Time & Place For a Comeback??

Can The Station Wagon Ever Reappear?
1958 Chevrolet Station Wagon
We’d like to believe that nearly everyone over the age of 35 today has at least one memory of riding in a station wagon. Long thought of as “Mom’s car” or “the family outing car”, station wagons were found in most driveways of American homes for nearly four decades. Long before the rise of the minivan and SUV, the station wagon was the way to go for people-hauling in the USA. During the 1950’s and 1960’s you could order most American models in wagon form – and one of the most iconic was the Chevy Nomad
1955 Chevrolet Nomad Station Wagon

Introduced in 1955 the Nomad wasn’t a typical four-door wagon – it was an attractive two-door with a roofline to match its sleek, finned profile.

1922 Passenger Wagon
Between the 1920’s and 1940’s, station wagons evolved from small wooden buses to wood-trimmed utility vehicles that carried people, luggage, and recreational gear at rural estates, country clubs, and private schools. Strong demand for used "woodies" among postwar, middle-class families alerted manufacturers to a larger market. Sedan-type styling made the station wagon look at home in suburban driveways. Imitation wood decals preserved the rural, elitist look of the 1940’s.



Prior to WWII, the station wagon was quite a different vehicle than afterwards. They were essentially custom-bodied vehicles, built on a small scale either by outside suppliers or in special shops by the manufacturers. They were expensive, and used primarily for commercial purposes, as in the original meaning of the word: a wagon to meet passengers at the train station and take them to their hotel or lodge.
Buick "Woodie" Estate Wagon
Prior to the war, station wagons were not bought by typical families, and their production numbers were low. Increasingly, the fine joinery and varnish of wood-bodied vehicles became the province of the affluent–just not as their daily drivers. Strictly speaking, these woody wagons were more like trucks, and often built on the light truck or commercial chassis.
1942 Chrysler "Town & Country" Barrell Back 9-Passenger Station Wagon
Chrysler’s 1941 Town and Country changed all that. Boyertown Body Works, first doodled a sketch of a jaunty wagon that was titled “Town and Country”. At the time, virtually every city-dweller who was well-off had a place in the country, and here was a vehicle that would look smart in both places and on the drive between them. Although the T&C was a short-lived fad, it anticipated several trends; as SUVs and CUVs which were still decades away
1946 Willys Jeep Station Wagon
The 1946 Willys Jeep Station Wagon was the first family-sized all-steel production wagon. Although it was a bit out of the mainstream, and was not a big seller, it did expand American’s idea of what a modern, multi-purpose wagon could be.
1947 Chevrolet Station Wagon
In the immediate post-war era, other than the Willys wagon, station wagons were still old school woodies, and not at all a common family vehicle, if for no other reason than the fact that its woodwork required annual maintenance to keep it looking half-way decent. They were typically three-row wagons, with a capacity of up to nine, and were the functional equivalent of a van or Suburban. And they commanded a hefty premium: even a basic 1947 Chevy wagon listed at nearly 50% more than a four door sedan.
1949 Plymouth Suburban All-Steel Wagon
The 1949 Plymouth Suburban all-steel wagon changed everything. It was built on a short 111-inch chassis and only had two rows of seats. But it was much more suited to the realities of the typical family, and it made the station wagon a true household word. Strictly speaking, Chevrolet offered both an all-steel and a Woodie version of their ’49s, but the steel version was so much more popular that the Woodie was dropped mid-year. 

Genuine Woodie wagons would persist for a few more years, and Ford’s ’49 had a steel body with plywood overlay, but the writing was on the wood: it would soon become an affectation, and one that had surprisingly long legs.

1951 Nash Rambler Custom Wagon
The wagon’s appeal beyond its utility was also confirmed in the first compact wagon, the 1951 Nash Rambler, which was only sold in as the high-trim Custom Wagon, and priced above larger low-trim wagons from the Big Three. 
1968 Ford Country Squire Station Wagon
But it was the full-size wagons, like this 1968 Ford Country Squire, that most fully embodied the ideal of the American wagon, along with the American family: upwardly-striving, image-conscious, and appreciative of plenty of stretch out room for everyone, at home or on the go. The world was rapidly changing in 1968, but the big station wagon remained a pillar of solidity and constancy.

