(first posted 4/26/2013) Americans like things big. The country’s big, the meals are big, people are big, the roads are big, and the distances are far. Families used to be big. And big station wagons were the vehicle of choice for many of them. And America likes growth, so the wagons kept getting bigger and bigger, until certain externalities imposed themselves, in particular starting very shortly after GM started building the biggest ones ever, in 1971. This 1975 Buick Estate Wagon, the last year it was built, is 231.8 inches (5887mm) long, longer than even that standard bearer of bigness, the 1976 Cadillac DeVille. By that criterion alone, as well as a few others for good measure, it truly is the ultimate American station wagon.
Although Ford lagged behind GM, especially in full-sized cars, it was consistently strong in the full-sized wagon segment. As proudly proclaimed in the ad, Ford outsold every other brand of station wagons. And the new 1965 version featured innovative twin facing rear seats, and the ’66 upped the ante further with the clever Magic Doorgate that could open either as a door or fold down as a tailgate. Ford was The Wagon Master.
Ford’s Country Squire, which proudly retained its fake wood planking when everyone else had moved on to sleek steel sides in the early-mid 50s, cultivated and enjoyed an upscale image, which probably helps explain why Buick’s and Oldsmobile’s big wagons just never sold well: the Country Squire was able to transcend the typical class structure, and was just as much at home at the country club as at the public pool.
Why pay quite a bit more for a decidedly un-Dynamic Olds or dull LeSabre? Ford had nurtured a better idea, and it was paying off handsomely. In fact, these boxy wagons were calling out for some improvement.
Ford’s continued dominance with its wagons was obviously an embarrassment to GM, which meant that something had to be done about it. Dozens of committee meetings on the 14th floor over a period of years resulted in leaning towers of memos and ultimately in some bold and brilliant decisions: Chevrolet would finally start applying Di-Noc fake wood to its upscale Caprice wagon in 1966. But it was still saddled with rather old-school rear-facing third seats. It didn’t make much of a dent in Ford’s lead.
An unusual and more innovative approach was taken by Oldsmobile and Buick, which dropped their poorly-selling B-Body wagons after the 1964 model year, in part because the outside supplier that built the bodies (Ionia), was sold off, and Olds and Buick couldn’t justify the expense of tooling up a wagon version for the new 1965 bodies to build on their own lines.
So they created the extended-wheelbase A-Body Vista Cruiser and Sport Wagon, which we covered here. They were unique in that they used their lengthened wheelbase specifically to make a forward-facing third seat possible, and raised the roof for the extra headroom, as that third seat had to seat directly above the rear axle differential housing. This configuration also allowed for a reasonable cargo space behind the third seat, unlike in the Ford twin seats or the Chevy (and Chrysler’s) rear-facing third seats.
For its all-new 1971 full-sized wagons, GM was determined to take Ford on, and in the usual GM way when it set its mind to something: out-gun them, in every way possible, especially in engineering. Unlike anything to date, the new GM wagons were designed from the frame up specifically to have three forward facing seats, and the roomiest ones ever, as well as have a considerable cargo area behind them.
It’s not hard to see where the inspiration came from. The Vista Cruiser was the warm-up act to the ultimate wagon, or in other words, the penultimate wagon.
These new wagons would be unlike any other ever built, with an extended wheelbase (125″ Chevy; 127″ Olds (shown above), Buick and Pontiac), and the frame was exclusive to the wagons as it had a totally different rear suspension, with semi-elliptic leaf springs in order to maximize interior space. And of course, they were big; the biggest wagons ever built.
This shot of a ’73 Chevy wagon still hauling kids shows off its capabilities. These mega-wagons were the Suburbans or the (not-so mini)vans of their time; the best way to haul up to eight passengers and still have some room for secure and easy-to-load storage behind the third seat. Take that, Ford!
But that’s not all; to take on Ford’s Magic Doorgate, GM engineering prowess came up with the ultimate wagon tailgate solution: the Glide-Away tailgate, more commonly known as the clam shell tailgate. And take this, Ford!
Seeing it in action is the best way to describe it. But like so many (all?) other GM over-kill engineering solutions, it was not without its faults too.
This one is the most common one: the electrically-operated glass won’t come down the whole way and leaves an inch or so open. This was shot on a cold and drizzly day, and I assure you that it was not open intentionally as I caught up with its owner heading to the recycling center with a load of cans and intercepted him.
There were other gremlins too, especially with dirt and grit getting into the rollers for the drop-down lower section. If it failed, it was expensive to repair.
The Glide-Away tailgate dictated the styling and structure of the whole rear end, which made these wagons very distinctive. The lower tailgate rolled down manually, but electric assist was available optionally.
The wrap-around rear side glass hid the large inner structure for the C-Pillar that had the tracks for the window, which of course slid up into the roof. When it was willing and able.
As in the Vista Cruiser, the roof was raised in the rear, both to provide the extra headroom for the third seat as well as to contain the tailgate window in the rear-most area. But no glass this time around, sadly. Very sadly.
