Wagons Of A Lifetime: The Way Back– My Family Wagons



Until very recently, there was almost always a station wagon in my life. I remember my first encounter with a station wagon. It was 1976-77, I was between four and five years old, and I saw parked on the curb a comfortable looking car. It was long and black and I remember remarking to my Mom, “Mom, that’s a pretty comfy looking car….there’s an area in the back where you can relax…I can tell because there are nice curtains back there!”


This is a true story that my Mom still likes to give me a hard time about. Nevertheless, this was the first time I remember seeing a station wagon for the first time and also the first Cadillac I remember seeing up close. This was the beginning of my long history with station wagons.


During this time, I collected Matchbox cars. My “daily driver” was this Mercury Villager. It just seemed so classy, roomy, and comfortable.



In fact, my imaginary garage had two wagons. This Citroen CX was also a favorite. Sadly, I have never seen a real one.


Fast forward to 1981. My aunt and uncle acquired a 1981 cream-colored Caprice Classic wagon without the fake wood siding. This car represented several firsts for me–this was the first car equipped with power windows, seats, locks, antenna, and mirror I had ridden in. It looked and felt like a limo to me.


The rear-facing third seat was the default seating station for me and my cousin. Come to think of it, the whole cargo area became a sort of clubhouse on wheels. Many times we did not even bother with the third seat. We took some blankets, toys, snacks, and comic books and just sat or lay in the large cargo area…one big playpen. Times have changed…we would never think of doing this today. And yes, as a kid, I remember riding in pickup beds as well. I remember long trips to Washington DC, and to Ithaca, NY to visit my uncle, who was then finishing his PHD at Cornell University. The way back became the best seat or bed for those journeys. We would ride in the way back even if there was no one else in the other seats besides the driver. My uncle’s family of five and my immediate family of four very often traveled together in this wagon. The adults also very much appreciated its ability to haul things, many things, of all shapes and sizes. My Dad and my other uncles borrowed it often for all kinds of projects.


My immediate family’s income was a bit more modest than my uncle’s, so we couldn’t really afford the big Caprice, but we got the next best thing: a 1978 Oldsmobile Cutlass Cruiser, in the color pictured above. With crank windows and manual locks, it was not as well equipped as Uncle Clem’s loaded Caprice. Thankfully, it did have ice-cold AC, which was necessary because of the hot vinyl seats and, as many have lamented about these cars, the rear windows did not roll down.  We used (and abused) this vehicle for many years, overloading it often. I remember helping my Dad cram full-sized couches, washing machines, and refrigerators into its mid- sized interior and hauling a mattress secured to the roof rack. There was no third row seat but that didn’t stop my sister and I from relaxing back there during a summer vacation that took us from Maine to Virginia. Our luggage rode on the roof, while we rode in the back.


The most annoying thing about these A/G body wagons? The tailgate rear glass setup. Over the keyhole in the rear was a type of handle. If you turned the handle to the right, it would release the glass. Once the glass was released, turning the handle left would allow you to lower the tailgate. Unfortunately, the handle was not too well secured and would come off, often making it a challenge to open the glass and the tailgate. The other annoyance was that once opened, the glass was held up by pressurized struts. Unfortunately, the struts would fail at the most inconvenient times (i.e., when loading the cargo area), causing the class to come crashing down on your head, neck, or back. I still cringe whenever I remember what that feels like.


We owned that car until the late 80s, when it suffered rust issues that made the exterior very brittle. In addition, all the interior hardware began to disintegrate around us. What replaced it? An identical 1978 Oldsmobile Cutlass Cruiser. Our relatives didn’t even realize we had gotten another car. This was one of the cars I learned to drive in. We kept it for a few years until it suffered transmission failure as Dad was driving it to work. He actually drove it home backwards!


That car was replaced by another A/G body, a low-mileage ’83 Pontiac Bonneville, this time with fake wood sides. We purchased the car from an older gentleman who’d bought it new, so it was in pristine condition.



The interior was in particularly good shape. I found the dash to be interesting. The large, circular gauge to the right of the speedometer held a clock where I expected to find a tachometer. Although the car was attractive and comfortable, it proved to be a disappointment–the reason being, its predecessor Cutlasses both had V8s whereas the Bonneville had the 110 HP, 3.8 liter, two-barrel V6. We had gotten so used to the performance of our older G-body wagons that the Bonneville just seemed gutless. I remember flooring it once and being amazed at its lack of performance. However, the struts holding up the rear glass were practically brand new and never gave us a problem. I think its low-power engine is what ultimately led to its demise, as we pushed it pretty hard to perform until it eventually suffered head gasket failure.


That car was later replaced by our first Ford product, a 1979 Mercury Zephyr. I remember reading a book that described the Fairmont/Zephyr as “the automotive equivalent to the spinster librarian.” The car was extremely plain and mechanically very simple. This was actually a good thing. It was a no-nonsense, reliable car. No frills except air conditioning, and everything just worked with no drama. The only strange thing that I remember about it was the location of the horn button on the turn signal stalk. It was a good appliance that served Dad well. Ironically, it met its end at the mechanic’s. The car was idling outside the shop as the mechanic was running an emissions test on it for the required New Jersey State Inspection when someone off the street climbed in and drove away. The car was eventually recovered a few months later but it had been lived in by whomever stole it to the point that it was no longer the same car it was when it was “borrowed.”  By this time, my sister and I were out of the house and a wagon was no longer such a necessity for my parents, so the Zephyr was replaced by a Buick LeSabre sedan.


This left me to bear the mantle of wagon ownership. I have written COALS on all my wagons, including the three pictured above, so I will only briefly mention them with links to their COALs, including this trio.

My first wagons were small J-body wagons, a 1985 Chevrolet Cavalier and a 1984 Pontiac Sunbird; their stories can be found here. After my J-wagons and until I had a family of my own, there was a time when I did not own a wagon. After that began a decade when there was always a wagon in my driveway, starting with a 1993 Buick Roadmaster Estate wagon, follwed by a 1988 Chevrolet Caprice Estate, a 1995 Caprice wagon which we kept for a long time along with two pictured above, a 1995 Buick Roadmaster Estate wagon and a 1993 Chevrolet Caprice wagon. These were our last GM cars as well.


My last wagon was a 2002 Subaru Forester which we owned until Thanksgiving 2014– leaving us without a wagon for the first time since my oldest was born almost 11 years ago!