VW tried hard to break the mold of the classic station wagon, and even called its VW Bus ‘Station Wagon’ for years. And although the VW bus was in many ways different than the minivan to come, it can rightfully claim to having paved the way for its rapid embrace.

1960 Volkswagon "Bus"

And that was not just because of the intrinsic practicality of the VW bus; a lot of it had to do with image. The VW bus came to represent the rebellious 60's more than any other vehicle, and even though the rebellion may have been very short-lived or superficial for most boomers, a streak of rebellion would color many of their lifestyle and consumer choices from then on.
1984 Plymouth Voyager
It wasn’t a coincidence that Chrysler used long-haired magician Doug Henning to introduce their new 1984 Plymouth Voyager minivan. Despite the fake-wood, the minivans were aimed directly at the new crop of boomers who were hitting their peak fertility years. The same kids who had grown up riding in the back seat of a Country Squire were now ready for something different. And Chrysler was there to sell it to them, by the millions. Welcome the term: the "Soccer Mom's Taxi"...

In the heartland impact as a consequence of rising fuel prices and CAFE regulations spurred a huge shift to trucks as personal transportation, both pickups and truck-based SUVs. It left the traditional wagon looking a bit old-fashioned, despite its still considerable capabilities, especially once the worst of the performance penalties of the early-mid 80's were overcome.


Station wagons are a rare breed today.  Yes, they are still available globally, but are not readily sold in the US. But station wagons were cool, and with good reason. Their boxy rear ends mean that they're immensely practical. Usually based on sedans, they would get better fuel economy than tall, non-aerodynamic SUVs. Most important, they're not pretentious like SUVs with their off-road, rough-and-tumble appearance. Growing up in the growing suburbia towns after World War II as an active family of seven kids, the station wagon were the only practical forms of conveyance.
1967 Ford Country Squire Station Wagon
Sure, station wagons primarily utilitarian in function – how to move an entire family from point A to point B easily and with some sense of peace and tranquility for the vehicle’s occupants. Suburban families found countless uses for their station wagons: taking children to school, picking up lawn and garden supplies, carrying home project materials (you could actually carry a 4’ x 8’ piece of plywood in a station wagon), and enjoying day trips and vacations. The station wagon quickly became a symbol of family activity and intimacy in the outdoors. It served as a mobile living room at drive-in theaters, a mobile dining room at drive-in restaurants, and a home on wheels during camping trips. Then too we shudder to think how families flirted with disaster in those pre-safety-conscious days. On long trips, parents would fold down the wagon's seats and outfit the passenger compartment with pillows and blankets, where the kids could/would slide around, un-seat-belted. Keep in mind, the typical American family consisted of more children than in today’s family.

In 2015 half of Americans (48%) said ‘two’ was the ideal number of children for a family to have, reflecting a decades-long preference for a smaller family over a larger one.

But that hasn’t always been the case, according to Gallup. In 1971, there was a shift in attitudes, as Americans’ “ideal” family switched from four kids (19%) to two kids (38%), with a mean saying 2.9 kids was ideal. Back in 1936, the mean ideal number of kids was 3.6, with 22% saying four children; 32% saying three children; and another 32% saying two children. Fast-forward from the 1930s to 2013, the most recent data available, and you get a different picture, with 2.6 as the mean ideal.


So what did that have to do with the demise of the family station wagon?  Likely quite a lot! Smaller families meant the need for large vehicles was no longer there. American buyers first turned away from station wagons during the 1973 oil crisis. Their extreme length, emphasized by long rear overhangs to accommodate a third seat, made them natural targets. In the 1980’s, minivans came along and stole the people-mover business.


