Station wagon

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1972 Ford Country Squire

A station wagon (American usage), wagon (Australian usage, though station wagon is widely used), estate car (or just estate, British usage) or a break (French usage) is a car body style similar to a sedan, but with an extended rear cargo area.

Most station wagons are modified sedan-type car bodies, having the main interior area extended to the near-vertical rear window over what would otherwise be the enclosed area of the sedan version. A hatchback car, although meeting a similar description, would not enjoy the full height of the passenger cabin all the way to the back; the rear glass of a hatchback being sloped further from vertical, and the hatch tending not to reach fully to the rear bumper, as it commonly would in a station wagon. Station wagons also have side windows over the cargo area, whereas some hatchbacks have thick "C" pillars and no cargo area windows. Two exceptions to this rule include Rambler station wagons (1952–1962) on which the roof line subtly dipped down over the cargo area, and GM's Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser (1964–1972) and Buick Sportwagon (1964–1970) on which the rear roof section was slightly elevated and combined with four skylights; the "sportwagon" name has been popularised again in recent years by some manufacturers.

A station wagon is distinguished from a minivan (multi-purpose vehicle) or sport utility vehicle by still being a car, sharing its forward bodywork with other cars in a manufacturer's range. The popularity of the minivan in the 1980s and early 1990s is credited with the decline of the traditional station wagon.


File:Ford WoodyWagon1926.jpg
1926 York bodied open air Ford station wagon

The first station wagons were a product of the age of train travel. They were originally called 'depot hacks' because they worked around train depots as hacks (short for hackney carriage, an old name for taxis). They also came to be known as 'carryalls' and 'suburbans'. The name 'station wagon' is a derivative of 'depot hack'; it was a wagon that carried people and luggage from the train station to various local destinations.

Prior to mid 1930s, hardwoods were used by most automotive makes in framing the passenger compartments of their passenger vehicles. In automobiles, the framing was sheathed in steel which was then covered in colored lacquers for protection. Eventually, all steel bodies were adopted because of their strength, cost and durability.

Early station wagons, however, evolved from trucks and were viewed as Commercial Vehicles, not consumer automobiles. The framing of the early station wagons were left unsheathed because of the commercial nature of the vehicles. Early station wagons were fixed roof vehicles, but lacked the glass that would enclose the passenger compartment. In lieu of glass, side curtains of canvas could be unrolled. More rigid curtains could be snapped in place to protect passengers from the elements outside.

In 1922 Essex introduced the first affordable enclosed automobile, which shifted the auto industry away from open vehicles towards meeting consumer demand for enclosed automobiles. Station Wagons too, began to be enclosed, especially in higher price categories from up market automobile companies. Windows in these early enclosed models were either retractable, or sliding in nature.

Pontiac woodie

With the exception of Ford Motor Company which owned its own hardwood forest and mills specifically for the purpose of building woodie wagons, manufacture of the passenger compartments was outsourced to custom body builders because of the slower nature of the production of the all wood bodies. Companies that were major producers of wood bodied station wagons included Mitchell Bentley, Hercules, USB&F and Cantrell and other custom builders. The roofs of woodie wagons were usual made of stretched canvas that was treated with a water proofing dressing.

While commercial in its origins, by the mid-1930s, wood bodied station wagons, also known as “Woodies”, began to take on a prestige aura. The vehicles were priced higher than regular cars, but were popular in affluent communities, especially among the Country Club social set. The vehicles gained in “snob appeal” when mating the utility of the hard wood bodies to better makes of automobiles such as Buick and Packard and Pierce-Arrow.

Cachet aside, woodie wagons required constant maintenance; bodies were finished in varnishes that required recoating, bolts and screws required tightening as wood expanded and contracted throughout the seasons.

All-steel wagons

1949 Plymouth Suburban station wagon, the first production all-steel bodied station wagon based upon a passenger car; coincidentally similar to the Chevrolet Suburban; but not exactly.

Following World War II, automobile production from preexisting manufactures resumed using tooling left over from 1942. However, advancement in production techniques learned over the course of World War II made all-steel station wagons practical when automobile manufacturers switched over to new designs.

The first all-steel station wagon type vehicle in North America was the 1946 Jeep Station Wagon, based upon the rugged Jeep produced by Willys-Overland during the war effort. The Willys was a two-door vehicle, and in premium trim had its passenger compartment exterior painted in a style that evoked the light framing/darker panel design of wagons from the woodie era.

