For many years, Ford called themselves the “Wagonmaster” and perhaps it was deservedly so. Even though most years Chevrolet lead the overall sales race, examining wagon sales alone, Ford wagons typically outsold Chevrolet wagons by a significant margin. Ford’s station wagons were often more pragmatic and prestigious than the Chevrolet competition. Ford’s Country Squire was an example of a low priced car that earned enough cachet to fit in at the local country club. Fords wagons were built for functionality first though and were first to have the innovations such as the 3-way magic tailgate introduced in 1966. In contrast, Chevrolet wagons often had gimmicky features, like the built in bumper step or the cargo compromising clamshell tailgates.
Things changed in the 1977 model year. Ford was still pedaling its massive wagons, equipped with a 121” wheelbase and measuring in at over 226” long when Chevrolet released its much lauded downsized full-size cars. The 1977 Chevrolet B-body station wagon was about a foot shorter and 800 lbs lighter the leviathan Ford. Being far more space efficient the Chevrolet wagons gave-up very interior and cargo space to the big Fords despite their much more diminutive size. Chevrolet also finally abandoned gimmicky styling and features to build a practical wagon. Chevrolet basically made a smaller more modern Ford station wagon. It even copied Ford’s 3-way tailgate. On top of being smaller, the Chevrolet wagons were a massive improvement over the Fords dynamically and they also achieved significantly better fuel economy.
These sensibly sized and attractively styled Chevrolet wagons were good enough to steal the Wagonmaster sales crown from Ford. Ford responded with its own smaller wagons in 1979, but it never again surpassed Chevrolet’s full-size wagon sales figures.
The 1979 Ford LTD was massively downsized, in similar fashion to Chevrolet’s efforts in 1977. The new Fords were hundreds of pounds lighter, much easier to maneuver, got far better fuel economy and gave up little in cargo and interior space to its predecessors. In fact, the Fords were few inches shorter and rode a two inch shorter wheel base compared to Chevrolet’s svelte B-bodies. However, the Ford effort wasn’t exactly the same as Chevrolet’s. The Chevrolet engineers made a concerted effort to improve the downsized cars’ dynamics, so much so that they set a new standard. Chevrolet stylists designed an attractive car that lost much of the brougham gingerbread. Ford, on the other hand, wasn’t quite ready to completely let go of the past with its 1979 cars, and didn’t quite hit the mark as well as Chevrolet. So while on paper their efforts appeared similar to Chevrolet’s, the reality was that most agreed the B-body was the more modern and better overall package of the two cars.
While both the downsized General Motors B-bodies and the Ford Panthers were considered to be modern vehicles in the late 1970s, they aged quickly. By the mid-1980s, these cars were considered by many people to be oversized dinosaurs from another era. Station wagons in particular were quite unfashionable among the many child rearing baby boomers, as the newer more space efficient minivans quickly moved to the forefront of desirable family trucksters. Sales of the full-size wagons slowly declined from the mid-1980s.
During the 1980s, customers who bought full-size wagons tended older and/or more conservative buyers. This meant that luxury and comfort were emphasized over the traditional utilitarian attributes, a Ford strong suit. Conservative styling and brougham features suddenly became attributes in this class. Station wagons also had a considerable advantage over Chrysler’s minivans when it came to towing, appealing to older more affluent buyers who may have had large trailers to tow.
Despite their old bones and traditional sales base, Ford made constant improvements to its LTD wagons throughout the 1980s. Starting the decade with a 302 with a 2-barrel variable-venturi carburetor, Ford’s engines were a step behind Chevrolet’s. Ford upgraded to CFI (throttle body) electronic fuel injection in 1983 and then further upgraded to sequential multi-point fuel injection system in 1986. Meanwhile, Chevrolet stuck it out with the primitive electronically controlled Quadrajet carburetor through the 1980s and arguably downgraded the engine when it switched from the 305 Chevrolet to the 307 Oldsmobile engine during the 1986 model year. Ford also introduced the four-speed AOD (Automatic OverDrive) transmission in 1980, beating Chevrolet, by one year. Ford went further to make it the sole transmission for 1982, while Chevrolet continued to offer the three-speed automatic for several more years.