And, not to blame the birthrate entirely, one can easily suspect government regulations entered the picture and twisted reality all to pieces. Every passenger car and light-duty truck (SUV or pickup) sold in the United States must comply with emissions regulations set forth by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 1990, the Clean Air Act was amended to define federal emissions standards that took full effect in model-year 1996. These were known as Tier 1 standards. Today, Tier 2 defines the current set of federal emissions regulations and requires that vans, pickups and large SUVs be subject to the same emissions regulations as passenger cars.

The rules and regulations surrounding the phase-in period of Tier 2 are hugely convoluted. Basically, all vehicles up to 8,500 pounds GVWR (Gross Vehicle Weight Rating) are now subject to Tier 2 standards, which are "fuel neutral," meaning the standards are the same whether a vehicle uses gasoline, diesel or any other fuel.


So, in retrospect, fuel economy, exhaust emission standards, and differences between automobile and truck chassis design and strength – as well as the smaller family size - all played a part in the general demise of the family station wagon.


So, what does this means for today’s Collector and Classic Car enthusiasts?


Many of those same “ugly duckling” station wagons are now considered as things of beauty as today’s Collector Car market matures and gets older.  For sure, the desire to own a classic wagon is held by those who rode in them as kids. The increasing popularity of the suburban family haulers is reflected in rising sales for popular models, with Hagerty seeing a 46 percent rise in quotes for classic station wagon insurance so far this year. 


Hagerty’s most-recent market graph shows which models experienced the greatest interest in 2015. The list is dominated by big wagons from U.S. automakers. Classic station wagons have a certain appeal for today’s enthusiasts that may not have been readily apparent when the cars were new. They’re often rarer than their standard sedan or coupe counterparts, and depending on who you ask, they often have a more elegant look to them as well.
Source: Hagerty
As the classic car market has grown, wagons certainly haven’t been left behind, and great interest has been shown this year, with a 46 percent increase in the number of quotes during 2015. “This corresponds with both an increase in values and a greater number of examples coming to market, as over the past five years, Hagerty Price Guide values have increased by 16 percent overall for station wagons, and the number offered at North American collector auctions has increased by 18 percent,” Hagerty reported in a news release.

According to Hagerty, the growing desire for station wagons was prompted by their rarity compared with coupes or sedans of the same models – which sometimes results in more-attractive styling – as well as the practicality of wagons for classic car road trips.

Eight of the 10 station wagons on the list are General Motors or Ford models from the 1950s through the ’70s, with two European wagons making the list. That most of the 10 most popular station wagons are American classics should come as no surprise given the popularity of wagons among American families for so many years. 

There were many great American wagons manufactured during the ’60s and among the most memorable were the Chevy Nomad, the Ford Country Squire, the Chevrolet Caprice and the Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser. They were the classic family haulers, and like most wagons if you checked the right boxes when ordering one, it could be had with the same powerful V8 engines that powered the muscle cars of the era. Don’t forget the woodgrain either.
Chevrolet Caprice Classic Station Wagon
Being the last of the traditional American station wagons, the Caprice and Roadmaster are now looked upon fondly by hot rodders and customizers. It also helps that they could be had with an LT1 small block similar to the one used in the Corvette and Camaro. Production ended in 1996.
But that didn’t mean the end of the American wagon. In 2005 the Dodge Magnum hit the market, acting as a wagon variant of the new LX platform Chrysler 300 sedan. Unfortunately, production ended in 2008.

So here is a celebration of some of the best station wagons over the years. Let's hope they make a comeback soon.


1. Ford Country Squire, 1950-1991 

In the 1950s, the station wagon became a staple of America's new suburban landscape and a ubiquitous extension of the suburban home. In the years immediately following World War II, most American auto makers had their hands full restarting their passenger car production lines and Ford was no exception. Their 1946-48 offerings were simply prewar models with little more than cosmetic changes. The 1949 model year, however, brought the significantly improved “New Generation” Fords. Taking the place of the four-door woodie was a two-door, steel bodied station wagon with “woodie” trim, requiring 85 percent less wood than its predecessor.  

