TCS Daily


No Respect: The Strange Life of the Station Wagon

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - August 23, 2004 12:00 AM

Back in the horse-and-buggy era there was a very useful vehicle that met folks at the train station to take them to their homes or hotels or wherever they were going. It was a wagon with open sides, a flat fabric roof and two or three rows of seats bolted on its bed.

It was called, appropriately enough, a station wagon.

It was not an elegant, lacquered carriage, a sporty buggy or a hansom cab. It was a mundane workhorse of a wagon dedicated to the task of hauling people to and from the station.

Once the motor car elbowed old Nellie out of the way, folks still needed to be picked up at the station. So, motorized versions of the station wagon began to appear. These were usually wooden, wagon-type bodies bolted onto an automobile chassis. One of the first and most successful was the Ford "Depot Hack," an open, high-roofed body fitted to the 960-pound chassis of a Model-T (the civilization-changing "T" was introduced in October 1908).

Ford's Depot Hacks and those of other imitators were virtually custom-made vehicles, the bodies usually supplied by outside firms. Dodge Brothers, for instance, famed for producing the first all-steel car bodies, had handsome wooden station wagons built on their chassis in the early 1920s. They were called Suburbans.

Station wagons remained largely commercial vehicles until they came into their own in the 1930s. They were bought by ranchers in the southwest as a utility car, or purchased as a "Saturday car" by growing numbers of suburbanites. The wealthy used them for hunting and fishing and cruising around their estates.

Wagons achieved a kind of sporty élan and were often seen in movies. And because of their custom wood bodies they were frequently among the most expensive cars in a maker's line. But they were drafty, creaky and prone to rattles. They required extensive maintenance to keep all that varnished wood from succumbing to the effects of rain and sun.

By the mid-30s Ford was the leading station wagon maker. As wagons became increasingly popular, Ford saw that a significant amount of business was going to cabinet-making and woodworking firms that were turning out bodies for various manufacturers. So the company became the first to build its own station wagon bodies, at a vast woodworking plant in Iron Mountain, Mich., which was opened in 1928. The company also bought up tracts of forest land in northern Michigan to assure a steady supply of maple, birch, gum and basswood, the principle component woods for the bodies.

Ford insisted on knot-free, straight-grained wood for structural parts and panels and the level of workmanship on these bodies was a thing to behold. A superb representation of Ford's perfection of its wagon bodies (most of which were attached to chassis at its Chester, Pa. plant in those days) is the 1935 Ford station wagon. This is a rare classic representation of the breed and one of the cars that came to define the term "Woodie."

Slowly, manufacturers added basic amenities to their wagons, such as roll-up windows in the rear doors, nicer leather in the seats, more detail on the inner door panels. But in the era of all steel bodies, these angular vehicles with their wooden doors and frames and rubberized fabric roofs were becoming more a statement of rugged fashion than of practicality.

In 1941, Chrysler introduced a vehicle that foreshadowed the modern station wagon and broke away from the square-rigged look of the 1930s. This was the Windsor Town & Country Wagon, which came in 9- and 6-passenger versions. It had a sleek steel roof and sedan-like rounded lines, even in the woodwork. The rounded tailgate doors opened like a clamshell. Although wood did play some structural role in this Chrysler, it was the first break toward all-metal bodies with wood affixed merely for decoration.

Only 2000 of these decidedly stylish vehicles were built before World War II interrupted American automobile production. They are today one of the rarest collector cars. Only a handful were built after the war and they were overshadowed by Chrysler's superb classic wood-sided Town & Country convertibles of 1946-48.

But the Chrysler wagon had an important effect on station wagon development after the war. Nash introduced a 1947 Ambassador "Sedan Suburban" that was essentially an expensive wood-trimmed sedan. Even stodgy Packard came up with a "Station Sedan" in 1948, a sleek vehicle with ash panels fitted to the all-steel body.

But station wagons were still largely big, boxy second cars for the well-off. Chevrolet's massive, 1947 Fleetmaster wagon, for example, was the most expensive in the line ($1893) and sold less than 5000 out of a total Chevy production of almost 700,000 vehicles.

They could look classy, too. I remember the Buick woodies from the late 40s until the mid 50s as particularly beautiful automobiles, with their magnificent woodwork. But hanging wood panels on already heavy bodies made for hefty vehicles. The 1948 Buick Estate Wagon weighed 4460 pounds! It cost a thousand dollars more than the top line Roadmaster sedan. No wonder only 350 were built.

In 1949, Ford, still the leader in station wagon production, introduced a beautiful steel-roofed wagon with its new body style. It was available only as a two-door model. But the era of the true wood wagon (with wood as part of the actual structure of the body) was fast dying. A rare collector's item today, for instance, is a 1949 Chevrolet wood bodied station wagon, because half way through the production year Chevy switched to an all steel wagon (with wood grain decals).

