The iconic old station wagon once roamed the neighborhoods and interstate highways. Join us as we see where wagons started and where they may be headed.
If you grew up in the 1970s, it’s possible you spent part of your summer vacations riding in the jump seats of Ford Country Squire. The seats opened up from the floor or the station wagon‘s cavernous luggage area, and every kid fought over them.
They were the throwback version of a Southwest Airlines party row. It didn’t matter that you were facing each other in the rear of the wagon, inches from the tailgate window with no seatbelts on. Being separated so far from the parents in a third row was fantastic—the joys of a station wagon.
For 40 years, the station wagon roamed the highways and neighborhoods of the US. But then the ’80s arrived. Once a status of success, the station wagon soon changed into a minivan, which then morphed into an SUV. And we lost a massive piece of Americana.
In the early 1900s, there were Estate Cars, Shooting Breaks, Depot Hacks and Kombinationskraftwagen’s. And their purpose was to take people and their luggage from their estates to the rail stations and back – today we would call them UberX. Since many people didn’t have cars or at best had a small Model T, the estate cars were a valuable commodity.
As production grew for cars in general, the station wagon became more available. Because of the increased cost to manufacture, the wealthy were the primary target market for wagon manufacturers worldwide. The British used them to drive back and forth from estates. In France, they shuttled hunters between locations and in the US, business owners were chauffeured to and from their offices. If you owned a station wagon, you were somebody important.
Since wagons were partially made out of wood, major manufacturers had to rely upon specialized coachbuilders for the passenger compartments. Seeing an opportunity for cost savings, Henry Ford soon owned a hardwood forest. He made the Model A wagon’s passenger compartment to lower the cost of production. Owning the coachbuilding process also allowed him to provide similar services to rival carmakers. Ford quickly became the big name in Woody station wagons to the rich and famous.
Authentic Woody wagons continued until the 1950s, even though Chevy and Jeep produced the first full steel-bodied station wagons in the ’30s. The last mass-produced wooden bodied station was the 1953 Buick Estate.
In the 1950s, long after Woodies first appeared, manufacturers brought the look back with popular wood applique options for their ever-growing wagon production.
After years of producing wood-sided station wagons, manufacturers eventually learned how to build hinges, locks and doors out of metal. And in 1935, Chevrolet introduced the Chevy Suburban – what many consider to be the first all-metal station wagon and built on a truck frame. It had a large amount of space and seating for eight people.
After the Suburban, Jeep designed, built and mass-produced the 1945 Willy’s Jeep Station Wagon. The American public responded with a station wagon buying spree that continued until the 1970s.
We don’t know why the wagon grew in popularity but owning one carried the image of wealthy estate ownership and adventure. Having the money for an extra car or chauffeur was a sign of wealth. But that image faded as production caught up with demand. Soon, the general public saw the station wagon as a fusion of comfort and practicality.
As automobile manufacturing continued to improve and the interstate highway system grew in America, station wagons were purchased by growing middle-class families. Family trips became easier because a wagon comfortably carried people and luggage. And, when needed, wagons were powerful enough to pull travel trailers. Summer trips became adventures and there were new places to explore.
In the US, if we can build something, then making it bigger is even better. Because of bench seats in the front and rear, many station wagons could carry nine people. And since automotive passenger safety wasn’t yet a significant focus, Ford and Mercury introduced station wagons with the fantastic party seats near the tailgate. It was now conceivable to fit 11 people in a wagon.
Manufacturers began to produce two-door station wagons and smaller four-door versions for those who wanted something different. These precursors to the hatchback sold well in Europe but weren’t as popular in the US. They did, however, provide options for those without large families.
Manufacturers felt that station wagons were here to stay.
In 1970, station wagon sales were 10% of total automobile sales with 972,212 sold. Americans had an impressive 62 station wagon models to choose from during this golden age of station wagons.
But in October of 1973, OPEC embargoed oil shipments to nations that supported Israel during the Yom Kippur war. With the oil embargo, gas prices skyrocketed, and the full-sized American sedan and station wagon disappeared. Small, fuel-friendly Japanese and European cars quickly grew in sales as the public tried to adapt to a new world.
Automakers also tried to adapt by producing smaller, more fuel-efficient automobiles that met new government gas mileage requirements. Although cars had the more stringent requirements, trucks didn’t, and the public still wanted large vehicles. A perfect storm of need plus opportunity produced the minivan. In 1984, Dodge introduced the Caravan, and the Soccer Mom was born.
Since government gas mileage standards didn’t apply to a body-on-frame truck like the minivan, Dodge wasn’t held to the same restrictions as station wagon manufacturers. Seeing an opportunity to enter a growing market, other auto manufacturers soon followed Dodge’s lead.
Soon after, America also saw the rise of the SUV. Currently, SUVs are the fastest-growing segment in the auto industry – even eclipsing sedans. Reminiscent of Ford’s ceasing production of the Taurus wagon in 2005, they have stopped selling sedans and are now an SUV and pickup company.
The last full-sized wagons produced by an American automaker were the 1996 Chevrolet Caprice and Buick Roadmaster and Ford’s Taurus wagon in 2005. Wagons are still being built, but they’re called Sport Wagons and Avants.
Currently, wagons make up 1% of car sales in the US. Still, Subaru, Volkswagen, Audi and Mercedes are among others who have carried on the tradition. In a way, wagons are becoming the anti-SUV, and, who knows …they may end up coming back. What goes around comes around.
And things may be coming around sooner than we think if recent car show introductions are any indication. Volvo, Mercedes, Porsche, Audi and BMW have all introduced wagons at car shows worldwide. The market’s need for something new to drive sales combined with the push to produce electric vehicles may open an entirely new area for the station wagon.
In a possible repeat of the early 1900s, station wagons are being marketed to the luxury car segment. With so many SUVs on the roads, some say that SUV fatigue is settling in, making way for the station wagon’s grand return. And we’re one oil crisis away from a rush to a more fuel-efficient gas-powered people hauler.
In the world of fashion, old often becomes new. The clothing styles of the ’60s and ’70s are treated as if they’re fresh and groundbreaking designs. And you can look at photos from the ’50s to see today’s suit styles for men. So, it makes sense that we may be seeing a new market for the iconic station wagon.
Families searching for adventures as they take vacation trips across the country in a station wagon may be the next new thing. Let’s hope that it happens because we’ll all be the better for it as kids fight for the jump seats.