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A Short History
of Station Wagons in the USA

And, why do they call them 'station wagons' anyway?

First of all, let's get this out in the open - station wagon history is not exactly clear cut, and there are differences of opinion on just what is a station wagon.  While the specific facts presented here would be difficult to argue separately, overall what you are about to read is just one interpretation of those facts.   So, with that out of the way, we start with:

In the beginning, there was confusion....

OK, lets start with some definitions - what is a 'station wagon'?  Well, the very first station wagons were called 'depot hacks' - they worked primarily around train depots as hacks (taxicabs).  The modified back ends that made them depot hacks were necessary to carry large amounts of luggage - everyone traveled by train then, remember, and you needed a car that could comfortably carry people and large amounts of luggage from the train station to home.  They were also called 'carryall's' and 'suburbans' (a name Plymouth used on their wagons until the late 1970's).  'Station wagon' was just another derivative of 'depot hack'; they were vehicles that were used as wagons (to carry passengers and cargo) from (railroad) stations.

Some people define station wagon history as starting with the 1923 Star (the first 'production' station wagon), and ending with the 1996 Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon.  This definition embodies only the classic, stretched wheelbase, rear-wheel drive vehicle, derived from a standard production automobile (usually sedan or hardtop) chassis.'s definition is actually more broad, encompassing the earlier depot hacks, and continuing into the smaller, front, rear, or all-wheel drive wagons of today.   While today's vehicles are certainly not full-sized, they continue the tradition of being built from a (sometimes stretched) sedan chassis, and embodying some form of rear tailgate.

Pre-war predecessors

While they do not meet the definition of  'standard production', the first station wagon would be one of the numerous variations of the Ford Model T chassis.  While Ford didn't build a production wagon until years later, many small independent manufacturers bought a chassis from Ford and put a wooden wagon body on it. Ford began selling this bare chassis in 1910 for $700. Which manufacturers built these wagons?  Well, there were more than a few - it was estimated that in 1909 there were 551 American car manufacturers!

We're not sure exactly when the term 'station wagon' generally replaced 'depot hack', but it was sometime between 1923 (with the introduction of the Star) and 1929, when the first station wagon from the American 'Big Three' was introduced as a Ford Model A.   By 1937, Ford became the first manufacturer to produce and assemble their own station wagon (Model A production was still farmed out to outside suppliers).   Pontiac's first station wagon was produced as a 1937 model (in the Deluxe Six series), and it's model number was 'STAWAG'.

An interesting data point: the 1941 Ford V-8 DeLuxe woody wagon was the first factory-built Ford of any kind to break the $1,000 base price barrier.

There were woody wagons well before Ford, however - there was a 1931 Dodge Series DH Six woody station wagon, for instance. The first official factory Plymouth station wagon appeared in 1938 (the P6 DeLuxe Westchester Suburban wagon, although the bodywork was still done out-of-house by U.S. Body & Forging). Chevrolet's first woody was also a 1940 model (the Special DeLuxe).

Two significant wagon milestones were recorded during this time:
- In 1938 Dodge/Plymouth introduced the P6 Westchester Suburban, the first station wagon that was classified as a car rather than a commercial truck.  This was an evolution of the earlier (1933-1937) Westchester Suburban (also built by U.S. Body & Forging Company) that was built on a Dodge 1/2-ton commercial chassis with the front clip coming from a passenger car.
- In 1941 Chrysler introduced the Town & Country station wagon, which was based on a four-door sedan (rather than being built on a separate body).  Interestingly, it was originally introduced as being a more versatile car, not a station wagon.

Post-war classics (through the 1950's)

Until after WWII, station wagons were generally regarded as commercial vehicles like trucks, and production volume was low (station wagons accounted for less than 1% of motor vehicle sales in 1940).  However, the post-war boom pushed car production levels to new heights.  Station wagons also took off in the 1950's - from less than 3% of the US production car volume in 1950, to almost 17% of the market by the end of the decade. As a matter of fact, in 1958, the top-selling body style in the Plymouth line was the station wagon.

What more can you say about the 50's?  Fins, chrome, hardtop styling, overhead-valve V8's.....everything was excess.  Many station wagons were actually high-end models, with numerous options.  By the end of the decade, the station wagon was firmly ensconced as the family vehicle of choice.  Two-door wagons (like the Chevrolet Nomad) were marketed, but generally rejected by the consumer.  Perhaps it had to do with cost...the 1957 Chevrolet Nomad (base price $2,757) was the most expensive Chevrolet that year, priced even higher than the Bel Air convertible!  The hardtop or pillarless body style wagon, however, survived into the 60's, and represented the most stylish and expensive models offered.

