|In the early 1980s a new
innovation in transportation began to sweep America's traveling families
off their feet: the mini-van. While the concept of these vehicles dated
to the 1950s (VW Kombi, then the Corvair and Econoline window vans), the
mini-van was different in that it was designed specifically to be a
family car rather than a spin-off of a commercial vehicle.
By the early 1990s, the mini-van craze
was in full swing, while another American motoring icon was quickly
fading from the scene without so much as a single "limited"
edition, or even a ceremonial "last off the line" press
release. That favorite model that has almost completely gone away is the
THE EARLY DAYS
Developed in the earliest days of
motoring, the station wagon also found its roots in the commercial
field, serving to haul passengers from the railroad station to their
destination, hence the name. The first wagons were wood bodies on a
sedan chassis, and "woodies" have long been collectible in
their own right. In just the past year, some of these models have seen
prices increase by 30-40 percent.
Woody wagons found limited acceptance
before the advent of World War II. It was after victory had come in both
the European and Pacific theaters that station wagons became an American
mainstay in the automotive industry, and in the family garage.
Wood was okay, but it required constant
attention to maintain its appearance. No amount of care could maintain
body integrity of these woodies. They loosened up pretty quickly,
especially when driven repeatedly over rough and bumpy roads.
Something better was needed.
In the late 1940s, steel-bodied station
wagons began to find their way to the car market. One of the pioneers in
this field was the compact car manufacturer Crosley. At one time this
intrepid manufacturer was the world leader in station wagon production.
In 1948 Willys introduced its own all-steel bodied Jeep station wagon
equipped with either two-wheel or four-wheel drive.
|This '48 Ford
"Woodie" still used lots of real wood. These are
quite desirable, often bringing $50k plus in nice shape.
As shown by this
attractive '52 Chevy, by the early fifties most of the wood was
gone -- this was the last year of wood for Chevy.
In June 1948, Ford started to take its
position as the "wagon-master" with its 1949 model.
Utilizing a full steel body, these two-door wagons used wood trim as
decoration. A few months earlier in 1948 Packard had brought out a
four-door "station-sedan" also sporting a steel body with wood
As the 1950's dawned, wood became
strictly a decorative item, and disappeared in 1953. In the middle of
that year both Ford and Mercury started to substitute real wood with
fiberglass railings and Di-Noc wood print paneling. At one point these
were the only station wagons on the market that even resembled their
1950s, station wagon technology continued to improve as manufacturers
realized that they were a major part of production. During this time
period, the marketing crews created many memorable names to catch the
publics attention. Chevrolet brought us models with names such as
Handyman, Nomad, Beauville, and later Brookwood, Kingswood, and the
Ford was the
market leader in wagons. The compact Falcon (this one's a
'60) was the entry model.
Ford was the wagon
master with the Ranch Wagon, Country Sedan and top-of-the-line Country
Squire. Medium-priced makes, such as Desoto, also entered the station
wagon market with the Shopper and up-scale Explorer, while Pontiac
presented the sleek Safari wagon, a cousin to the Nomad.
Just as pillar-less hardtop styling was
catching on for regular passenger cars, wagons soon reflected this
unique feature. First to utilize it was Rambler's Cross-Country wagons.
Mercury followed in 1957 with entries such as the Commuter, Voyager, and
Colony Park. Over at General Motors, mid-line station wagons with
hardtop styling came in the form of Oldsmobiles Fiesta, while Buick
produced the stylish Caballero.
In 1960, Chrysler and Dodge were the last
to introduce hardtop styling in a wagon. These cars were produced until
1964 and are perhaps the most flamboyant of all.
A number of unique features were
developed to attract new wagon buyers. Chrysler wagons featured dual-air
conditioning in the late 1950s. One unit was up front for the driver and
front seat passenger, and another unit for those in the rear. Studebaker
provided one of the most memorable items with its sixties Wagonaire
sliding roof option that opened over the rear cargo space.
The new compacts of the 1960s, Falcon,
Valiant, Corvair and Lancer were all available in station wagon form.
Later, intermediates, such as the mid-size Ford Fairlane and Chevrolets
Chevelle were released with wagons in their lineups. Notable among this
group is GMs raised rear roof panel with tinted window inserts. It
was available on some Buick and Olds models through 1972.
