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The Station Wagon – 1913-2007

Ahh, the station wagon! This do-it-all grocery-getter, kid-hauler and road warrior, along with the tract home, was the very symbol of middle-class suburban life in the last half of the 20th Century, all the way to the last decade, until it was replaced in suburban garages and driveways by the minivan and SUV which were both outgrowths of its long boxy shape. These behemoth land yachts grew to 19 feet long at one point, barely able to fit into a modern 20X20 foot two-car garage but well-suited to the larger garages of days gone by. If your parents didn’t have one, you knew someone else’s parents who did. Modern kids will never know the joys of the way-back seat, turned around so you could make funny faces at the cars behind and far enough away from the front seat that Mom and Dad never knew exactly what you were up to back there…and we liked it that way.

The 1910s

The modern station wagon as we knew it grew out of the ‚Äúdepot hack‚ÄĚ modifications to early¬†Model T¬†truck chassis.¬†Ford¬†itself did not make the bodies, but sold only the chassis¬†Model TT¬†and various coach builders made wood bodies for specialized purposes. One such purpose was to transport people and their luggage to and from train depots with cover and protection from the elements that the roof (and sometimes curtains, but not windows) provided, and a body on a truck chassis could hold more people and luggage than a standard car. ‚ÄúHack‚ÄĚ was another term for a taxi or transport in those days, and thus the phrase ‚Äúdepot hack‚ÄĚ was born.

Depot hacks acquired other names such as carryalls, Suburbans(which Plymouth used on their wagons until the late ‚Äė70s and¬†Chevrolet¬†would use later as the name of their large SUV) and, since these often served the same purpose as horse-drawn wagons of old and the bodies were often built by wagon companies, and train depots were also called ‚Äústations‚ÄĚ…the station wagon.¬†

The 1920s

Starting in 1923, Star, a Durant Motors brand, started producing station wagons from the ground up with wood bodies to compete with the Model T truck chassis-based models. These were the first purpose-built station wagons and served the same purpose as the Ford-derived models with aftermarket bodies, although it is assumed that production figures were quite low.

Wood bodies were common on these early station wagons as wagon companies and cabinetmakers were supplying the bodies and wood was more readily available than steel in those early days. Many automakers such as REO, Buick, Dodge and Overland were putting other manufacturers’ bodies on their own chassis’ to produce station wagons. In fact, Buick offered three different models of its Passenger Express Woody. Some were still being built on a truck chassis, but automakers like Buick preferred to extend their car chassis’ for their wagons to ensure a smoother ride for passengers, a trend which would continue. Advertisements in upscale magazines such as Country Life targeted wealthy buyers, enticing them to buy station wagons for their country estates as they were more rugged and could handle the often rough roads on private property better than early automobiles could.

Ford took notice of the trend, and when the Model A was introduced in 1928 they began producing their own wooden-bodied station wagon, although some Model A production was still farmed out to outside manufacturers. A year later they became the first mass-produced woody station wagon and dominated the market up until the era of all-steel wagons.

The 1930s

Despite¬†Ford‘s mass production, station wagons were still considered commercial vehicles as opposed to family ones and production numbers were low, but more manufacturers were getting into the station wagon space. They were more expensive than regular cars and were seen as a status symbol amongst the affluent. The wooden bodies also needed constant maintenance, another sign that these were not meant for the average American who could not afford the upkeep. Dodge and¬†Plymouth¬†station wagons had more streamlined roofs that allowed rainwater to flow down the side of the body better, and the¬†Dodge Westchester¬†was the first wagon to offer roll-up front door windows instead of side curtains.¬†¬†

1931 saw the¬†Dodge Series DH Six¬†station wagon produced, and in 1937¬†Ford‘s station wagon production moved all in-house. This was the same year that Pontiac’s first station wagon was produced from its¬†Deluxe Six¬†series, with a model number of¬†STAWAG. 1935 saw the first all-metal station wagon, the¬†Chevrolet CarryAll (later¬†Suburban), although the body still resembled a woody. These were built on the same half-ton truck frame as models built for the National Guard, had windows for both front and rear passengers and could seat eight.