By the early 50's, wooden wagon bodies had disappeared and were replaced by the more practical all-steel body.  Although Chevrolet had introduced the first all-steel station wagon body in 1935 (the first Suburban), followed later by Willys in 1946, both were still built off a truck chassis (the Chevy from a panel delivery truck chassis, and the Willys off a civilian version of the Jeep).  Crosley introduced an all-steel car-based wagon during the 1947 model year (as part of their CC model line), and 1949 brought about the all-steel Plymouth Suburban station wagon (also car-based). Almost all manufacturers followed suit by 1951.  The last woodie to use a real wood on the exterior was the 1953 Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon.  The woodie look survived on, though, with simulated wood panels available on many (usually upscale) models up into the 1990's.

But the 50's also represented some of the last gasps of pure uniqueness - manufacturers were not afraid to do something different just for the pure joy of many ways there was a sense of adventure that never returned.  That is why station wagons of the 50's are held in such high regard by collectors and the general population alike.

The '60's - peaks of popularity, variety, and innovation

Ah, the 60's....Musclecars!  Longer!  Lower!  Wider!  More power!

But it started off with a new wagon phenomenon - compact station wagons.   Simultaneous 1960 wagon introductions by Ford (Falcon/Comet) and Chrysler (Valiant), followed by Chevrolet (Corvair in 1961 and Chevy II in 1962), brought new choices to the wagon market.   These compacts were in response to a new factor in the station wagon market....foreign (smaller) station wagons.

Almost immediately following the introduction of the compact wagon was the mid-size (aka "intermediate", or "senior compact") wagon - positioned, of course, between the compacts and the original full-size.   Ford's mid-size was the Fairlane (1962), followed by Chevrolet's introduction of the Chevelle (1964).

But let's not forget the original full-size station wagon, which was still in full bloom.  Numerous trim models were offered in each body style, with a almost endless list of trim and other options.  Excess chrome, big fins, hardtops, all disappeared by the end of the decade.  However, drivetrains improved radically, with brakes, suspensions, engines, and transmissions making quantum leaps in reliability and functionality.

Tailgates became an area of innovation - there were two-way tailgates, three-ways, sliding roof panels, liftbacks, side-by-sides, and other variations.  The Buick Sportswagon and the Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser introduced a unique raised roof with a fixed glass sunroof and glass side panels.

The '70's - the disappearing act begins

Try to name the defining event for the 1970's that affected the automobile industry (no, not disco), and it would be a toss-up between the first gasoline crisis in 1974, or the new, draconian emissions specifications (starting in 1972) which killed the muscle car (and engine performance in general).  Both of these events were particularly hard on the full-size station wagon.  Sales of full-size models fell dramatically in 1974-1975, culminating with the disappearance of all full-size wagon models from the Chrysler (and Dodge and Plymouth) product line in 1978.  Chrysler went on to build the minivan, and has not built a full-size wagon since.

Station wagons became available in even smaller sizes (subcompacts).....remember the Pinto?  Vega?   And for the final decade, the wagon industry was still ruled by the domestic manufacturers.  However, there were some bright spots for big wagons - the 460 V8 became available in the Ford Country Squire - the biggest cubic inch motor ever installed in a wagon.  The down side was that because of ill-designed emission controls, it only made slightly more than 200 horsepower.

Really, the '70's were best left forgotten....the disappearance of the muscle car and generally shoddy build quality (especially around emission controls), for a start.  Manufacturers eschewed continual styling changes and large cars lost ground (while Chrysler eliminated them entirely, Chevrolet and Ford 'downsized' their full-size cars in the late 1970's.)  There were really no collectible wagons after 1971, except maybe the last gasp of the Olds Vista Cruiser (1972) and the last of the big Chrysler/Dodge/Plymouth models.  I'm sure in the future there will be many varying opinions on this.....

The '80's - the minivan cometh

1984.  George Orwell wrote about it, long-time station wagon owners fear it.   While officially introduced in 1983, the 1984 model year of the Chrysler minivan put a stake into the heart of the wagon market like nothing else before it.   Instantly popular, it became the vehicle of choice for family transport.  It was said that in some ways the minivan became popular because people were trying to escape the 'mom-mobile' image of the station wagons they grew up with.

The '80's also marked the era of the front-wheel drive car.  Chrysler switched over almost entirely to FWD, for example, and rear-wheel drive automobiles became a much smaller section of the market.  Interestingly, Chrysler, while producing the minivan (and almost everything else) off the K-car platform, did produce a K-car station wagon (Dodge Aries, Plymouth Reliant, and at its woody, upscale best as the Chrysler Town & Country).  So there was a first - a station wagon and a minivan built off the same chassis.