In that same year, Plymouth hedged its bets, selling a deluxe woodie wagon at a hefty price of $2372, and an all steel "Suburban" wagon for $1840. Plymouth sold 3443 of the wood models and more than 19,000 of the steel ones. The impetus for the all-steel wagon had come in 1946 with the introduction by Willys Motors of the new Jeep station wagon. The squared-off, no-nonsense look of the Jeep wagon (available in deluxe versions with wood-grain decal panels) and the huge reputation made by Jeeps in the war made this wagon a solid seller.

The last great hurrah of the wood wagon to my mind was the truly magnificent Buick Estate Wagon of 1953. The few survivors that show up at antique car shows today are breathtaking. The mating of the superb woodwork with the beautiful Buick body of that model year is the epitome of the melding of sedan and wagon. The interiors were sumptuous. But these were low production, very heavy, very expensive automobiles.

Meanwhile, Ford was setting the standard with its top line Country Squire wagons, with their very detailed wood grain decal panels that looked very much like the woodies of old.

Almost imperceptibly, in the 50s, the role of the station wagon changed. This may have partly been due to the demise of large 8-passenger sedans (see our earlier article "Year of the Car?") and partly due to the fact that the all-steel wagons were more affordable.

Ads showed station wagons packed with luggage carrying "mom, dad, junior and sis" off on vacation, or being loaded with groceries by some smiling kid while a stylishly-dressed housewife looked on. Wagons became family cars. And as such, they lost mucho esteemo among the automobile buyers of the future -- teenagers, and particularly boys.

And as big American station wagons lumbered on into the 1960s and '70s they suffered from what might be called DLOC -- deadly lack of coolness. The easiest way to define this is simply to imagine that you've talked Dad into letting you use the family car for a date. But the car is a squat, many-windowed, tailgated, stodgy station wagon and, worse, when you pull it into the parking lot at the local burger joint the only open space is next to a red '57 Chevy Bel Air convertible.

There were still attempts to build "glamour" wagons. American Motors introduced "hardtop styling" (no window pillar between front and rear doors) to its Rambler Custom Cross Country wagon in 1956. In doing so they stole a march on General Motors, which had similar styling in the works for some of its 1957 models. A stunning example was the Buick Caballero wagon with its sweeping chrome side spears. Other fancy GM wagons of the period were the fabled Chevy Nomad wagons of 1955-57, and their design cousins, the Pontiac Safaris. Neither of these exceptionally styled autos sold well in their day, but now are sought after collector cars.

The advent of the minivan cut into station wagon sales, but minivans also soaked up a lot of the "uncool" reputation of the wagons. Nonetheless, station wagons rolled on into the '90s, selling fewer and fewer units. The "bulgemobile" styling of the big GM wagons -- the 1991 Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon, for instance, or the Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser of the same year -- marked a sort of last gasp of the big rear-wheel drive station wagon.

A strange lack of respect for station wagons continues to this day. Nobody seems to want to admit they are selling or buying station wagons. (It should be noted here that what characterizes a station wagon from, say, a small SUV, is the fact that the wagons are built like cars, while SUVs are built like trucks. By that we mean that the wagons have a single rigid "unitized" structure incorporating floor pan, chassis and upper body. Light trucks and SUVs, on the other hand, have a separate body bolted onto the frame.)

But there are some fine wagons available today, incorporating new suspension technology and lessons learned in body integrity as well as fit and finish. The Chrysler Pacifica is an unfortunately underrated but excellent example. And the PT Cruiser has proven itself an extraordinarily versatile, head-turning and useful little wagon. The new Chevrolet Equinox, or the Toyota RAV4, are two examples of "small" or "crossover" SUVs that are, truth be told, car-like station wagons.

My personal vote for a real gem of the genre is the Volkswagen Passat, a sleek and stylish wagon with excellent performance and unexpected roominess and fuel economy. But for in-your-face edge it would be hard to beat the new Hemi-powered Dodge Magnum. It looks a little like a hot rod armored car custom built for some imaginative gangster and it definitely can plaster you to the back of your seat when accelerating onto the freeway.

Around the time I was finishing this piece Warren Brown, the down-to-earth and always entertaining automotive editor of the Washington Post, noted the industry's ambivalence about these cars with the extra room in the back, and condemned "all nomenclature ruses designed to fool buyers into thinking they are getting something more exotic than a station wagon."

Whether it's from those who are running away from minivans or those who have been browbeaten into self-consciousness about SUVs, there seems to be a growing interest in this, one of the oldest iterations of the automobile. Maybe the industry should simply break down and embrace this interest by harking back to the wagon's long heritage.


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