Ford performed a restyle of its very boxy Panther cars in 1988, which considerably softened the edges and made the car look more modern, while still appealing to that conservative customer. By 1990, the end of the line was ever close for the old LTD Crown Victoria, but Ford decided that it was still worthy of an all new modern dash and airbag to meet the new passive restraint requirements. General Motors chose the cheaper alternative, installing the door mounted belts on its B-bodies. Clearly, Chevrolet invested the bare minimum in its full-size cars letting them wither on the vine, while Ford slowly improved theirs through the decade.
The GM B-bodies are highly regarded by Curbsiders, myself included, and generally are considered to be the much more revolutionary car. Undoubtedly Ford’s attempt to match the B-body with the 1979 Panther cars was somewhat feeble initially. However, as described above, Ford made a number of significant improvements to the Panther cars throughout the 1980s. GM only made marginal improvements to the B-body, choosing to spend invest its money in its FWD platforms. No doubt the financial investment Ford made to capture traditional customers was significantly less than GM’s investment in FWD. And while Ford may never have caught up to Chevrolet in sales, it is certainly arguable that by the end of the 1980s the LTD Crown Victoria was at least as good as the Chevrolet Caprice.
Partway during the 1990 model year, Chevrolet introduced its new aerodynamically styled 1991 Caprice. Chevrolet decided to continue the station wagon variant, which was updated considerably over the 1990 models. The 1991 Caprice wagon was the most aerodynamic station wagon of the time and was certainly a huge change from the boxy predecessor. Ford soldiered on in 1991 with its traditionally style Crown Victoria, but sales waned against the new slippery Chevrolet, and only 8000 Ford wagons were produced. Nevertheless, the writing was on the wall for the full-size Ford station wagon well before the 1991 sales tally came in. There was to be no Crown Victoria station wagon when the new 1992 Crown Victoria was introduced. Ford continued to make station wagons though, and produced the Taurus station wagons until 2004. While the Taurus was a fine automobile for its day, it wasn’t quite the traditional big station wagon Ford had been known for. Something was lost when Ford retired its full-size station wagons.
I came across this meticulously kept 1991 Crown Victoria LX wagon on eBay. In its nearly 30 year life span it has only logged 42,000 miles, most of those in dry Arizona. It has had three owners, the first of whom kept it until 2016 when it was sold in an estate sale to an elderly neighbour. The current owner purchased it in 2017 and appears to have been an excellent caretaker.
The car has received extensive maintenance, included an “updated” (rebuilt?) transmission, three new power window motors, refinished alloy wheels (claimed to have cost $2000), recent tires, belts, hoses, dual exhaust, Bilstein shocks and speakers. The owner obviously wasn’t afraid to invest some money into preserving this old wagon.
The owner claimed this station wagon to be one of three produced, based on the Marti report, however, all that means is that there were only three other station wagons produced in 1991 that were exactly identical this one. Many times Marti reports narrow older cars to 1 of 1, so 1 of 3 isn’t that unique. According to that same Marti report, only 3865 Crown Victoria LX wagons were produced, meaning the remaining 4155 station wagons must have been wood panelled Country Squires. While most Ford station wagon lovers prefer their wagon with wood panelling, I particularly like this example due to its lack of di-noc. I have always preferred my wagons wood free. Not only do they look much cleaner, but my father drilled into me as a child that as the wood applique ages, it will lock-in moisture against the body and cause rust. He too was a big proponent of wood free wagons – just in case you were wondering. Furthermore this fine Ford wagon reminds me of my former Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser wagon, also being a well-equipped wood free white station wagon of similar vintage.
The big Ford wagon sold on at the end of June this year, surpassing its reserve with a $9,300 winning bid. Hopefully this station wagon will find a good home that will preserve one of the last great traditional wagons made by the Wagonmaster.