The editor’s opinion from Marketplace, Northeast Wisconsin’s business magazine. (Obligatory disclaimer: Most hyperlinks go to outside sites, and we’re not responsible for their content. And like fresh watermelon, peaches, pineapple, grapefruit, tomatoes and sweet corn, hyperlinks can go bad after a while.)

July 3, 2008

A wagon by any other name …

Regular visitors to this site may have noticed that Friday posts are of a somewhat lighter nature. This is a Friday post on Thursday since Friday is a national holiday (about which I will post Friday).

Readers around my age have probably had some experience with a vehicle increasingly rare on the road — the station wagon.

If you were a Boy Scout or Girl Scout, or were a member of some kind of youth athletic team, or had a large dog, or had relatives approximately your age, or had friends who needed to be transported somewhere, or had parents who occasionally had to haul (either in the back or in a trailer) more than what could be fit inside a car trunk, you (or, actually, your parents) were the target demographic for the station wagon.

“Station wagons came to be like covered wagons — so much family activity happened in those cars,” said Tim Cleary, president of the American Station Wagon Owners Association, in Country Living magazine. Wagons “were used for everything from daily runs to the grocery store to long summer driving trips, and while many men and women might have wanted a fancier or sportier car, a station wagon was something they knew they needed for the family.”

The “station wagonoriginally was a vehicle with a covered seating area to take people between train stations and hotels. (“Station wagon” sounded better than the other term, “depot hack.”) The 1923 Star is recognized as the first station wagon for sale, but the 1929 Ford Model A was the first mass-produced wagon. Station wagons held more people (up to 12, depending on the size of person, in the old Ford Country Squire) and stuff than sedans, back in the days when pickup trucks, their sport utility variants, and vans were much more crude than today. The top-of-the-line wagons featured (imitation) wood siding, recalling the days when station wagons were in fact made of wood. The first ambulances were either station wagons or converted hearses, before ambulances began to be built on truck or van chassis.

Many wagons had different names from the sedans from which they originated, sounding in many cases like suburban streets or subdivisions — Beauville, Brookwood, Kingswood, Parkwood, Parkview, Colony Park, Country Squire, Town & Country, Cross Country, etc. The full-size wagons were as large as subdivisions, too. As one station wagon fan referred to a 1973 Chevrolet Caprice Estate, "5-star crash rating, meh. This beast is the crash test BARRIER. Cruise the coast, and the tide follows you."

Station wagons once were popular enough to generate two books, The Ford Treasury of Station Wagon Living and Station Wagon Living Volume 2. The books, compilations of articles in the old Ford Times magazine (published between 1908 — it was targeted to Ford employees until 1946, when the focus shifted to Ford customers — and 1993), include advice on where to have everybody sleep in the wagon, including on the roof, plus your tailgate as your kitchen, the cargo area as child play area (don’t try that now, though), car seats and beds (use of which will get you a visit from the police and the child welfare people today), and all kinds of other activities you could do with or from your (Ford, Edsel or Mercury) wagon.

A few things stand out about the first volume: There is not one Interstate highway listed, although “our growing turnpike system” is mentioned. There are also no Zip codes. There are two Northeast Wisconsin manufacturers of products listed, Plantico Fuel and Dock Co. of Manitowoc, and Tomlee Carrier Co. of Oconto. The national and state park and forest map shows "Terry Andrae" (now Kohler–Andrae) State Park on "U.S. 141" south of Sheboygan (what was 141 between Green Bay and Milwaukee was changed to Interstate 43 between 1975 and 1981), Point Beach State Park on "SR 177" and "US 42" (actually Wisconsin 147 and Wisconsin 42; there is no Highway 177 in Wisconsin), Potawatomi State Park on 42 northwest of Sturgeon Bay, and Peninsula State Park on 42 between Fish Creek and Ephraim. The map also has U.S. 41 on what really is 141 north of Green Bay, which may have been a 30-year-old error.

I grew up in the generation that had a full spectrum of size choices (with or without woodgrain) for wagons, starting from subcompact (the late Chevrolet Vega, allegedly manufactured from compressed rust) through compact (the Chevrolet “Chevy II,” the first car I remember my parents owning) and midsize (the Ford Gran Torino, owned by a classmate of my brother’s) to full-size (including the behemoth Chrysler Town & Country, owned by the parents of a classmate of mine).

The station wagon in which I spent most of my time between ages 4 and 10 was a 1969 Chevrolet Nomad, the base Chevy midsize station wagon of the day. The Nomad’s only options were a 350 V-8, a two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission, an AM radio, a roof rack, and a power sliding rear window. My parents at some point purchased clear plastic seat covers for the back seat for ease of cleaning up after their children’s spills; said seat covers also heated up nicely on sunny days and left dimple marks on the back of their children’s legs.

I come from a long line of wagon owners. My grandfather (on my father’s side) owned a succession of midsize Chrysler Corp. wagons for his job as a traveling farm implement salesman — all base models (one even had the old three-on-the-tree manual transmission), and every one of them stuffed from back seat to tailgate up to the windows with sales literature. (Had he ever been rear-ended in an accident, he probably would have been decapitated by a flying overstuffed three-ring binder.) My grandparents (on my mother’s side) also owned station wagons; they blew my mind by, after asking their oldest grandson what color wagon they should buy (the LeMans Blue of the aforementioned Nomad), driving up in a new station wagon of that exact same color.

