Curbside Classic: 1995 Ford Club Wagon Chateau – Welcome to the Club

(first posted 3/21/2012)    Can a vehicle be a Curbside Classic if it is still in production?  When it is a throwback like the Club Wagon Chateau (and when I am the appointed arbiter) the answer is a resounding YES.   After all, if the Law & Order television shows can be both in classic reruns and in current airing, why not the big Clubber?

From the late 1960s and lasting well into the 1990s, the Ford Club Wagon set the standard for passenger vans in the US.  The full sized passenger van became a growth business in the 70s.  By 1971, each of the big 3 (big 4 if we count GMC) had moved beyond the early passenger vans which were hopelessly crude in comparison with the big station wagons that ruled the family market at that time.  Although the competition made a good run for the business in the early 70s, the debut of the third generation Econoline in 1975 put Ford out front in this segment for the next generation.

The Chateau as the top trim level of the Club Wagon goes back to at least 1969, and included passenger accommodations on a par with the contemporary Country Squire.  No more metal and rubber interiors, no sirree.  The Chateau Club Wagon was all cloth, vinyl and carpet.  Why was it called Chateau?  My cousin’s answer when his wife asked this question was as good of an answer as I ever heard: It was the size of an average house in Switzerland.

If you were a kid in the early 70s, chances are that someone you knew traded a station wagon for a van for family hauler duty.  Once that happened, you got to experience the luxury of room, room, room.   In 1973, my friend Dan’s dad traded his Travelall on a new Dodge Royal Sportsman.  In 1976, my friend Tom’s dad traded a strippo ’69 Ford Van (metal floors and all) on a new silver Custom Club Wagon.  Tom and I were both, however, chagrined that his parents had chosen the Custom and not splurged on the Chateau.  But then, spending other peoples’ money is always easy.

My mind was made up.  When I got older and had my own family, I would not make them crawl into the back of cramped two door cars (which I considered a form of child abuse at the time) but would provide them with the luxury of spacious accommodations which would make everyone happy and joyful at all times.

Fast-forward about twenty years.  After a 1995 trip from Indianapolis to Dallas and back, I learned how small a Crown Victoria really was with two kids in car seats in the back.  Diaper change?  Snack?  Another toy?  Stop the stupid car, get into the trunk and root around for the necessary supplies.  Does one of the boys absolutely require Mom to sit next to him?  Stop the car again, horse around with moving a child seat into the front (this was pre-air bag) and resume.

Not long after that trip, I remembered my vow and started looking into vans.  By 1995, the Suburban was becoming the official car of soccer moms and little league dads everywhere.  But for family transport, I always considered it inferior to a big passenger van, which provided more room for people, lots more room for cargo, and was quite a bit less expensive.

Then too, there was  the minivan, then at the peak of its popularity.  For the same price you got a smaller vehicle with a fuel economy improvement of only about three to four miles per gallon.  With gas prices of around $1.25 per gallon, the minivan remained in consideration for about 45 seconds.

In the 1970s through the 1990s (and beyond) you had one big choice when it came to vans.  Factory or Custom.  Custom vans were hugely popular in in the 70s (at least in the midwest) and they maintained a following for a long time.  Custom vans started life as a base level commercial van, custom fitted (by lots of companies in and around Elkhart, Indiana) with big windows, deep velour captains chairs, varnished wood trim and built-in electronics like stereos and even TVs.  The problem with the Custom vans is that their quality varied widely and their resale value often dropped like a rock as they aged.

This was not so with the high end factory vans.  In the used market, they were always harder to find and were much more expensive when you found them.  Plus, the factory interiors were generally MUCH more durable, if not as flashy.

In truth, I really wanted a Dodge Ram Wagon.  But Dodge had not invested more than about $1.35 in passenger accommodations since the ’70s and stubbornly refused to provide shoulder belts to rear passengers in the two bench seats other than the two window-seat passengers behind the driver.  This was a safety tradeoff that I was unwilling to make.

Then I drove past a Ford dealer one day with two of these sitting near the building.  Both 1 year old ’94s in Chateau trim, one red with a 302 and the other, green with the 351.  Once Mrs. JPC set foot inside, she was hooked.  You see, I had showed her a minivan, but she liked the room of the big van, proving for the upteenth time that I married the right girl.  (After test driving a Grand Caravan, she asked if we could look at the extended model.  Good Girl!)  This Ford Chateau provided the niceties that the minivans provided, and the beautiful interior (which always elicited “ooohs and ahhs”) sealed the deal.  I was happy that she preferred green, because I preferred the 351.

