Scanning Around with Gene: Let’s All Pile in the Station Wagon!
Until Chrysler introduced the first mini-van in 1983, most American families with more than two kids probably owned a station wagon at one time or another. In some ways the station wagon exemplified the American auto industry in its heyday -- big, heavy, and hard to park. But we loved them as kids, and piling in the station wagon often represented a fun family outing, whether the destination was the ice cream parlor on a hot summer day or a long road trip where sleepy little ones could curl up in the way back for a nap.
Station wagons weren’t just automobiles; they were often extensions of the home. Big enough to transport a lot of gear, the station wagon was the vehicle of choice for adventuresome families travelling to the beach, campground, or lake. Their big engines were plenty powerful to pull a trailer or boat, and while the kids might sleep in a tent, Mom and Dad could always stretch out in the back of the wagon, where comfort and privacy were a bit better.
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And thanks to their large size, station wagons were quite the canvas for automobile designers, who used the expansive stretches of metal for two-tone color schemes, fake-wood panels, and all sorts of chrome ornaments and special features.
Originally used almost exclusively for transporting people from the train station to home, vehicles with larger back ends (to hold luggage) were part of a broader class of conveyance known simply as “wagons,” which of course pre-dates motorized vehicles. But because the first enclosed motor vehicles with extra room in the rear were so tied to the era of rail travel, the term station (for train station) and wagon were linked, and the term stuck.
It wasn’t until after World War II that station wagons made the transition from commercial transportation to popular family cars. Through the late 1940s, many had panels made of wood, due in part to weight issues and steel shortages in wartime. Thus the “Woody” wagon:
By the end of the '50s, station wagons amounted to 17% of all U.S. car sales, and many versions were available, from entry-level economy models to high-end luxury versions. Manufacturers worked hard to top each other and wagons got a lot of distinguishing features, from all-around glass roofs to swing-out tailgates to push-button transmissions.
Want to know what kind of wagon Gene's family drove? Go to page 2!
We were a Buick family, so our wagon was a red and white Roadmaster Estate Wagon (which was the last full-size American wagon made up to 1996). But there was the Ford Country Squire, the Oldsmobile Vista-Cruiser, the Chevrolet Nomad, Plymouth Suburban, Jeep Wagoneer, Mercury Colony Park, International Travelall, Pontiac Safari, Rambler Cross Country, and many other great names.
Since I was the youngest child, I rode in the way-back when it wasn’t full of luggage or something else. In those days we didn’t worry about the lack of seat belts -- most cars through the mid-60s didn’t come with them. You could hide under a blanket, or even better, face backward and wave at the people behind you.
My fondest station-wagon memories are on a few rare family vacations that began before the sun went up. We’d pile everything in the wagon, set the alarm for 4 AM, and hit the Winchell’s donut stand for fresh donuts on the way out of town. There’s nothing quite like watching the sun come up while eating a maple bar in the back of a 1957 Buick Roadmaster.
Like all excessive American traditions, the station wagon gave way to more practical alternatives and was substantially down-sized to the point where the difference between a wagon and a sedan is mostly the body shape. Perhaps kids today grow up to have fond memories of riding in the family mini-van, but somehow I just don’t think the two are comparable.
Today’s family transportation vehicles are ultra-safe and the young ones are strapped in behind tinted glass. It’s been a long time since I found myself driving behind a row of kids sitting facing backwards, making faces or rude gestures toward me. And if mini-vans come in two-tone I haven’t noticed.
But at least there are a few donut shops still in business, so I suppose piling in the Subaru Outback and heading off on vacation can still have its charm. That is, of course, if you can afford the gas to go anywhere!
I’d love to hear your favorite station-wagon memories. Just use the Comments button below! And please consider giving a listen to my weekly podcast, Inside Digital Design, available on iTunes and at insidedigitaldesign.com.