Plymouth started wagon manufacturing in 1938 with the P6 Deluxe Westchester Suburban, although the bodies were built by U.S. Body & Forging, and was the first station wagon classified as a car rather than a light truck. 

The 1940s

Chevrolet‘s first woody station wagon, the¬†Special Deluxe, was unveiled in 1940. A year later¬†Chrysler¬†introduced the¬†Town & Country¬†station wagon, based upon a 4-door sedan rather than being built with a separate body. It was originally introduced as being not a station wagon, but a more versatile car. Even so, they were still mostly commercial vehicles and station wagon sales accounted for less than 1% of motor vehicle sales in 1940.

WWII halted new US auto and truck production save for specialized military vehicles like the venerable Jeep and deuce-and-a-half. After the war, the post-war boom pushed automobile production to never before seen heights, including station wagons. Steel remained in short supply after the war and wood was seen as a necessity for car bodies since there was no shortage of it, and so the woody remained in production for cars, trucks and station wagons. By the end of the decade car manufacturers began to use wood more for styling than practicality, and wood-trimmed cars and station wagons became a luxury as steel production transitioned from wartime to peacetime. Customers, especially affluent ones, still wanted the warm look of wood.

The 1950s

Station wagons really took off in the 1950s, from less than 3% of US car manufacturing volume in 1950 to nearly 17% of the market by the end of the decade. In 1958, the top-selling Plymouth was their station wagon.

Everything automotive was taken to excess by the end the ‚Äė50s; chrome, fins and styling in general. The overhead-valve V8 was introduced, more powerful than the flathead models earlier in the decade, allowing heavier cars to accelerate faster‚Ķand station wagons, with their long wheelbases and extended greenhouses, tended to be the heaviest of the bunch since by the early 1950s the wooden-bodied wagon had disappeared to be replaced by all-steel models. The last wagon using a real wood body was the 1953¬†Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon. The woody look survived until the end of US station wagon production, first with actual wood trim but eventually reverting to wood-grain vinyl decals with steel or aluminum trim around them made to look like wood. Actual woodies survived into the late ‚Äė50s and ’60s as cash-strapped surfers found that they could buy an old ’30s or ’40s vintage woody for next to nothing, especially ones where the varnish had worn off of the wood due to lack of maintenance, and the luggage rack on top of the elongated roof was the perfect place to secure the long surfboards of the day before heading out to catch some waves.

Many station wagons were high-end models with all the bells and whistles that 1950s Detroit could pack in. By the end of the decade, the station wagon was the vehicle of choice for growing families full of Baby Boom children, and no suburban street or cul-de-sac was complete without a fleet of station wagons in driveways and garages. The varying degrees of luxury denoted your suburban status; the more high-end your wagon, the higher you were in the pecking order.¬†Buicks,¬†Mercurys and Chryslers ruled the neighborhoods, while a¬†Chevrolet,¬†Ford¬†or¬†Dodge¬†was seen as second-rate. Interestingly the top-tier¬†GM¬†and¬†Ford¬†divisions,¬†Cadillac¬†and¬†Lincoln, couldn’t really be bothered with wagons. I suppose they were too commonplace for those buyers.¬†Cadillac¬†never made any except for a few one-offs for wealthy buyers and¬†Lincoln¬†produced but a few in the mid-to-late ’70s; however, by the late ’90s both were producing an SUV model.

Two-door station wagons like the Chevrolet Nomad were marketed, but attracted few buyers as they were less useful than four-door models and had higher price tags. At $2,757, the Nomad was the highest-priced Chevrolet of 1957…higher than the popular Bel Air convertible with its iconic fins. Still, the 2-door hardtop or pillarless wagon survived into the 1960s and represented the most stylish and expensive models offered. The 1950s represented some of the last gasps of pure uniqueness in automotive design, where manufacturers were not afraid to do something different just because. This is one of the reasons why station wagons of the 1950s are held in such high regard by collectors and the population in general, the other being the nostalgia of the adults who rode in those same station wagons as kids and want to recapture some of those memories.