That Club Wagon became one of my favorite vehicles of all time, and to this day I feel a warm sense of smug whenever somebody in a Suburban passes me with luggage and crap piled up and covering the back window because there is not enough room behind the third row for real cargo.  Seriously: you buy a three ton vehicle that gets thirteen miles per gallon and you STILL need a cartop or hitch-mounted carrier?  Oh, I’m sorry.  Was I ranting?  Maybe a little.

You Suburban partisans must understand that I was just used to a cargo area behind the third row that looked like this.  Actually, this van cost me a lot of money, because a lot of big things from a lot of stores rode home in the back of it.  Maybe Mrs. JPC had this plan all along.

Anyhow, our family of 5 went on to explore much of the eastern half of the United States over the next eleven years in this van.  Scout campouts, school carpools, field trips, baseball and football practices and games, this car became part of the family.  These two photos of my sons illustrate the lifestyle span that our Club Wagon bridged, always with convenience and comfort.  And we never outgrew it.

Although I spent the first 80k sorting out ball joint and tire wear issues, a set of ball joints with these really cool things called grease fittings and a set of Michelens made this one of the best highway cruisers ever.  The second 80,000 miles were quite trouble-free, and by the time I let go of it in 2006, my big Emerald Ford smashed my previous record for time of ownership of a car (five years with a 1971 Plymouth Scamp).

This particular generation of Club Wagon (still in production) goes back to 1992.  Most people remember the re-body job done on the big Panther platform cars, but forget that the Ford guys pulled the same rabbit out of the hat on the E series vans.  By 1991, the 1975-vintage Econoline was virtually unchanged, then with a new body popped onto what was essentially the old chassis, Voila! We have a new van.  There actually were quite a few changes under the skin.  Although the running gear was largely carried over, the suspension, steering and other parts got some tweaking.

Also new was the elimination of the twin gas tanks (25 and 15 gallons) with their complicated and troublesome switching mechanisms, replaced with a single 35 gallon tank.  There was enough that was new for this van to be declared Motor Trend’s 1992 Truck of the Year.  (Pause for great flourish and fanfare.)  But despite all of the changes, you still had a very familiar Twin I Beam Ford van, for better or for worse.

When I spotted this 1995 model in the same color combo as my old 94, a flood of memories hit me and I had to stop and photograph it.  I may be one of the few people who could instantly identify this as a ’95.  It is easy, because that was the first year for these wheels (which I liked better than mine) and the last year of this color (at least with this front end treatment).

It is unfortunate that Jacques Nasser’s cost cutting blade hit these vans in 1997 (coinciding with the discontinuance of the iron engines and the addition of one of the more unfortunate grilles on a Ford truck).

In fact, it seems that Ford stylists have been having an office pool for years on how to top an ugly existing design with an even uglier one.

Each series seems to have done so, right up to the present day.  It is also unfortunate that the interior accommodations have never recovered from that 1997 attack of the cost-cutting machete.  Styles change, and the Suburban remained cool while the venerable van became like the ex marine with a flat top and wingtips in 1972 – extremely capable but hopelessly basic and out of style.

If I have been convincing enough, you can still buy a version of this big wagon today.  Only now it is called an E-150 XLT Premium.  It is hard to imagine how buyers can pass up a vehicle with such a catchy name.  Maybe it is the fact that Ford does not promote it at all, or that it lacks most of the luxury features that people expect today.  Or that you can visit two hundred different Ford dealers and never see one.

I have thought once or twice in the ensuing years about joining Club Chateau again.  But used ones are getting harder than ever to find and, truthfully, owning one of the mid 90s versions (that goes down as one of my favorite vehicles ever-or did I already say that?) would ruin me for one of the newer cheaped-out units.

So, let us (or me, at least) savor this big, old, comfortable box one more time.  I am glad that someone is still enjoying this one.  And in the Sam’s Club parking lot, I am confident that those big swinging doors will close behind anything that its owner can roll out on a cart, and seven people besides.  Try THAT with your Suburban.