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.