The 1960s

As the 1950s bled into the 1960s, a new station wagon phenomenon came about; the compact wagon. Some families could not afford even the most inexpensive full-sized wagon available from the Big Three, so to accommodate those buyers Detroit brought new compact wagon versions to market for models such as the Ford Falcon, Plymouth Valiant and Chevrolet Chevy II. This was not an entirely altruistic move by Detroit, as they now had competition in this space from foreign brands like the Volkswagen Type 3 and Volvo 122S.

Mid-size wagons began to emerge around this time as well like the Ford Fairlane Squire and Chevrolet Chevelle wagon. However, full-size wagons were still an option for those who could afford them, and they were getting bigger and bigger. There were various trim levels within each wagon brand and options were seemingly limitless, especially on mid-tier luxury brands like the Mercury Colony Park, Oldsmobile 88 Fiesta and Buick Estate Wagon and the top-tier Chrysler Town & Country. The excess chrome and tail fins of the 1950s had disappeared by mid-decade and drivetrains, brakes, suspensions and engines were all making great leaps in quality and reliability.

Innovations began to emerge, especially in tailgates. Two and three-way opening tailgates emerged along with sliding roof panels, liftbacks and side-by-sides. The Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser, first offered in 1964, featured a unique raised roof with a fixed glass sunroof and glass side panels so that kids (and adults) in the back seats could have more or less unobstructed views of high-up sights on those summer road trips. This car was made famous in the new millennium by That 70s Show, which featured a 1969 model.

Then came the way-back seat. The 1960¬†Chevrolet¬†and¬†Rambler¬†wagons turned the third-row seat rearward, to the delight of kids everywhere. This was quickly adopted by other Big Three makes. The compact¬†Plymouth Valiant¬†and¬†Chevrolet Chevy II¬†wagons got them in ’61 and ’62, respectively. A foreign wagon also got into the way-back game with the 1960¬†Saab 95.

Ford‘s 1965¬†Country Squire¬†took a different tack, facing rear seating for two towards the center, as did the 1969¬†Custom 500 Ranch Wagon.¬†Mercury¬†tried this concept in 1967 before giving it up after the next model year. By the late 1960s most American nine-passenger wagons had a rear-facing back seat, and the design remained on full-sized station wagons until their demise. European makes like¬†Mercedes-Benz¬†and¬†Volvo¬†offered rear-facing third row seats in their Euro-only station wagons as late as 2018.

The 1970s

The decade started off strong for auto manufacturers, but as the 1973 Arab Oil Crisis drove gas prices to unheard-of levels and gas shortages became the norm, the fuel-hungry full-sized station wagon began to decline in popularity. New emissions regulations were also restricting the horsepower that these leviathans needed to propel themselves, so much so that in 1974¬†Ford¬†installed the biggest displacement engine ever put in a station wagon, the 460 V8, into their¬†LTD Country Squire. The downside was that even with that huge displacement it only put out a measly 195 HP, not much oomph to get the¬†Country Squire‘s over 5,000 lb. bulk down the road. In the years immediately following the embargo, sales of full-sized cars and wagons fell dramatically. The last gasp of the¬†Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser¬†came in 1977 as an intermediate after being downgraded from full-size in1973. Chrysler, Dodge and Plymouth¬†stopped making full-sized wagons altogether in 1978.

Of course, mid-sized and compact wagons were still available such as wagon versions of the Ford Fairmont and Chevrolet Malibu. As Detroit took their first faltering baby steps into the subcompact market in an attempt to stem the tide of small, fuel-efficient Japanese imports, wagon versions of the Ford Pinto and Chevrolet Vega emerged.

These wagons were unfortunately no better than their car counterparts, with their laughably shoddy build quality and underpowered four-cylinder engines, and no match for those Japanese imports that were rapidly gaining in popularity. Japan won that battle because Detroit couldn’t figure out how to build a decent small car until the mid-1980s, and even then only with help from Japanese partners.

Chrysler¬†went another route altogether and sold the¬†Mitsubishi-manufactured¬†Dodge Colt/Plymouth Cricket¬†(actually a¬†Mitsubishi Colt Galant) as a ‚Äúcaptive import‚ÄĚ in both car and station wagon versions.

