(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?
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The original and still classic. A tribute to the talent of the designer who came up with the design in three days.
Ive seen very few of these out here mostly because Landrover built a better one and simply swamped the market with short and long wheelbase versions of their more capable and versatile vehicles. The extra tax on US made vehicles would not have helped Jeep’s cause either. Its easy to see why the Rover company filled their offering with seats in the rear though they must have seen these Jeeps and re guarded them as either inspiration or competition.
Those seats look like they’re from a mid 90’s Escort GT.
A classmate’s father had one of these in the late 70’s. It was very cool. At least it was until this knucklehead bought some monster mudder tires and wheels which were too wide to fit the rear wheel openings. To install them, he hacksawed the sheetmetal up to the height of the inside wheelwell arch. It looked horrible.
Sometimes it’s tough to be the innovator, with clear vision of what’s next. They often don’t get the big bucks. Willys invented the steel station wagon, and everyone saw right away what a good idea it was. So the big three took it over. At least it kept Jeep alive, that’s a good thing.
The back story on the Victory Car growing into a big sedan, and those vintage articles, are fascinating. I’d never seen or read about the big postwar Willys that wasn’t. That’s what makes CC so great.
Good info. I worked for a guy before my navy days that had one of these. He always bragged about what it would do but I never got to ride in it. His son spent a lot of time cruising in it.
Good research Paul.
I love these. On my childhood trip to California (where I got my first exposure to a Dauphine) I also got a ride in one of these. It was that medium metallic green color that was so popular on these. It belonged to a cousin of my mom’s, and it was quite unlike anything else I had experienced up to that time. I remember it as quite bouncy and noisy.
I continue to think that Kaiser-Willys missed the boat by not sticking with and continuing to refine this version. An updated body in the 60s could have kept this viable in markets where the Wagoneer was too large.
My parents bought one of those in ’93 – for my sister and I to use as our “drive to school car” for my senior year of high school. It was a ’50, with working 4wd, and the Dauntless V6 with a 4-barrel Holley under the hood. God, that rig was fun!
I just looked that up. A Dauntless V6 (sounds very British) is the 90 degree Buick 3.7 V6, a descendant of the aluminum Buick V6. I didn’t know that Kaiser/Jeep ever used them or put them in Jeeps.
The Buick V6 had always been iron, though the V8 it had been derived from was aluminum.
Interesting tidbit I just recently learned: in the last few years of Willy’s wagon/pickup production (in the US), you could order them with the Tornado OHC six from the new Wagoneer/Gladiator. That’s one of the more unique combinations of old and new technology I can think of, and it must have made these pretty lively, for the time at least. I’m also gonna go out on a limb and say that probably makes it the only vehicle ever available with flathead, F-head and OHC engines during it’s production run. I’m guessing the Brazilian version continued using that engine as well, although Wikipedia mentions that they also had a later development of the Super Hurricane 6-cylinder which grew to 3 liters and 140HP, so maybe not.
Always loved these and would really like to own one some day. I agree with JPC that it would’ve been cool (and likely at least somewhat successful) if Kaiser had done an updated version and sold it alongside the Wagoneer – like the strategy AMC and Chrysler adopted with the XJ and SJ/ZJ later on.
And let’s not forget the Planadyne independent front suspension on the earlier 2wd models, with the transverse leaf springs serving as the lower link-a real “active suspension.”
Supposedly it worked fine except when you went over a bump while turning, or after you got up to about 55 mph-then the spring would twist and change the geometry, causing it to become quite “squirrelly.” (I wonder if they could have fixed that with a simple radius rod?) In the mid-fifties, it was replaced by a simpler solid axle and longitudinal leaf springs, which some saw as an improvement, others saw as cost-cutting. I would love to drive one for myself and see, couldn’t be much worse than hanging on for dear life, riding along as my uncles took their WWII surplus Jeep out to bring the dairy cows home from pasture.
My first car, had I ever gotten it to run, would have been a 2WD Jeep panel wagon with that interesting suspension. It had the F-head four-banger that had stopped banging when a fractured head leaked coolant into a couple of cylinders and the antifreeze glued everything up solid. We got a line on some guy who had new mil-spec engines with 24V electrics, still in crates, reportedly for $150 each, but our problems with finding off-base parking – we were at Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage – and the fact that $150 was almost two months’ pay for us! – meant we had to bail out. In the meantime I’d gotten that Fiat 500 …
Speaking more of that suspension: Late ’30s Studebakers had a “Planar” suspension too, but their transverse spring acted on lower wishbones. Dante Giacosa at Fiat dodged the problem with his first Fiat 500 “Topolino” by putting the transverse leaf at the top, and then for the postwar 500 and 600 by putting it below but clamping it at two points fairly far apart, which allowed the center portion to flex and act as a sort of anti-roll bar. Which means that I lucked out by getting the version that really worked!