Unfortunately, this Estate Wagon—the very first clam shell wagon I’ve encountered in Eugene—was a two-seat version.
But then that second row seat is wide enough to seat four, in a pinch. These cars had exceptionally generous hip and shoulder room thanks to the ‘fuselage’ styling with very convex exteriors.
And here’s the helm. The earlier versions had a rather ’69 Ford-ish wrap-around instrument cluster, but that gave way after a few years to this rather unambitious and uninspired design. GM’s cost cutting had been evident for some years.
It’s about time we took a look at the front end of this battle ship. As roomy as these were on the inside, they were still far from a paragon space efficiency, most of all because of that enormous front end. That adjective doesn’t quite do justice to it either.
The GM clam shell wagons may have been the ultimate of their kind in the US, but in France, Citroen was building what was truly the ultimate wagon, the CX Break, in terms of its technical ambitions. Although only 194″ long—three and a half feet shorter than the Estate Wagon—the FWD cab-forward CX Break had drastically better space utilization.
Even with three rows of quite roomy seats, the rear cargo area was about as big as many smaller station wagons with two rows, thanks to its long wheelbase, shorter hood, and very low load floor. And of course, there was no space-robbing trick clam shell tailgate to eat up a bunch of space in the back. Or to go on the blink. And then there was the CX’s hydropneumatic suspension. And its efficient four cylinder turbo-diesel engines, which yielded 30+ mpg.
And if one needed even more room, there was the Loadrunner six-wheeled version (by Tissier), often used as a high-speed express delivery vehicle.
Still not big enough? How’s this for the ultimate station wagon? Enough; let’s head back to good old America…
Raising the Buick’s Louisiana Territory-sized hood reveals a vast engine storage facility, big enough for one of GM’s EMD locomotive V16s. Never has a 7.4 liter engine looked so lost. Now imagine Buick’s 3.8 L V6 in there; no, thankfully it wasn’t actually available on the big wagons, but Buick did put some in the ’76 LeSabre sedans and coupes.
Appropriately enough—despite the energy crisis which came along and spoiled the fun—the 7.4 was the standard and only engine installed in the Estate Wagon. It was rated at 205 net hp, and had enough torque to move these well-over 5,000 lb freight trains adequately down the road, as well as enough thirst to move the gas gauge needle equally fast from F to E. It takes hypermiling to break into the double digits, mpg-wise.
I hear that this generation of Buick V8s has some endemic oiling weaknesses that makes them susceptible to shortened lifespans. The Olds Custom Cruiser, although 0.8″ shorter and thus a bit less ultimate, was probably the better choice, engine-wise.
Now if GM had used the Toronado’s Unitized-Power FWD system in these wagons, where it actually made sense, instead of in a sporty luxury coupe, and had ditched all of that dead space under the hood, lowered the rear floor and increased passenger and cargo space, it would have truly built the ultimate station wagon.
It was contemplated, and at least one or more Toronado station wagons were built as test mules. The resulting low floor in the back and the lack of a center tunnel was quite a revelation, I hear. Still way more front overhang than needed, but this is America.
Imagine a slightly shorter version of this. Now that would have been the ultimate wagon.
As it turned out, GM’s mega-wagons sailed right into the gales of the energy crisis, and were essentially DOA. In 1977, GM’s downsized cars arrived, and the wagons had shed almost a full foot in wheelbase, a foot and a half in overall length, and over a thousand pounds. In fact they were now smaller than the Vista Cruiser had been, and GM’s ambitious forward-facing third rear seat was jettisoned; well, actually turned around in the old standby rear-facing direction. The ultimate wagons were now modest wagons for a new era.
But not to worry; GM had another superlative wagon for America, the Suburban, dubbed the Super Wagon. There is absolutely no coincidence that Suburban sales really took off in the late seventies. Most of all in big-loving Texas, where the Suburban became the default Mommie mobile.
I vividly remember a business trip to Houston in the early eighties, and there was a soccer field next to my hotel. In the afternoon, there was a parade of Suburbans lined up to pick up the kids from practice. And why not?
It was much roomier inside than the clam shell wagons, and yet
two feet over a foot shorter! Gas mileage couldn’t get worse than horrible. Maybe not quite a Citroen CX in terms of space utilization, but this was just what America was looking for, a genuine Superwagon. And from 1977 forward, the conventional wagons never again played the top-dog role they had for so long. Their image soon foundered, especially as the SUV boom expanded beyond just Suburbans, and was quickly followed by the minivan boom. GM’s clam shell wagons were the end of the road for the big American wagon, in more ways than one.
These wagons are now like living dinosaurs, and almost as rare. This Estate Wagon makes for an impressive sight as it rumbles down the street. And it’s still hard at work, putting its prodigious size, weight, power and carrying capacity to work hauling about a pound and a half of empty aluminum cans to be recycled for five cents apiece. It probably guzzled more gas on that trip than the cans are worth, even if it was a short trip. But then sheer economics were never what these wagons were all about. Being the ultimate at anything almost inevitably doesn’t come cheap. Or without a few compromises. But it does assure that it will be noticed or not readily forgotten.