Working backwards in the evolution of “family” cars, you have today’s SUV, preceded by the minivan, and before that, the iconic station wagon. (We’re sure there are more categories, including family vehicles drawn by horse, but we’re stopping at station wagons.)
Station wagons were not a “fad” like minivans and SUVs have become. Their origins are from the 1920, when a utilitarian vehicle was need to ferry goods and working folk from the train stations to their homes and estates.
Thus, you didn’t buy a station wagon for its imaginative design, outstanding handling, or a plethora of cup holders. You bought it for the wood paneling. Hahahaha. You bought one to lug around people and their stuff in a comfy ride.
Unlike minivans and SUVs, where kids say, ewwww, when you bring a new one home, all kids in the ‘60s and ‘70s LOVED their family’s station wagon. Why, you millennials ask? Because of the “Way Back” seat!
Conjured in 1960, Chevrolet introduced the Rambler wagon, which introduced the incredible, magical, (almost detached) section at the very rear of the station wagon where the seats faced backwards. These seats were always chosen by kids, before they even set foot outside of the house. Why, again, you millennials ask? Because that coveted third-row of seats didn’t face your parents. All you could see was the “way back” to where you came from.
In that third row, the kids had their oasis all to themselves. No wicked stares from your parents, unless you turned around. And if you did get caught doing something bad, to get to the front of the car, you had to crawl over the second row of seats, where you infant baby brother was laying flat on the sticky-vinyl bench seat, between your two older sisters. Then you had to traverse the armrest in the front seat to squeeze in between your mom and dad. Dad was always driving, and both were always smoking. And you were in the very first form of a “time out”.
Yet, when you were privileged enough to reside in the “way back” seat, you were in charge of managing all the various vehicle drivers behind you, apparently put there solely to amuse even the grumpiest of kids. The most fun of-course, was the tractor-trailer driver, who you would coax to honk his air horn buy raising your fist straight up and down making a train-whistle pumping motion.
But, I digress.
The way back seat configuration was instantly adopted by the big-three automakers in 1961. Ford, (those rebels), went a different route in 1965, and faced their “jump seats” towards each other, on the sides of the station wagon. That way kids could play with each other, (with an optional game table,) instead of torturing the driver behind them.
Station wagon rear doors was configured differently by virtually every car maker. But Ford busted out the Magic Doorgate. It could drop down like a pickup-tailgate, or open like a swinging door, when you needed to dig deep into the middle of the station wagon. Rear windows rolled down with a crank on the back of the door, until power windows squeaked onto the scene.
And somewhere in there, the glass on the sides of some station wagons creeped up to the roof-line, (see AMC Pacers,) and poof, the sunroof was born. (Mostly because AMC Pacers were ugly fish bowls you could drive.)
Now, the favoritest, coolest to all kids, tailgate had to be GM’s “Glide-Away Tailgate”, also knows as the “clamshell”, which debuted in 1971. Instead of a rear window that sild down into the tailgate, it disappeared up into the roof. And instead of the tailgate folding down, or opening like a door, it retracted into the floor of the station wagon.
GM marketed called it a great advantage to access rear cargo, even when parked in a tight spot with another car behind you. BUT, for any boy who ever got to ride in one, or even see one in action, it was the absolutely best Star Trek shuttle craft bay door ever!
Taking a trip was never boring in a station wagon, see National Lampoon’s Vacation movie, and our Fraser Fast Facts feature on the station wagon in the film.
But alas, prompted by the gas crisis of the late 1970s, Chrysler’s Lee Iaccoca launched the Dodge Caravan (minivan) and effectively killed the station wagon in a cold, harsh backstabbing. They just ceased existing as more and more manufactures jumped on the minivan bandwagon.
So, in homage to our favorite station wagons, here is our list, in no particular order, except for the miserable Wayne’s World AMC Pacer being last, (which is also a Fraser Fast Facts feature.)
Chrysler Town & Country
1941 to 2016
Before auto makers adorned their station wagons in faux wood paneling, Chrysler had the first real “woodie,” with actual wood inlay doors and side panels. The Town & Country eventually morphed into a chromed-battle wagon of nearly 19 feet in length — and by 1968 crappy fake wood paneling crept onto the sides.
Produced from 1950 to 1991
This charmer had wood doors and side panels too, when it was introduced. Its “magic doorgate” flipped down like a truck tailgate or swung open like a door. Also, at 19 feet long, and powered by a 428-cubic inch V8 engine, coughing out of a dual exhaust, the Country Squire was a beast, and sold hundreds of thousands of vehicles a year.
Chevrolet Chevelle Wagon
Produced from 1963 to 1977
The Chevelle was the muscle car anyone could drive. With a signature big-block V8 engine, the Chevelle station wagon could haul groceries, a load of railroad ties, or a locker room’s worth of stinky football players, and still beat sportier cars off the line. The wagon version was rare, but produced through the entire Chevelle run.
Produced from 1991 to 1996
The minivan was firmly entrenched in killing the station wagon by 1991, but GM took a leap of faith with the wagon-loving market and went big, building the 18-foot Shamu of a station wagon on a Cadillac frame with a 5.7-liter, 300-horsepower V-8 Corvette engine. It had a second-row sunroof, woodgrain side panels, automatic climate control, the ability to tow 2-1/2 tons, the Roadmaster was thee perfect station wagon. But, it just came too late.
Produced from 2006 to 2008
In the spirit of the Chevelle station wagon, Dodge’s Magnum hot-rodded station wagon, with a 6.1-liter V-8, 425 horsepower engine.
General Motors Clamshell Wagons
Produced from 1971 to 1976
The uber-smart Grand Safari “clamshell” rear-end design made its way onto the biggest Chevy station wagons — and so did its signature “glide-away” tailgate.
Produced from 1986 to Present Day
No one like the Taurus Wagon. Ford basically had to constantly rethink everything, and it still just couldn’t get it. They gave the Taurus front-wheel drive, a rounded, streamlined shape, and made the interior easy for a driver to feel their way around without getting distracted. But at the end of the ’90s Ford farted a blobby Taurus with super-cheap plastic throughout. It was a midsize, and then resurrected as a full-size, and ultimately, just a crappy, only-bought-as-a-used-car representation of its former glory.
Produced for two miserable years, 1975 to 1979
The AMC Pacer was a fish bowl you could drive. It was ugly, and appeared to be a lot bigger on the outside than it was on the inside. It was cheap. It had decent gas mileage. And it was rumored to float… for a while.
Fraser Fast Facts
Thinking about building a replica with an american-made engine? Fraser has the right engine ready for you!