At the peak of its popularity in the USA, the classic station wagon was a four-door sedan-style automobile with an interior passenger compartment that held nine people. Three rows of bench seats went all the way to the back of the car, as did the roof, so there was no separate lockable trunk compartment. It had a drop-down tailgate at the rear for loading and unloading people and cargo. A window that would lower itself into the tailgate with a touch of a button became standard equipment in the late 1950s, when it replaced a back window was hinged to open upward.
Station wagons were pure Americana in automobile form
They were big, heavy, rear-wheel-drive cars with huge 8-cylinder engines.
During the 1960s, the typical middle-class American family had three or four kids
It’s easy for Young Moderns and Gen-Whatevers to think of the baby boom generation as old, but they were once kids, too, and they lived in a very different world. Take a look below at how during the baby boom, the national birthrate was the highest it had been in 60 years. It’s been well below that ever since. Station wagons were the ideal solution for the typical (large) American family back then and tens of millions of kids rode around in one.
But before they were automobiles, “station wagons” were pulled by horses
Unlike cargo wagons (too crude) or buggies (too small), they were purpose-built to haul travelers and their luggage to and from the train station. Station wagons were made of wood, just like the stagecoaches in John Wayne shoot-em-ups.
The first powered station wagons had wooden bodies, too
They were 1919 Model T Fords with handcrafted bodies made to carry train passengers and their luggage.
Early station wagons were custom-made by coach builders
They’d remove the body from an auto chassis and replace it with a wooden structure built by carpenters. It would be years before they added windows. Jason Torchinsky, writing for Jalopnik, says the first mass-produced station wagon is the 1923 Star.
The shooting brake
An early variant of the station wagon that was popular in England where their lordships hunted foxes and shot pheasants was called the shooting brake. Just like early station wagons, it was drawn by horses. The brake part described a special heavy wagon used to train young draft animals.
The roof of the motorized shooting brake was open so the guys with guns could stand up in the back and fire away without having to get out of the car. Shooting brakes quickly replaced elephants.
Rich hunters no longer had to traipse through fields, meadows and grasslands in search of something to shoot because now their chauffeurs drove them there in comfort and style
The wealthy took their shooting brakes with them when they went to England’s colonies in Africa and India to hunt lions, tigers, elephants, and rhinos.
Today a shooting brake (sometimes break) is nothing more than a marketing term for a 2- or 4-door station wagon
The English like to call station wagons estate cars, but then again, they call hoods and trunks bonnets and boots, don’t they?
I got a ’34 wagon and we call it a woody
That’s what Jan and Dean said back in the early Sixties when The Beach Boys and the Surf Sound were the nationwide craze. Surfers’ vehicle of choice was a old woody station wagon so they could carry their surfboards on the long roof. The last production station wagons to be made with real wood were built in 1953 because real wood cost more than plastic and required lots of maintenance. After that, it was stick-on decals made of simulated wood-grain vinyl, scoffed at by purists as shelf paper.
The first rear-facing third-row seating in an American station wagon showed up on 1957 Chryslers, DeSotos, Dodges and Plymouths. The third-row seats were accessed by a tailgate that dropped down on hinges. Riding backward took some people a while to adjust to, but my brothers and I liked it right away.
The station wagon sired two offspring
The first gas crisis of the 1970s led to Chrysler introducing the minivan, roomier than a station wagon but shorter, lower, and not as heavy. Chrysler didn’t invent the minivan, but got the idea from the 1950 VW Kombi (one of the symbols of hippie counterculture of the Sixties) and the 1954 DKW Schnellaster F89 L. What they really liked was the how the tall roof and boxy design maximized interior length, width and height.
Smithsonian says Chrysler’s consumer research had determined that to be a success, a mini-van needed three critical elements:
- It must be small enough to fit in a garage.
- The floor must to be low enough for women to comfortably drive it.
- The engine must be far enough from the driver to provide “crush space” in the event of an accident.
Soccer moms loved the sliding side door for curbside pickup and drop off
To save money, Chrysler chose to use only one sliding door on the Dodge Caravan, Plymouth Voyager and the top-end Chrysler Town and Country. Other manufacturers blindly followed their lead and put a single door on the curb side of their minivans. When Chrysler minivans got around to adding a driver’s-side sliding door, all the others copied them again.
There is no agreed-upon definition of what an SUV is anymore. Once it meant a big, tough truck with a station wagon body, rugged enough to carry a dozen lumberjacks, miners and drillers to remote work sites.
UVs were around long before SUVs
The first car-sized utility vehicles were built on truck frames with heavy-duty running gear, 4-wheel drive and roomy, boxy station wagon bodies. Examples include the 1935 Chevrolet CarryAll (later called the Suburban), and the 1946 Willys Overland. No one called them SUVs, because the term didn’t exist yet.
The first mention of “sport utility vehicle” in an ad was for the 1974 Jeep Cherokee and the industry soon followed
Most of today’s SUVs are built on car platforms and are more like station wagons and hatchbacks than utility vehicles. Some are so laughingly small they look like kids’ roller skates.
Few of today’s so-called SUVs are built on truck frames or are heavy-duty or have four-wheel drive, so what makes them SUVs?
Branding is one, but an even bigger one has to do with CAFE. Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards were enacted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration after the OPEC oil embargo of 50 years ago. The idea was to push manufacturers to commit to making cars and trucks more fuel-efficient by setting mileage standards that doubled from 14 to 28 mpg in the first 10 years. Today the fleet average standard is more than 40 mpg.
Cars are held to higher mileage standards than trucks
Manufacturers’ CAFE numbers are the average ratings of their cars and trucks. Because trucks are allowed to get worse mileage than cars, someone realized that the more cars they claimed were trucks, the less fuel-efficient they had to be. So manufacturers slapped the SUV label on everything they could get away with, which was plenty, given the savvy of the typical American car buyer. Now there are Papa Bear, Mama Bear and Baby Bear SUVs. The marketing lingo for the baby bears is crossover, a category that accounts for about half of today’s auto sales and looks more and more like a station wagon/hatchback.
The station wagon the Griswolds drove to Wally World was called a Wagon Queen Family Truckster. It was a 1979 Ford LTD disguised to make it look extra-ugly. In 2019, a replica (not even the real car from the film) was sold at auction by Barrett-Jackson for $100,000 and change.