(first posted 11/17/2015) One of Ford’s claims to fame was being the first to mass-produce the station wagon in 1929, and from there the body style developed into an important part of Ford’s model mix. In 1950 the Country Squire was introduced, and would soon be leading a successful new sub-segment, the fancy trim wagon from a low-price brand. The Country Squire would also become synonymous with the DI-NOC wood grain vinyl trim that served as the ubiquitous signature of upscale wagons. Plus, to keep their family haulers at the top of the sales charts, Ford kept pioneering innovations, including dual facing rear seats in 1965 and the Magic Doorgate in 1966. Ford’s marketers bragged about being the Wagonmaster, and buyers agreed.
By the late 1970s, however, the Country Squire’s status in swanky suburban driveways was under pressure, with the newly downsized Caprice/Impala winning the full size wagon wars in 1977 and 1978. Would Ford’s new, smaller Panther platform provide a suitable base for leaner, better full size wagons? Automotive testers were anxious to find out, and in the fall of 1978 they put the new Country Squire to the test. Would the newest wagons from Ford live up to the past glories of the Wagonmaster?
With the launch of the newly downsized LTD, Ford showcased the wagons prominently in the promotional mix. All of Ford’s famous wagon features, including the dual facing rear seats, Magic Doorgate and fake wood trim, made the transition to the downsized car. Plus, the smaller-on-the-outside wagons offered more passenger room inside, and cargo capacity that beat Ford’s competitors. To show off all the benefits, press units of the new Country Squire were made available, and Motor Trend took the bait, penning a piece on the newest offering from the Wagonmaster for their February 1979 issue.
Motor Trend kicked off the article by praising Ford for making sure that all the traditional wagon virtues were present and accounted for in the Country Squire. The article, though, is an entertaining period piece in that the new car is given credit for only having “minimal” squeaks and rattles and for offering better aerodynamics than before (about on par with a brick compared to a concrete block). Expectations were pretty low back then… Of course, the driver was also trying (unsuccessfully) to use the CB radio to avoid getting a ticket for going over the 55-mph speed limit on the highway, so I’d say it was a grim period in general.
Overall, Motor Trend was quite smitten with the packaging of the new Country Squire, especially the “command seating position.” By the late 1970s, U.S. manufacturers were discovering the benefits of good visibility and upright seating that had been practiced for years by many imports. It’s too bad the trend has now reversed, with makers from around the world increasingly offering only cocoons with small glass areas—well, I guess it minimizes the glare on mobile devices…
Some serious flaws were still evident. As with the LTD sedan, braking performance was abysmal, including long stopping distances and dangerous rear wheel lock-up. Interesting that the GM X-cars were so blasted for their brakes, when these Fords certainly seemed to have had major issues as well.
Also subpar was engine performance, even with the larger available 351 V8, both in terms of acceleration and fuel economy. Getting full size cars to simultaneously address both CAFE standards as well as customer expectations for performance was a big challenge.
Completely unacceptable was the build quality of the Country Squire tested, which featured a litany of problems resulting from sloppy workmanship. Particularly galling was the fact that the test car came directly from Ford, though the magazine noted that maybe the problem was that the car didn’t get any dealer prep prior to delivery. Right… Motor Trend was correct, however, to state that quality would become increasingly important to American buyers, a lesson that the Japanese manufacturers had already taken to heart well before 1979.
However, in all, Motor Trend enjoyed the Country Squire and felt it did its job well. So too did Consumer Guide in their Auto Test series. Usually very blunt in their criticism of their test cars, they were impressed with the new Ford wagons.
Ford got the top pick from Consumer Guide for full size wagons. The staffers were enamored with the unique features from the Wagonmaster, which made the LTD wagons versatile workhorses for passengers or cargo.
The accolades didn’t seem to matter to buyers though, as LTD wagon sales for model year 1979 dropped 5% versus 1978, declining to 67,887 units. That total was also far below the results achieved by the Caprice/Impala wagon, which sold 124,615 units for model year 1979 (down 2% from MY78).
Perhaps it was a telling sign that the days for the full size wagon would ultimately be numbered. While downsizing certainly helped the Country Squire become a better vehicle than its oversized predecessor, it couldn’t hold off the changing tastes of the times. The Wagonmaster had ruled from the 1950s into the 1970s. In 1979, who would have dreamed that the next king of family haulers was about to emerge from Highland Park?