Meanwhile, young station wagon buyers flocked to showrooms to buy well-built, fuel-efficient, four-cylinder wagon versions of cars like the Datsun B210 and Honda Civic, and Japanese imports in general gained a reputation for fantastic fuel economy and craftsmanship at very affordable prices.

Other European import brands produced smaller wagons like the Volkswagen Dasher (Passat in its native Germany), the Volvo 240, and various model Mercedes-Benz and Audi wagons. It seemed as though the full-size station wagon that had ruled suburban streets and summer highway travel for nearly three decades had reached the end of the road.

The 1980s

The ’80s marked the true beginning of the era of the American front-wheel-drive car. By the end of the decade only sporty cars like the¬†Chevrolet Camaro and Corvette, Ford Mustang¬†and pickup trucks remained faithful to the rear-wheel-drive concept; except full-sized station wagons. In 1981¬†Chrysler, after having financial troubles and being bailed out by the government, launched their new¬†K-car¬†front-wheel-drive platform and never looked back. They did not forget wagon buyers, producing station wagon versions of the¬†Dodge Ares,¬†Plymouth Reliant, and¬†Chrysler Town & Country¬†based on the platform.¬†GM¬†found much less success with their awful, much-maligned 1980s ‚Äúimport-fighter‚ÄĚ front-wheel-drive X-body cars like the¬†Chevrolet Citation¬†and its badge-engineered siblings.

GM¬†and¬†Ford¬†continued making mid-sized, compact and subcompact wagon models, mostly carry-overs from the 1970s, until mid-decade.¬†Ford¬†replaced the¬†Pinto¬†with the better-built, European-inspired¬†Escort¬†in 1981 and built wagon versions until 1999, four years before the¬†Escort‘s demise.¬†

More imports were getting into the game, with Nissan offering their Maxima with its powerful V6 in station wagon form and German wagons from Mercedes Benz, Audi and Volkswagen filled US showrooms. The station wagon was hardly dead, it had just shrunk in size and the market was growing.

Then¬†Chrysler Corporation¬†dropped a bomb on the automotive industry in 1984 with their¬†K-car¬†based minivan, a completely new concept in the family-hauler space. A much smaller, well-appointed van designed to haul people rather than cargo, the¬†Dodge Caravan,¬†Plymouth Voyager¬†and new minivan version of the¬†Chrysler Town & Country¬†were different, stylish, fuel-efficient and reliable. Their rear liftgates and low floors made loading groceries and cargo in the back easier and the sliding side door made for easy entry for passengers in the two rear seats, which could be removed to haul more cargo‚Ķperfect for those weekend garage sale trips, especially since the minivan’s roof was much higher than a conventional station wagon. Families bought them by the thousands and¬†Ford¬†and¬†GM¬†scrambled to produce their own versions, but the hurriedly-produced and truck-based¬†FordAerostar and Chevrolet Astro¬†could not compete with the car-based trio from¬†Chrysler.¬†Ford¬†had a ‚Äúgarageable van‚ÄĚ in the works since the mid-1970s, when Lee Iacocca was President of the company, but never produced one for sale until¬†Chrysler¬†released theirs. Iacocca was fired from¬†Ford¬†in 1978, became chairman of¬†Chrysler¬†and took the idea of a “garageable van‚ÄĚ with him. When the company developed the¬†K-car¬†to claw its way back from bankruptcy, he saw the¬†K-platform as perfect for this new type of family vehicle. The new minivan was classified as a light truck under the US¬†Corporate Average Fuel Economy¬†(CAFE) standards, meaning they weren’t held to as high a fuel economy standard as station wagons, classified as cars. Advantage: minivan.

Even after the minivan onslaught many station wagons, mostly smaller ones, were still sold. The innovation of all-wheel-drive made wagons such as the Honda Civic, Audi 5000/100/200 Quattro, Subaru Leone and AMC Eagle better winter-weather performers in Northern states, foreshadowing the explosion of the four-wheel-drive SUV market in the 1990s.

Ford, Chevrolet and Buick continued producing the full-size station wagon through the decade, with the Country Squire and Caprice Wagon sharing nearly the same wheelbase and length at almost 18 feet and the Buick Electra Estate Wagon some five inches longer. After the huge success of their minivans, Chrysler Corporation stopped selling station wagons in 1989. Their Eagle division, comprising what was left of AMC, did produce a wagon version of the Renault-based Medallion in 1988 and 1989.