In 1949, Plymouth introduced the first all-steel station wagon, the two-door Suburban, that was based on an automotive platform. In 1950 Plymouth discontinued the woody station wagon in its line and converted to all steel bodies; and because it was too coincidental to the Chevrolet Suburban. Buick was the last automobile manufacturer to produce a station wagon with a true wooden structure in 1953.

By 1955, only Ford and Mercury offered a woody-like model; however the look was accomplished with steel, plastics and various materials, such as DiNoc (a vinyl product) to simulate broad expanses of wood. Known as the Ford Country Squire, this heavily-trimmed full-size wagon was a staple of the Ford line from the 1940s to the 1990s.

Reintroduction of woody decorated station wagons by other makers in America began in 1966 when Dodge offered the look for the first time in fifteen years. By 1967, simulated "wood" decoration was used exclusively on top line models, with unadorned vehicles denoting lower price and status models.

In many suburban communities, owning a current year woody station wagon was a sign of affluence and good taste. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the idea of "fake wood" became archaic and manufacturers dropped the option. With the introduction of the retro-styled Chrysler PT Cruiser, aftermarket firms began selling faux woodie kits designed to evoke a sense of nostalgia.

Station wagons enjoyed their greatest popularity and highest production levels in the United States during from the 1950s through the 1970s. The late 1950s through the mid 1960s was also the period of greatest variation in bodystyles, with pillared two and four-door models marketed alongside hardtop (no B-pillar) four door models. AMC's Rambler was the first to enter into this body style in 1956, followed by Mercury, Oldsmobile, Buick in 1957; Chrysler entered the market in 1960. Expensive to produce and buy, the hardtop wagon sold in limited numbers. GM was the first to eliminate the hardtop wagon from its lineup in 1959, and AMC and Ford exited the field beginning with their 1960 and 1961 vehicles, leaving Chrysler and Dodge with the body style through the 1964 model year.

1979 Toyota Cressida station wagon with optional wood paneling.

Full-size wagons

Traditionally, full-sized American station wagons were configured for 6 or 9 passengers. The basic arrangement, for seating six, was three passengers in the front and three passengers in the rear, all on bench-type seats; to accommodate nine, a third bench seat - often facing backward, but sometimes facing forward - was installed in the rear cargo area, over the rear axle. In Ford and Mercury wagons built after 1964, the configuration was changed to two seats facing each other, placed behind the rear axle. According to Ford, each seat would accommodate two people, raising the total seating capacity to ten passengers; however, these seats were quite narrow in later models and could only accommodate one passenger, limiting the total capacity to eight passengers.

Newer models are usually built on smaller platforms and accommodate five or six passengers (depending on whether bucket or bench seats are fitted in front). Because of size and safety concerns, seating is no longer permitted in the rear of new passenger car-based station wagonsTemplate:Fact, except in the now-discontinued Ford Taurus and Mercury SableTemplate:Fact, which had a small jump-seat that had room for two children. Full-size SUVs such as the Chevrolet Suburban and Ford Expedition have similar features to the aforementioned full-size station wagons; such as 9-passenger seating with bench seating in the front. Also, many people claim the SUVs to be a "station wagon" under the vehicle's registration title.

Two-door wagons

Mercury Commuter 2-door hardtop station wagon.

In 1955, 1956 and 1957, Chevrolet produced the Nomad, and Pontiac the sibling Safari, both of which were sporty two-door wagons. Limited demand for the style and their costly production resulted in cancellation after three model years. For 1958, both model names were applied to pillared four-door wagon models. Chevrolet dropped the Nomad name at the end of the 1961 model year, while Pontiac continued to use the Safari name into the 1980s. Mercury, a division of the Ford Motor Company, produced a two-door hardtop wagon from 1957 to 1960. When Mercury lost its unique body designs in 1961, the marque lost its hardtop wagons and instead fielded pillared models.

The 1970's were something of a high point for two-door wagons, as multiple manufacturers fielded an example in their "small car" lines. Between 1972 and 1980, a two-door wagon version of the Ford Pinto and Mercury Bobcat was available. A two-door wagon version of the Chevrolet Vega was available between 1971 and 1977; the near-identical Pontiac Astre offered the same body style between 1973 and 1977. Even AMC entered the market with a wagon version of the AMC Pacer, produced between 1977 and 1980.

More utilitarian two-door wagons were known as "sedan delivery" cars, often with solid panels where the rear side windows would be. These were produced in the United States into the 1970s (with panel versions of the Vega and Pinto available).

In the UK, estate car versions of the (2 door) Mini were the "Austin Countryman" and the "Morris Mini Traveller". They had 2 vertically divided van-type rear doors and were also available with wooden trim mimicking the larger Morris 1000 estate. The "Husky" estate version of the Hillman Imp was a case of a rear-engined estate.

Declining popularity in North America

2004 Mercury Sable Wagon
Ford Focus Wagon

Sales of station wagons in the United States and Canada remained strong until 1984, when the Chrysler Corporation introduced the first minivans, derived from the K platform, which, ironically, also was the platform for the Plymouth Reliant and Dodge Aries station wagon models which the minivan would soon eclipse.

The ripple effect of the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo led to the demise of the station wagon where CAFE legislation dethroned the rear wheel drive layout for efficient front wheel drive vehicles. Station wagons were the victims of Detroit's downsizing trend after 1976, and vehicle choice was limited to which SUVs like the Chevrolet Suburban and van conversions (GMC Vandura) filled the void of station wagon sales. This, indeed, led to the station wagon's demise.

The emergence and popularity of SUVs which closely approximate the traditional wagon bodystyle was a further blow. After struggling sales, the last full-size wagons (the Chevrolet Caprice and the Buick Roadmaster) in American production (until 2005 with the Dodge Magnum) were discontinued in 1996.

Since then, small wagons (such as the Subaru Outback) have enjoyed an increase in popularity in the U.S., as safer, sportier and (in most cases) much less expensive alternatives to SUVs and minivans. Domestic wagons also remained in the Ford, Mercury, and Saturn lines until 2004 when the bodies began a phase-out, replaced by car-based crossover SUVs and minivans designed to look like station wagons.

Station wagons around the world

In Europe, Australia and New Zealand, these vehicles remain popular and in volume production, although minivans (known in Europe as MPVs — multi-purpose vehicles) and the like have had some impact. Consumers understand that station wagons are lower in profile than a minivan or SUV and thus have less air resistance when driving on the highway.

As in North America, early station wagons were aftermarket conversions and had their new bodywork built with a wooden frame, sometimes with wooden panels, sometimes steel. Station wagons were the originators of fold down seats to accommodate passengers or cargo.

In the United Kingdom, station wagons are generally called estate cars or usually just estates. A very specific type, rare these days, is known as a shooting brake. These are usually modified luxury coupés with an estate car-like back fitted. They generally retain two side doors. The purpose of them, historically, is obvious from the name; they were vehicles for the well-off shooter and hunter, giving space to carry shotguns and other equipment. They have rarely been made by the factory and are generally aftermarket conversions; some are still made. Until the early 1960s many of them were built with structural wooden rear frames, making them some of the most exclusive and luxurious "woodies" ever built.

1966 Land Rover Series IIa Station Wagon

In the 1950s, the British companies Rover and Austin produced 4x4 vehicles (the Land Rover and the Gypsy respectively). Apart from the standard canvas-topped utility vehicles, both these 4x4s were available in estate car bodystyles that were sold as "Station Wagons". These bodystyles incorporated more comfortable seating and trim when compared with the standard editions (which were typically aimed at agricultural and military buyers) and together with options such as heaters these changes made the Station Wagon vehicles more attractive to private buyers. The name was alien in the UK, but was probably chosen because of the high number of these vehicles that went to export markets such as Africa and Australia, where the name was understood. Land Rover still calls the passenger-carrying variations of its Defender model 'Station Wagons'.

In France almost all station wagon models are called the Break (note the different spelling from the English shooting brake). French breaks from Peugeot and Citroën in particular were available in seven- or eight-seater "family" versions long before MPVs became known in Europe.

European manufacturers often built two-door station wagons in the post-war period for the compact class, and not four-door models, a practice that continued at Ford (amongst others) with its Escort Mk III, for example, well into the 1980s. Usually, by that time, manufacturers created four-door models.

1972 Citroën DS Break

Japanese manufacturers did not value station wagons highly until very recently. For many years, models sold as well-appointed station wagons in export markets were sold as utilitarian "van" models in the home market. This explains why station wagons were not updated for consecutive generations in a model's life in Japan: for instance, while a sedan might have a model life of four years, the wagon was expected to serve eight — the 1979 Toyota Corolla (built until 1987), and the 1987 Mazda Capella (built until 1996) are examples of this. The Nissan Avenir is an example of a model that began its life as a utility vehicle, and became a well equipped passenger car in the 1990s.

In Australia and New Zealand, the most popular station wagons are the large Ford Falcon and Holden Commodore models. These are usually built on a longer wheelbase compared to their sedan counterparts, though they share the same door skins, leading to a slightly unusual appearance with the rear door not reaching all the way to the rear wheel arch. Mitsubishi's Australian subsidiary designed wagon versions of its Magna and Verada for the local market, although it no longer offers a large wagon. Similarly, Toyota no longer offers a wagon version of the Camry.

Smaller wagons have declined in popularity, in comparison with Europe, although they have traditionally been more popular in New Zealand than in Australia. For example, the Ford Telstar was offered as a wagon in New Zealand, but not Australia, even though the mechanically identical Mazda 626 was sold in both countries.

Tailgate evolution

1963 Studebaker Wagonaire
GM promotional image for the 1971 Pontiac Safari station wagon discusses and shows the workings of GM's innovative "clamshell" tailgate found on all of their full-size station wagons from 1971 to 1976.

The vast majority of modern station wagons have an upward-swinging, full-width, full-height rear door supported on gas struts, and a few also have a rear window that can be swung upward independently to load small items without opening the whole liftgate. Historically, however, many different designs have been used for access to the rear of car; the following summary concentrates on American models.

  • The earliest common style was an upward-swinging window combined with a downward swinging tailgate. Both were manually operated. This configuration generally prevailed from the earliest origins of the wagon bodystyle in the 1920s through the 1940s. It remained in use through 1960 on several models offered by Ford.
  • In the early 1950s, tailgates with hand-cranked roll-down rear windows began to appear. Chrysler is generally credited with the first of these in 1950. Later in the decade, electric power was applied to the tailgate window - it could be operated from the driver's seat, as well as by the keyhole in the rear door. By the early 1960s, this arrangement was becoming common on both full-size and compact wagons.
  • The Studebaker Wagonaire station wagon had a unique retractable rear roof section as well as a conventional rear tailgate which folded down. This allowed it to carry tall objects that would not fit otherwise. Water leaks, body flex and noise prevented the innovation from being adopted by other manufacturers. The concept was reintroduced in 2003 on GMC's mid-size Envoy XUV SUV, but did not last long on that vehicle either.
  • Ford's full-size wagons for 1965 took the conventional tailgate and disappearing window a step further. The rear section was made to open either downwards like a regular tailgate, or like a door, outward from the curb side. The window had to be retracted for either operation. This was called the "Magic Doorgate". For 1969, Ford made another innovation by allowing the glass to stay up when the door was opened sideways, thus creating the "Three-Way Magic Doorgate". This versatile style quickly caught on and became a fixture on full-size and intermediate wagons from GM, Ford, and Chrysler. GM, however, added a notch in the rear bumper that acted as a step plate; to fill the gap, a small portion of bumper was attached to the doorgate. When opened as a swinging door, this part of the bumper moved away, allowing the depression in the bumper to provide a "step" to ease entry; when the gate was opened by being lowered or raised to a closed position, the chrome section remained in place making the bumper "whole".
  • Full-size GM wagons (Buick, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac) built between model years 1971 and 1976 brought a completely new design to market. They had a rear window that would slide upwards into the roof as the tailgate dropped down below the load floor. This was referred to as a "clamshell" arrangement. On all full-size GM wagons, the window for the clamshell door was power operated, however the gate door itself could be had in either manual on Chevrolet models or power assist in Pontiac, Oldsmobile or Buick cars. The manual style door quickly lost favor because of the effort required to lift and swing the heavy door up from is storage area; sales tapered off after the 1972 model year and electric assist all but became standard. This was the first power tailgate in station wagon history. This system was large, heavy, and complex, and was never adopted for any other car manufacturer. After that, GM reverted to the doorgate style for its full-size wagons.
  • As the 1970s progressed, the need for lighter weight to meet fuel economy standards led to a simplified, one-piece liftgate on several models, particularly smaller wagons, such as is commonly seen on SUVs today. On the same principle, and quite ironically, the last generation of GM's full-size wagons returned to the upward-lifting rear window as had been used in the 1940s.
  • In recent years, the Citroën_C5 wagon features an upward-lifting full-height full-width rear door, where the window on the rear door can be opened independently from the rear door itself. The window is also opened upwards and is held on gas struts.

See also

External links