While the full & mid-size wagons faded, the imports came on strong.  A large variety of wagons were available in almost every imported car line.  You could get a compact Honda Civic station wagon, for example, or a luxurious Nissan Maxima.  How about a VW Fox, or a Toyota Cressida?  And don't forget the tough little Subaru wagons.  High-end German manufacturers also chimed in with the Mercedes and Audi wagons (but no, no Porsche wagon).

All-wheel drive became an interesting option on station wagons during the 1980's.   Available on most Subarus, the Honda Civic (wagon only), the Audi 5000/100/200 ('quattro'), the AMC Eagle, and others, it was almost a foreshadowing of the four-wheel drive SUV craze of the 1990's.

Ford continued to hold a candle for station still produced the full-size, rear-wheel drive Country Squire, and in 1986 it introduced the Taurus wagon.  It went on to become one of the most popular station wagons ever.

The '90's - struggling to hold on (or, the year the Roadmaster died)

As a final, shining beacon, GM introduced the last restyle of its full-size, rear-wheel wagons in 1991 with the Chevrolet Caprice. In 1992, the Buick version (Roadmaster) was introduced - the final chapter in the story of full-size wagons that goes all the way back to the 1920's. The Oldsmobile version (Custom Cruiser) disappeared after the 1992 model year, while the Caprice and the Roadmaster finished things out by lasting through the 1996 model year. Why were they dropped? To make room for producing more trucks....

While the Ford Taurus wagon continued to sell well, the full-size Country Squire was axed at the end of the 1991 model year. This ended the continuous run of Country Squire wagons, which were first introduced in 1950.

Ironically, the backlash against station wagons that started with the minivan is now hitting back at the minivan - now the minivan is the 'mom-mobile', and style-conscious buyers are swarming to SUVs or sporty station wagons instead.

This decade also produced the first inklings of the ‘hybrid’ wagon/SUV - more wagon-like in styling, but with a car chassis, four-wheel drive, and a 'tougher', off-road stance. First popular as the Subaru Outback (and then perfected in the Forester), others are also jumping on the bandwagon including Volvo with the V70 XC ('Cross Country') AWD wagon. There was even a pro-wagon, anti-SUV television commercial - produced by Audi, it showed a woman struggling to get out of a full-size SUV, while another woman pulled up in her Audi A6 quattro and got in and out easily. Look closely and you will realize that Audi chose not to irritate any of the domestic SUV makers - the SUV in the ad was a LaForza, which probably only one in a million people would even recognize.

So why did the full-size wagon die out? Was the minivan enough to kill it, or was there something more complicated going on? I think the answer is fairly simple - it was the combination of the minivan and increasing truck sales. The minivan, accepted as a far more practical people mover than a full-size wagon, poached wagon sales to the point that domestic manufacturers lost interest. This, combined with a desperate need on the part of the manufacturers to increase the rear-wheel drive capacity to build trucks, spelled doom for the full-size, rear-wheel drive wagon. While this may be too simple an answer, I think is the most logical explanation.

Future - metamorphosis back to the roots?

In a way, station wagons are coming back (upside-down?) full circle. They started out with custom bodies built on a truck chassis, and are now headed back to custom truck (SUV) bodies on a car chassis (i.e. Honda CRV, Lexus RX-300, Toyota RAV4). It seems inevitable that SUV’s and minivans will go out of style at some point (there are already many signs of this), but it is not clear what will replace these vehicles. A divergence of tastes, where on one side the ‘hybrids’ lean far more towards ‘sport’, and the other side emphasizes ‘people hauling’, seems to make sense. The station wagon going forward is going to be a mix of what consumers like most about the SUV, the minivan, and of course, the traditional station wagon. What we think of as traditional station wagons will still be with us for some time, though, but more as a niche vehicle than as a full-line, mainstream model.

And finally.….

There are still a number of open questions about why people do or do not buy wagons. For example, station wagons are still very popular in Europe - there are many models that are available in Europe that are not even sold in the USA. The range of wagons is much broader, covering the whole spectrum of small to large, and functional to high-performance. Does this have to do with the fact that the minivan has not yet caught on in Europe? Is it cultural? Are the needs of car buyers so very different? I don’t really know. I do know that it is kind of a Catch-22: the USA does not get the best or widest range of wagons available, therefore wagons as a whole don’t sell well, which means we don’t get the best or widest range……well, you get the idea.

One final thought…..remember during the heyday of the American automobile (1950’s & 1960’s), the theme was ‘longer, lower, wider’?   Well, take a hybrid wagon/SUV, apply a few generations of ‘longer, lower, wider’, and maybe what you will end up with is….a 1996 Buick Roadmaster! Now that would be fitting……

Steve Manning - June, 1998

Copyright © 1998-1999  Steve Manning. All Rights Reserved
Information in this document is subject to change without notice.
Other products and companies referred to herein are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective companies or mark holders.
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