Fox’s “That ’70s Show” featured one of the ultimate wagons of the era, an Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser. (I had two classmates whose parents owned one.) The Vista Cruiser (and its companion Buick Sportwagon) was notable, of course, for the “Vista Roof,” which, I guess, allowed back-seat inhabitants to pretend they were on a Greyhound Scenicruiser. It was a cool touch, and not as weird as some other General Motors station wagon ideas, such as the clamshell tailgate of 1971–76 full-size wagons. (Instead of swinging down or to the side, the tailgate dropped underneath the bed, while the window was pulled into the roof. If this strikes you as Rube Goldberg-like needless complexity, you’re not alone; this person refers to it as “the ultimate ‘answer-in-search-of-a-question’ gadget of the ’70s.”) I’m a bit surprised that one of those Buick Estate Wagon or Olds Custom Cruiser aircraft carriers wasn’t used for “National Lampoon’s Vacation” instead of the “Wagon Queen Family Truckster,” based on a 1980s Ford Country Squire. (Then again, eight headlights could be termed “needless complexity” too.)

Studebaker had a wagon idea that worked better in theory than in practice. The 1963 Lark Wagonaire featured a retractable roof panel above the cargo area to carry cargo too long or tall to get into the wagon. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the roof panel leaked, and the roof panel feature also meant the third seat was not available. GMC brought back the retractable roof in its Envoy XUV, but that was discontinued after two years of subpar (as in one-third of estimated) sales.

The coolest, though not necessarily most practical, wagons of all time were built in the 1950s, beginning with the original Chevrolet Nomad. Merge a full-size station wagon with a coupe, and you have the Nomad, the Pontiac Safari, the Ford Ranch Wagon, the Mercury Commuter, the Rambler American. (Sportier versions, based on such makes as Aston Martin, Bentley and Mercedes–Benz, were known in Britain and Europe as “shooting brakes,” intended for upper-class hunters, golfers, polo players and others.) Take off the windows, and you have what was generically known as a “sedan delivery,” used by such businesses as flower shops to transport their wares.

The last of the full-size wagons — the Chevrolet Caprice and Buick Roadmaster (notice the return of the Vista Roof) — were killed by GM in 1996, when GM inexplicably gave up the entire full-size rear-drive sedan market, including police cars and taxicabs, to Ford. (GM still makes rear-drive station wagons, but in Australia, not in North America. However, Cadillac reportedly is going to sell a wagon version of its CTS sedan, which would be the first official Cadillac station wagon, although there have been some Cadillac wagons not built by Cadillac.)

Since Detroit killed off the middle- and full-size wagon (largely as a reaction to increasing fuel economy requirements), Detroit has not been successful at getting them back. Dodge’s Magnum (available with a hemi engine!) is being canceled after this year. (My neighbor has one; he likes everything about it except the limited hauling capacity and his 12 city miles per gallon.) Most station wagons are now being built by foreign manufacturers including Audi, BMW, Mercedes–Benz (would you believe an $86,000 station wagon?), Saab, Volkswagen, Volvo and of course, Subaru. The problem with these current wagons is that they have sacrificed carrying capacity for styling, so they look nice, but don’t carry that much. The closest thing to the full-sized wagon is probably the Ford Flex (in fact, Motor Trend magazine asks if the 2009 Flex is the “Country Squire for the new millennium”).

Station wagons have been largely replaced by either the SUV or the minivan, the latter which combines the efficiency of a rental storage unit with the driving excitement level of a U.S. Postal Service truck. We have a Honda Odyssey, which has six seats, power sliding side doors, and all kinds of cupholders and storage areas. If you need to get a minivan, this is the one to get.

I hate it. Or perhaps I hate what a minivan symbolizes today — you are a drone whose life does not belong to you anymore. (I would guess the I-hate-the-minivan crowd is 99.9 percent male; my wife fails to understand my attitude about minivans.) Perhaps that’s what the station wagon symbolized to our parents’ generation (most, though not all, were not very sporty); in my family’s case, the Nomad was replaced by a Chevrolet Caprice coupe, and station wagons never again leaked oil onto our driveway. Why the automakers haven’t made sportier models of minivans to get past the stigma of the cardboard box on wheels is beyond me.

I also have never been able to understand the animus toward SUVs. If you look at, say, a Chevy Tahoe, you can see that it is essentially a station wagon built on a truck chassis. SUV sales started to take off when GM (1996) and Ford (1991) terminated their large station wagons, and there are some things econoboxes can’t do, such as pull a real trailer or take your family any distance. Most big wagons weren’t exactly fuel-sippers either, but the last large GM wagons, the Caprice and Roadmaster, with the same engine that was in that year’s Chevrolet Corvette, got 24 highway miles per gallon — the same as the manual-transmission Corvette despite its superior aerodynamics.

Station wagons are making a comeback as long as you don’t call them wagons. “Crossovers” are supposed to combine the best features of minivans and SUVs (including all-wheel-drive), except that, as we now know from reading this, SUVs are nothing more than station wagons on truck frames. Ford makes the Taurus X and Edge and will start selling the aforementioned Flex; Chrysler sells the Pacifica; Dodge has the Caliber, Journey and Nitro; and there are a whole bunch of GM examples, even from Cadillac.

Perhaps my next vehicle should be one of those enormous ’60s or ’70s wagons, powered not by the emissions control-clogged engines of the day, but, say, an Allstar V-8. Trips to my sons’ sporting events would be fast indeed.

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