FIFTY-NINE times (not counting the headline or any ads that were illustrated).
Interesting. Looks a little boggy but not. And I still don’t know when LONG TOP originated or by whom.
But I think I know.