Curbside Comparison: Compact Wagon Round Up ’62.

(first posted 10/4/2012)     Got a growing family on a budget? Are twins on the way, but you don’t want to pulverize the piggy bank? If so, you had a plethora of choices in 1962! The compact-wagon market was booming, and virtually everyone but luxury stalwarts Chrysler, Cadillac and Lincoln offered tantalizing tailgate options in a reduced-size package. Which one would you have chosen in ’62?

We’ll start with what was literally the leader of the ’62 pack: the Falcon wagons, now led by an aspiring country-club snob-appropriate Squire model. Nevertheless, the typical Falcon qualities of shopping-cart handling and a weak-chested (and optional!) 101 horsepower, 170-cube inline six–most often teamed with a two-speed Ford-o-Matic–made it the most image-over-substance wagon of the year. We’d have to wait another year for the punch (in the form of the 260 V8) to match the pride.
The same wheeziness afflicted the Comet wagons, which officially became Mercurys for 1962.  It was in wagons  where the Comet and Falcon differed the least; Mercury simply affixed a Comet front clip and tail lights to the Falcon wagon body, so wagon buyers didn’t get that little expanse of extra room or the more elegant surface detailing found in Comet sedans.
General Motors, in the midst of what might have been its last golden age, offered no less than five truly different wagons. Completely new this year was the new Chevy II, from GM’s most pedestrian brand. Offering all-new engines and unique subframe/unibody construction, it seemed less concerned with the “Country Club” image the Falcon Squire tried to project, and also did a better job of getting out of its own way, thanks to an optional 120-hp, 194-cu in six.
On the way out, however, was the closest thing to a Sports Wagon that Americans ever got. The Corvair wagon would bow out mid-year to make room for a far more-popular convertible. Despite a rear-engine design that ruled out a third row of seats and no more than 102 hp available, no other wagon begged you to order the four-speed to make the most of grocery-getting like the all-new Monza.
A little bigger and less bizarre was the Tempest Safari, which offered a triumvirate of  optional “Trophy Four” engines ranging from 115 to 155 horsepower. Also available (though rarely ordered) was Buick’s aluminum V8. But with its rear-mounted transaxle, and swing axles similar to the Corvair, it still drove far off the beaten path of conventionality.

Near-Cutlass level class was available with the F-85 wagons. Using the same basic body as the Tempest, the F-85s upped the ante with our roundup’s first standard-equipment V8 and first optional automatic with more than two gears. Incidentally, that automatic was the Series Five edition of the ever-controversial Roto-Hydramatic. Also, it might even have been mentioned in Curbside Classic (if I remember correctly, JPCavanaugh’s mother had a love/hate relationship with her ’61) that there were concerns about GM’s using buyers as guinea pigs for their new aluminum V8’s casting and cooling issues.

One of our Mid-Century Modern Miniature Mobility Masterpieces, the Buick Special, was actually named “Car of The Year” for 1962, an honor that seems to have been based solely on its new Fireball V6. Still, with 135 standard horsepower on tap, and Buick prestige written on its flanks, how could you go wrong?

It’s time we got to the “Mopar Madness” part of our comparison. While the Valiant/Lancer fraternal twins didn’t share as much DNA as the Falcon/Comet wagons, it was mostly sheet metal and appointments that set apart these family haulers, perhaps inspired by Virgil Exner’s repeated playing of “Fly Me To The Moon” after too many Manhattans.

But underneath the outré styling lived all the typical Mopar goodies: Torsion-aire ride, Torqueflite automatic, and a tough Slant Six. Incredibly, these weren’t even the most mutant looking wagons offered by Highland Park: Despite that reverse slant C-pillar, they still project a jaunty sportiness that’s absent from the competition, the Corvair excepted.

Now, let’s move out of Detroit Metro to our independent choices. First up, from South Bend, is the Lark. From the windshield back, the Lark wagons featured 1959-vintage bodies (which themselves displayed 1953-vintage roots) while all the other Larks tried to hide their age with a little more make-up and some empire-waisted gowns, including squared-off roof lines and starchier rear fenders. But here we see such big-car amenities as the tough-old-bird Studebaker V8. Growing only 2.5″ in the front clip, the Larks had the tidiest dimensions of any V8-equipped wagon for 1962.

But tidiest of all was the thriftmaster from Kenosha, with its Praying Mantis face and basic structural innards from the dawn of the 1950s. Also found here, in base models, is the only flathead I-6 available in the class (although OHV engines were available for higher-grade models). Yet with all that old-fashioned technology also came old-fashioned build quality, with solidity that some competitors rather lacked. Although the world had changed since its debut as a “bathtub on wheels”, plenty of buyers loved the car’s stubborn adherence to its “American Virtues.”

So here we are. Where will our small-wagon fantasy money go? Given the plethora of choices, I find this comparison the hardest from which to make a firm decision–even without factoring in the imports. But have at it.