The 1990s

With the dawn of the new decade sales of minivans were rising and sales of domestic station wagons were falling, especially full-sized wagons. Chevrolet re-styled its Caprice wagon in 1991, followed by the re-introduction of the Roadmaster nameplate and an Estate Wagon version from Buick the following year. The Roadmaster was, like most GM vehicles by this time, merely a badge-engineered Caprice. Both only lasted through the 1996 model year when the Caprice was restyled again without a station wagon option. The Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser, again a badge-engineered Caprice but a name that stretched back to 1972, disappeared after twenty years.

Ford‘s¬†Country Squire¬†was their slowest-selling vehicle and was only produced for a few months as a 1991 model before being quietly dropped.

By mid-decade, station wagons were beginning to be seen as passe. By the end of the decade, minivans were increasingly seen as the domain of suburban soccer moms and style-conscious young buyers were abandoning them in favor of the SUV. The perception was that the SUV was more trendy and cool and station wagons and minivans were old-fashioned, even though the latter had only existed for a decade and a half. However, there was a growing contingent of buyers who were drawn to smaller, more sporty hybrids of the wagon and SUV that had a tougher off-road stance than traditional wagons but not the aggressive truck styling of an SUV. Models like the¬†Subaru Legacy Outback,¬†Volvo V70 XC¬†“Cross Country‚ÄĚ and even the restyled¬†Audi A6 Quattro¬†began to have brisk sales. The station wagon was still there, but it was evolving.

The 2000s

Ford‘s new mid-size¬†Taurus, introduced in 1986, came in a station wagon variant and was a stalwart through the ’90s and into the next decade. It hung on as the lone American mid-sized station wagon until 2006, when it was replaced by the Freestyle crossover SUV, a market segment that would take over the role of the traditional station wagon. Buyers saw the crossover as less aggressively styled than the traditional SUV, but much more stylish than the minivan or station wagon.¬†Ford¬†also sold the¬†Focus, the successor to the¬†Escort, as a wagon from 2000 to 2007. The venerable American station wagon died in the form we knew it in the US for over 50 years with the passing of the wagon versions of the¬†Taurus¬†and its stablemate the¬†Mercury Sable, and the¬†Focus. Station wagons were still sold in Europe and other countries and European wagons such as the¬†Jaguar X-Type Sportwagon¬†were still on sale in North America until 2008.

Japanese wagons like the Mazda 6, Mitsubishi Diamante and the luxury Lexus IS300 SportCross held on until mid-decade. By then US buyers had moved on from this age-old people, grocery and luggage hauler. No American or Japanese manufacturer currently offers a station wagon for sale in the US.

We never had a station wagon when I was growing up. There were just the two of us kids, Mom loved her full-sized¬†Buick¬†sedans and Dad his sports cars, so they never saw the need. I did, however, ride in the back of several friends’ parents’ wagons on special trips to the drive-in theater or the local Dairy Queen or A&W.¬†

I owned a¬†VW Dasher¬†wagon for a while in the ’80s so I could haul shipmates who were living close by my out-in-town location back and forth to the ship, and one of the original 1984¬†Plymouth Voyagers in the mid-90s so I could haul my aging, invalid father to doctor’s appointments and just get him out once in a while. The minivan was the perfect vehicle for that task as I could fit his wheelchair in the back without a problem and move the full-width back seat to the middle to ease getting him into it. Never having had that childhood family tie to the station wagon, there was no need for me to buy one for nostalgia. The¬†VW‘s timing belt broke a couple of years after I bought it and I just didn’t want to bother with installing a new engine, but the Voyager with its plush velvet interior served me for four years before I sold it with over 120,000 miles, never having had to do anything more than change the oil despite it being nearly ten years old when I bought it.

How many of your parents had a station wagon growing up? Did you ride in the way-back seat and make goofy faces at the car behind you, or play punch-buggy or license plate bingo with your siblings on long trips? Share your station wagon memories.‚ú™

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