In the 1950s and 1960s station wagon
makers like Dodge, Chevrolet and Ford, had several models with
high-performance engines. For instance, during the 1963 model year,
Mercury produced a dozen Colony Park wagons fitted with the big block
V-8 and four-speed transmissions for the NHRA. Talk about a family
Tail- and lift-gates have evolved over
the years. In the late 1950s the liftgate was replaced by roll-down rear
glass going into the tailgate, another innovation first seen on AMC
Rambler wagons. In 1966 Ford and Mercury revolutionized the market with
its "two-way" tailgate design that could either fold down to
load cargo, or operate as a passenger door. GM one-upped this in 1971
with the "clam-shell" tailgate on its full-size wagons, in
which the back glass rolled up into the roof while the lower gate
portion disappeared into the rear floor. Although stylish, it did
sacrifice some usable cargo space and no one else felt compelled to copy
it. It also developed more squeaks and rattles as the vehicle aged than
a conventional tailgate.
Station wagons in the collector car
market are just now being discovered. "Woody" wagons have long
been honored, and the sporty 1955-1957 Chevrolet Nomads have been sought
after for over twenty years. Now, other station wagon models are
starting to catch collector's eyes. Other than the aforementioned
woodies and Nomads, these are mostly at the beginning of the
appreciation curve. Although most any wagon can be collectible, our
favorites for ownership enjoyment and future value appreciation are:
- Ford Country Squires up to 1970.
- Big, flashy 50s, 60s and even early
70s Chryslers, Mercurys, Buicks and Oldsmobiles. Especially the
- Early 60s Dodge Lancers and Plymouth
- Studebaker Wagonaires
- Intermediate GM models with the Vista
- Special editions (or regional models)
of a standard model that where produced in limited quantities.
- Early 1970s AMC Hornets, particularly
with the 360 V8.
- Early 1970s Pinto Squires, Chevy Vegas
(believe it or not!).
|Sixties and early
seventies Oldsmobile and Buick intermediates with the raised
"Vista" roof are very popular.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Unlike many convertibles and hardtops,
once the family was done with the "old station wagon", they
weren't relegated to the used car lots in the same manner. Dad may have
kept the Vista-Cruiser for those weekend fishing trips, or a local
one-man painting crew would take over ownership of the Country Sedan as
his portable office.
Aside from typical body rust and damage
problems which applies to all vintage tin, station wagons seem to
possess a pretty good survival rate. One weak spot for many models from
the 1950s is the fit of the lift and tailgates. The 1955 to 1957
Chevrolet Nomads, as well as their Pontiac Safari counterparts, are
known for their less than weather-tight lift gates. Other wagons with
lift gates experience shakes and rattles due to worn fittings and tired
Spare tire storage on many models was
under the a rear cargo area panel, or in a special container in the
quarter panels. These should be checked as potential rust pits. Standing
water due to clogged drain holes is quite common here.
Wagons in need of restoration are a tough
job to tackle. However, thanks to several suppliers many woody wagons
have replacement kits for just one panel or the whole body available.
For those cars using the wood-transfer decals, several companies are
starting to produce generic varieties. While this works for many models,
those with unique grains or colors will require more research, money, or
innovative restoration skills. Sometimes youll need all three! So make sure you know not only which engine and transmission
combinations were available -- the proper colors and materials used in soft and exterior trim are important, too.
In recent months, a number of station wagons with a real collector
interest have been showing up at vintage and classic car auctions. Their
prices have seen a steady increase in both the asking side and the
selling side. Still, station wagons havent been as common on the
auction block or in the pages of hobby publications due to their
scarcity. This is where value guides come in handy.
Station wagons can be one of the best
bargains in vintage Detroit iron. Those equipped with real wood trim are
experiencing solid growth as the popularity of these models drives the
prices upward. Finding equal popularity are those wagons equipped with
faux wood trim such as Ford Country Squire, Mercury Colony Park, or
later Chevrolet Kingswood Estate wagons. Discovering a wagon still with
the original family can be a treasure, and many have been maintained
with proper care their entire life. Nostalgic references are being
constantly made to old station wagons, such as the Fox-TV sit-com,
"That 70s Show", usually in the context of the stigma of
driving a "moms" car.
NOT FOR EVERYONE
Station wagons are a special segment of
the hobby, and fans of these forgotten haulers are growing. They offer a
wide variety of desirable characteristics. Just like their coupe and
convertible siblings, many are big,
|This '56 Dodge Sierra is a rare
alternative to the Nomad, bargain Pontiac Safaris are readily
available. This is a '57.
powerful, and flashy with gobs of style. They also make a great vintage car for touring. Pack the family and
all their gear, and you’ll discover the copious
cargo and people carrying capacity of the classic wagon. Even the newest
computer generation can get into the swing of things on the web at
http://www.stationwagon.com, a site dedicated to station wagons from all
over the world.
(C) Copyright 1999-2001 VMR International, Inc. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared