The Last, Great, Gasp of the American Station Wagon

In 1935, Chevrolet introduced the CarryAll, which later became known as the Suburban. Based on the 1933 and 1934 model built exclusively for the National Guard units, this commercial version was guilt on the same half-ton truck frame as the earlier models but featured all-metal wagon bodies resembling the popular woodie wagons of the time. It had windows, two removable upholstered seats and room for eight people.

Chevrolet CarryAll (Wikimedia Commons)

It’s argued whether this was the first all-steel station wagon, as many considered it more of a light truck. If that’s the case, the first all-steel, car-sized wagon would have been the 1946 Willlys Jeep station wagon, which was based on the Willys-Overland jeep produced during World War II. The steel construction, of course, was far sturdier than wood and required less maintenance. And it was cheaper and less noisy.

Jeep wagon (Christopher Ziemnowicz/Wikipedia)

The Jeep wagon was the first to offer painted faux-wood trim work, mimicking the earlier wooden models. By the late 1950s, wood accents on all-steel bodies were commonplace, one of the most popular models at the time being Ford’s Country Squire with simulated wood paneling.

1957 Ford Country Squire (Josephew/Wikipedia)

After World War II, the era of summer family vacations began as many job benefits expanded to allow more time off. Car ownership became more widespread and new, government-funded highways were being built. Station wagons were there to meet the demand for family trips during the baby boom generation.

1955 Chevrolet Bel Air (screenshot from eBay)

Car companies began making larger wagons—full-sized wagons—with six and nine-passenger seating to accommodate larger families and America’s newfound freedom of mass material consumption in the golden age of tourism. These full-sized wagons had forward-facing and rear-facing third row seats that folded down for hauling luggage, groceries and pretty much anything else, along with two-way and three-way tailgates with retractable windows, along with sliding roof panels, and liftbacks for versatility. Because of the widespread availability of station wagons, and the many different styles in which they were offered, they became a product more for functionality rather than style or status.

Between the 1950s and the 1970s, the popularity of the station wagon experienced an all-time high in the United States. But by the mid ‘70s, sales declined for a few reasons. The 1973 oil crisis—in which oil prices jumped from $3 a barrel to $12—didn’t help the cost of fueling the mighty V8 engines of these full-sized beasts.

And then the minivan happened.

Chrysler introduced the first models in 1984, providing the perfect combination of the family-friendly design of the station wagon with the functionality of commercial vans and trucks. Minivans were classified as light trucks under the U.S. Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFÉ standards, which was first enacted in 1975 as a result of the oil crisis as a way to regulate the average fuel economy of cars and trucks. Station wagons, however, were classified as cars, which meant they were held to a higher standard for fuel efficiency than minivans and other light trucks. And the wagons, especially the full-sized kind, had a hard time complying. So, auto manufacturers were incentivized to produce and market larger vehicles—minivans and the eventual family-friendly SUV—that had lower fuel standards than cars. The last American full-size wagons—the Buick Roadmaster and my old favorite, the Chevrolet Caprice Classic, were discontinued in 1996.

You don’t see too many station wagons on American roads these days. What you do see among the millions of minivans and SUVS are compact and fuel-efficient, sporty and sleek. 

2014 Chevrolet Equinox (Chevrolet)

And they’re no longer called station wagons; rather, they are called sport wagons or crossovers, to avoid the embarrassing stigma of what modern-day parents remember from their childhoods.

However, were it not for the station wagon, which allowed consumers to have it all—utility, style and drivability—minivans, SUVS and even crossovers might not enjoy the popularity they do today. More than the minivan that replaced it, or the SUV, the station wagon wasn’t just a car; it was the epitome, at least for a while, of what it meant to be a modern American family.

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Charles Moss

Charles Moss is a freelance writer based in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He has written for Slate and Popmatters and writes the weekly pop-culture column Chattapop for Nooga.com.

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