La historia esta muy buena, actualmente las Willys 1946 practicamente no existen, las pocas que quedan se pueden clntar con los dedos de la mano, su valor agtual es altamente impresionante!!
I’ve always been puzzled about why station wagons had wood bodies in the first place. All through the woody era other car models of all sizes were metal, as well as trucks. Why did just the wagons need far more expensive wood bodies? At a 25% premium, not to mention maintenance of the wood, it’s no wonder they didn’t sell.
Classic chicken and the egg: Station wagons didn’t sell all that much, so the numbers sold didn’t justify designing and building the different stamping equipment needed to turn out a totally different body. So wood was used as it could be build on a more labor intensive, but less capital intensive production line.
And all that labor intensive production ensured the model would stay expensive. Thus keeping sales down.
As to why they started with wood, just look at the Model T in the second picture. Back then they were called depot hacks, and were essentially a horse drawn wagon with a engine, etc. added ahead of the windshield, plus driveline underneath. As horse drawn wagons were made of wood, it was natural to build the first ICE drawn wagons in the same manner.
And some manufacturers had invested in forests in the era when all bodies were steel-clad wood.
Looks to be a Star Model C in the second picture. I learned about the Star from Mrs. Mahon, the librarian at my jr. high school, whose father once owned one. Note the longitudinal springs. Star was assembled by Durant. The wagons were assembled at the factory starting in 1923.
Just picked up a 1961 a couple of months ago, sitting in my driveway, awaiting a resurrection of some sort.
As a little kid, a friend of mine’s parents had one of these. Kind of a deep maroon with the painted on wood. He was a mechanic and kept it in fine running condition. Whatever he did to the body to keep it from rusting seemed to work as well. He kept it a long time, finally traded for a 63 Rambler around 66.
I’d like to say I really appreciated the vehicle. Being a kid, I didn’t. My parents had a 58 Colony Park around the same time. Where the Mercury didn’t seem to notice hills, you could hear and feel the 4 labor. The contrast in power was obvious even to a non-driving kid. The other negative was the back seat. The Jeep was a 2 door. It made us feel like a big kid to have our own door.
I remember the Colony Park as feeling really open and airy with the windows down. In the Jeep, you could only slide the back windows part way open. This forced the dog – which always shared the back seat – to jump up on you to stick his head out. The dog was kind of big and clumsy and liked to move from side to side as the smells changed.
He frequently put his foot where it hurt boys the most. In the Mercury, the dog could stick his head out the window without climbing up on the seat. You could ride without having to worry about guarding your privates as the dog moved back and forth across the car.
Funny how little stuff like that shapes your whole opinion of a vehicle.
Ohmygod a 1958 Colony Park. Whew! Yeah, rather a different kind of station wagon from the Jeep.
At one time, our family’s only car was a 1968 Datsun 1600 (the first-year 510). It was a four-door at least, but we also had a very large Newfoundland dog (imagine a St Bernard, but black all over). I have memories of getting a faceful of doghair as she made her way across the children in the back seat to bark out the window at passing vehicles.
I remember these when I was a kid and wanted one so badly, in 4X4 of course .
My Stepfather raced Cat Boats in his younger days and bought a new 1949 all steel Plymouth wagon to haul his sail bags and Sailor’s junk, he loved it and talked about it up to his death .
Recently, a neighbor had one of the later ones for sale with that fascinating OHC Tornado engine. The price was about $6K, it was rusty, and it needed a water-pump. A quick internet search revealed parts for that Tornado engine would be hard to find and/or expensive.
As I’d just acquired a ’96 Toyota pickup for a fraction of that Jeeps price, I passed.
But I was grateful to be able to see and hear that amazing Tornado engine!
Happy Motoring, Mark
When I was in high school in the 60’s a girl who was a friend of mine drove a red one of these, probably the lowest ranking of two family cars. Her father was an army general, in charge of Ft Huachuce. Nothing more to the story, except it gave me the opportunity to ride in it plus of course what would an army general buy. Very much a Jeep and not like modern cars of the time. Another girl I knew drove a family car, a 1957 Oldsmobile 9 passenger station wagon. Rode in that too. Not the same thing.
About the summer of 1968, my daily driver was a white 1962 Volkswagen that I took to a summer job during the week. On the weekends, I’d swap cars with my cousin, and take his white 1962 Willys/Jeep station wagon surfing at nearby Middletown, RI beach. Frankly, I loved driving the VW more(the Willys/Jeep drove like a small truck, by comparison), but it held two surfboards and our other gear much easier than the VW.