Curbside Classic: 1946 Willys Jeep Station Wagon – The First Modern Station Wagon and SUV

CC 133 085 925

(first posted 10/28/2013)    The original military Jeep is rightfully considered one of the most iconic and influential vehicles ever built, right up there with the Ford Model T and Volkswagen Beetle. It spawned the whole 4×4 era, and everything that evolved from that.  But the 1946 Willys Jeep Station Wagon might just top that: it “invented” the modern station wagon as we know it. And that turned out to be a much larger category than 4x4s.

And then just  a few years later, when the Station wagon was given four-wheel drive, it also became the proto-SUV. The first modern wagon and SUV, both spawned by a low-budget gamble to keep the Jeep alive after WW2. Does it get more influential than that?

station_wagon star 1922

Yes, station wagons have been around for a long time; even before cars, actually. But they were commercial vehicles, the name originating with their first purpose: horse drawn wagons or cars used to ferry guest from the train station to their hotels.

ford woody-wagon-10

Station wagons were essentially hand-built, either by outside contractor coach works, or in-house special facilities. needless to say, they were considerably more expensive than the typical family sedan. Even Ford, the master of mass production which had its own timber lands for its woodie wagon production, had to charge roughly 25% more for one than a steel sedan.

Woodie wagons were not common with everyday families; they were typically bought for commercial use, and as a second or third vehicle for affluent households to take to the weekend country house, harbor, or such. Their constant upkeep was another major deterrent; they were the equivalent of having a wood boat.

Jeep victory car

In 1942, the up-and-coming young designer Brooks Stevens delivered a talk to the SAE in Detroit about the post-war car. That became the basis of a Popular Mechanics article, which included his renderings for a small and cheap car based on the Jeep. His argument, which was common but turned out to be wrong, was that the post-war economy would be severely depressed due to was debt, and that Americans would have to largely do with smaller cars. Stevens saw an opportunity to turn the basic tooling for the little Jeep into a “Victory Car”.

Jeep victory car 2

Stevens’ presentation turned out to be of greatest interest to Willys-Overland, which had been a struggling small independent automaker and whose Jeep gave it a new lease on life. But they were rightly worried about how to turn that opportunity into post-war success. Stevens was hired to design the post-war line of Willys cars, but with the influence of ever-expansive Joe Frazer, the modest little Victory Car soon grew and became more like atypical American sedan.

Willys 6 70 sedan

Count Alexis de Sakhnoffsky was brought in to do much of the actual work, and the result, the Willys 6/70, bears some of his signature touches, like the sloping rear. These were larger, six cylinder cars, not the crude civilian Jeep originally envisioned by Stevens.

But when Frazer had a falling out with Willys Chairman Ward Canaday, the new sedans were abruptly cancelled. Charles Sorenson replaced him, and in his typical practical approach, saw that the new sedan would require too much expensive tooling and brought Stevens back to Toledo with a new mission: design a vehicle based on the Jeep, and quick.

willys 1946

How about three days? Stevens created a station wagon body on a Jeep frame lengthened to 104.5″ wheelbase, and without the expensive four wheel drive. But the real breakthrough was its all-steel body, which was given a two-toned paint job to simulate a woodie, since that look was so deeply engrained with buyers.

Powered by the 60 hp 134 CID flathead “Go Devil”four, the Jeep Station Wagon was a whole new thing altogether: an affordable compact but roomy wagon that was also tough yet economical.

Plymouth 1949 Suburban

The Jeep Station Wagon’s influence was almost immediate. For 1949, Plymouth introduced its own all-steel wagon, notably built only as a two-door and on the short 111″ wheelbase of its semi-compact P17 two-door sedan. The all-steel wagon was now seen as a very affordable and family-friendly car, as well as still being a useful commercial vehicle too.

The benefits of the all-steel wagons were all-too obvious, and within a few years, the whole industry began the switch. And station wagons now became a popular family hauler, with a very different image than the expensive woodies of the pre-war era.

Willys 1949 wagon

In 1948, the Willys Wagon also was available with the much larger 226 CID Continental flathead six, similar to those used in the Kaiser sedans.

Jeepster TK

Stevens’ other design, the sporty, 1948 open-top Jeepster didn’t fare so well. An interesting approach, and one that Jeep would try to revive again in the sixties, it just didn’t really catch on. Here’s its CC story.

Jeep 1950 wagon 4wd

The Jeep Station Wagon was strictly a two-wheel drive car initially. But in 1950, with the competition from Plymouth put pressure on Willys to find and create new market niches. Well, it probably didn’t take a lot of head scratching to come up with a four-wheel drive version of the station wagon. The proto-SUV, now available at your Jeep dealer.

Jeep 1955 Maverick wagon

In fact, the two-wheel drive wagon soon became a harder sell, thanks to all the increasing competition from the Big Three. This 1955 “Maverick Special” was an attempt to keep interest up. It didn’t, at least not to any significant extent.


Not when a stylish 1955 Chevrolet Handyman could be had for some $180 more.

Jeep station wagon 4 wd

The Jeep Station Wagon was literally forced into becoming the proto-SUV, even if that wasn’t a very bif market segment at the time. But it was a key part of Jeeps survival, at a time when WW2 surplus Jeeps could be had for a song.

CC 133 082 925

The Jeep Station Wagon became an icon and evergreen in its own right, and was also built in a number of markets, especially South America, for many decades to come.

CC 133 083 925

I’m not sure of the exact year of this one, but it is before the 1951 version that gave the front end a new look, with a deeply vee’d grille. The steering wheel is still original, if not the seats.

CC 133 084 925

How I lusted after one of these in my young ramblin’ man days. With the rugged 226 six, these will tackle anything thrown at it. And there’s plenty of room in the back for both passengers and provisions.

CC 72 003 800

There was of course also the Willys pickup, the third leg of the triumvirate. Its CC is here.

Two out of three; not a bad batting average. Both the Station Wagon and Pickup would of course be replaced by Brooks Stevens’ designed 1963 Wagoneer and Gladiators. And the Jeepster would reappear, and have some success as the Commando. Never mind all the competition that soon piled into the four-wheel drive market from International and the Big Three. And where have they all gone? Morphed into CUVs and such. A winning formula, still evolving.

CC 133 087 925