The Country Squire was a long-running Ford nameplate, with seven generations spanning four decades of full-sized wagon greatness. The first generation started the "woodie" tradition with the paneling on the sides and easily evokes images of the Beach Boys and surfboards. The decorative paneling was a highly desired option that lasted all the way until the Country Squire was phased out in 1991. These behemoths had tons of space inside and could fit the whole family and their stuff in comfort. 

Hollywood car guru George Barris (the creator of the Batmobile) used the Country Squire as the basis for the infamous "Family Truckster" in 1983's National Lampoon's Vacation, cementing the Ford's reputation as the ultimate family mobile. Ironically, some believe the “Family Truckster” actually contributed to the publics avoidance of full-size station wagons in favor of minivans.  But the traditional American wagon’s image suffered, and it was increasingly seen to be associated with older or conservative folks. Or just those a bit out of it.

2. Chevrolet Nomad First Generation, 1955-1957 

The first generation of the Nomad Related to the equally iconic Chevrolet Bel Air, the 1955-57 Nomad was a stylish two-door wagon introduced during the reign of legendary General Motors designer Harley Earl. Today this generation of Nomad is extremely collectible due to the brief run of the desirable two-door model, and restored versions rack up big bucks at classic car auctions all over the country.

3. Volvo 200 Series, 1975-1993 

When you think "station wagon," chances are "Volvo" might be among the first names that come to mind. The Swedes have always been famous for their boxy, safe and practical wagons. Everyone knows someone who had a Volvo wagon and they are frequently passed down through families as that perfect "first car" that's as tough (and as slow) as a tank and just the right amount of un-cool. Wagons were part of Volvo's DNA. 

As the story went, the reason Volvo sedans looked so boxy is that designers would style the wagon first, and then cut off the tailgate and add a trunk. Despite its brand image for safety and solidity, Volvo was behind the automotive curve for decades. With annual sales of fewer than 400,000 cars, it failed to enjoy the scale needed to support R&D or frequent model changes. Volvo, the company most associated with station wagons for the last 20 years, announced it will stop selling wagons in the U.S. The market has left them.

4. Toyota Tercel 4WD - Second Generation, 1982-1986 

This angularly styled Japanese creation looks dorky, but it was a tough little wagon with a modicum of off-road capability thanks to its four-wheel drive. Honda, Mitsubishi, and Nissan had their own tall 4WD wagons in the '80s too, but the Tercels are the only ones you'll still see around with any frequency. 

5. Mercedes E-Class Wagon - W124 Generation, 1985-1996 

In the '90s, Mercedes was at the pinnacle of its prestigious reputation for quality. The W124 generation of the midsized E-Class was well known for its impeccable build quality and no-nonsense, rectilinear styling. Twenty years later, these cars are still in use all over the world. The wagon version was especially practical with its rear-facing third-row seats and huge cargo area. 

6. Subaru Outback 1994-present 

1999 Subaru Legacy Wagon
Despite its organic, rustic-dirt-road stereotypes, you can thank the Outback for saving Subaru. In the mid-'90s, station wagons were undesireable vehicles SUV's were gaining popularity and acceptance. To support sales of its Legacy wagon, Subaru pulled a fast one on the automotive market, raised the wagon a few inches higher off the ground, slapped on some tough-looking body cladding and called it the Outback. 
1995 Subaru Outback
The trick worked and the Outback quickly became Subaru's best-selling model. Almost 20 years later, Subaru doesn't even offer the Legacy wagon in the U.S. anymore, and the Outback still sells like hotcakes.

As the 1956 Dean Martin song reminded us, "Memories Are Made of This..."

Enjoy your memories of your station wagon experiences...

You may want to read our special three part series on "Two Door Wagons"
Part One
Part Two
Part Three 
 

The Garagistry Team

Special thanks to Andrew Newton, Bob Golfen and Amos Kwon for their contributions to this article.


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