Monday, April 13, 2009

The Rise & Fall of the American Station Wagon

The Station Wagon
The dependable, homely wagon with kitschy wood on the side. Always in the background of every suburban neighborhood, until now, due to minivans and SUV’s, are gone. Sadly, there are currently no American model station wagons in production. The last one, the Dodge Magnum wagon was discontinued in 2008.

In the US the term “Station Wagon” is from the railroad era. Passengers and luggage/freight were hauled in horse-drawn wooden framed buggies from hotel/home to the railway station.

1929 Ford Model A Station Wagon
The “Woody”

As the automobile came to rise, ash, oak and maple wood was used to fashion bodies for station wagons and gave rise to the term “woody”. Wooden frames for station wagons were made by many different carriage makers until Fords 1929 Model A became the first mass produced station wagon. Before then, most station wagons were strictly utility vehicles owned by railroads or taxi companies, now with the marriage to steel chassis, woody station wagons quickly became popular with the public.

1950 Ford "Woody" Country Squire
With the design of Fords chief stylist E.T."Bob" Gregorie (father of the 1940 Lincoln Continental), and the encouragement of Edsel Ford, Ford woodies became the best looking of their kind. Gregorie was the first to work the woody theme with new postwar designs. Before then, woodies were strictly left to the functional aspect. Utilitarian, straight & linear with little room for style. The woody design melded well with the blended fenders and lower, sleeker shape of the 49 Ford. Despite their good looks however, woodies were noisy, drafty and costly to produce. By the early 50’s, costs exceeded profits & automakers ended the wood on steel chassis process. Station wagons continued but as all steel with fiberglass or laminated imitation wood on the sides that we’re familiar with today. Woodies are very popular among collectors today due to the low production numbers. But the wood bodies deteriorate quickly and replacement wood is costly and difficult to find.

Country Squire
Despite the demise of the woody, Ford had great success with its successor, the Country Squire. In production from 1950 to 1991, this supersized family wagon satisfied the needs of millions of families with 8-9 passenger seating, a multitude of powerful V8’s and some interesting innovations to add to their value.
1969 Country Squire concept w/club seating

1962, 1978, 1990 Country Squires
The Squire was produced for 5 generations growing in size and girth in the mid 70’s (National Lampoon’s Vacation spoofing it as the Family Truckster) but trimming down by the early 90’s. The popularity of Fords own minivans and SUVs spelled the end for the squire, and ended production in ’91.
1970 Vista Cruiser W30
Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser
The Vista Cruiser was a high line version of Oldsmobile’s family mover with a higher raised rear roofline incorporating 4 smaller “vista” viewing windows on top front and sides. This unique design feature increased overall roominess of the car as well giving the car a very modern and sleek look that other slab sided steel and fake wood sided cars were lacking. In addition to the roofline, these midsize chassis wagons had a 5” longer wheelbase than other GM intermediates, offering more room and a better ride.

Wozena Cadillac rear "fin" sketch - Wozena '58 Impala rear sketch
Peter Wozena, a GM stylist famous for his offbeat designs and wild Cadillac fin treatments, is known and credited for the famous “bubble top” of Vista (Buick Sportwagon as well). Though there is some dispute on his ideas leading to it. Looking back, its not difficult to remember the famous Raymond Lowey designed Greyhound Scenicruiser buses and see strong hints of the Vista’s bubble top inspiration. These famous aluminum sided buses had a high split level “Vista Dome" roof covering the last ¾ of the vehicle, gave excellent elevated views for riders and were popular icons of 50’s era bus travel.
Its difficult to imagine Bill Mitchell, head of GM design at the time, who had disparaged Lowey’s design philosophy, to allow one of his stylists to “borrow” so obviously from one of his most successful designs…
1953 Greyhound Scenicruiser - inspiration for the Vista Cruisers "bubble" top?
In either case, the Vista Cruiser is one of GM’s best looking station wagons of the mid 60’s to early 70’s. Over 400,000 were sold due to its styling, versatility and wide choice of power. There were even a small number of W30 Vista Cruisers made available from Hurst, essentially 4-4-2 station wagons. But by 1973, due to cost and tooling concerns, the bubble top had vanished on GM’s new redesigned mid size intermediates.

A small vista front window reappeared on the restyled wagon B bodies of 1991, but was discontinued by the mid 90’s. Due to their unique style and features the '64-'72 models are becoming more collectible as station wagons disappear from US roadways.

Chevy Nomad
The Nomad was a Motorama styling exercise lead by GM head stylist Harley Earl. With new head of Chevrolet design Clare MacKichan on board, he and Earl were instructed to liven up the stodgy Chevy line. With the Corvette already OK’d, they set out to make a station wagon (Nomad) and the fastback model (oddly named the “Corvair”) out of the new sports car, they set out to show GM management and Ford what could be done, partly as a prank. To their surprise the Nomad was a hit with Motorama crowds, and was OK’d for production. Much like the other Motorama show car, the Impala, the Nomad concept was moved to a regular car line as GM brass believed it would be more popular on a mainstream car.

1954 (Corvette) Nomad Motorama show car - Nomad show car alongside 1954 Chevy wagon
From this, the Bel Air Nomad wagon gained car features such as a stylish angled B pillar and rear pillars. Matching the theme, the side windows too canted forward with the B pillar, also a veined roof with matching rails on the rear tailgate. The ’55 Chevy was already redesigned for that year, but with the Nomads additional styling tweaks and a new V8, the new car was a show stopper. Even recognized as one of the best designed cars of the decade, the Nomad in original form, was only produced for two years, and was discontinued due to low sales. The name Nomad lived on for years on other wagon models but not with the same style or presence as the original.

One-Offs That Didn’t Make It

Camaro Kammback wagon - Firebird Type "K" wagon
GM made concepts of the Camaro/Firebird as station wagons. Both Henry Haga and Chuck Jordan in the Chevy/Pontiac studios tinkered with the idea of a kammback Camaro and Type K Firebird for the second generation cars. GM commissioned Pininfarina in the late ‘70’s to produce two prototypes. But the production cost and selling price proved too high for their target market. Deco International Corp. did offer Type K Firebird conversion kits for the car.

Mustang station wagon concept
The Mustang went through many concept models before being finalized to the shape we recognize. The Mustang station wagon however was NOT one of them. This was a concept that was contracted to Italian coachworks, Intermeccanica, but never considered as a viable direction for the new pony car. Only two (not confirmed) were created.
There are supposedly still kits to reconfigure 1965 Mustangs to this setup in the aftermarket.