10 of the Best Historical American Station Wagons
If you don’t think station wagons are cool, take a look at these classic American wagons and change your mind.
Station wagons are not inherently cool—that's just a hard, cold reality. Plus, excepting Mercedes-Benz E-Class wagons from a couple of generations ago, no modern examples are available with a handy third-row seat for the kids, as that's what SUVs are apparently for nowadays. Not to mention, when it comes to great American station wagons, well, diesels are not the least-bit cool anymore.
But American station wagons from the mid-1910s, when Ford offered a wood-bodied version of its Model T primarily as a train-station shuttle, to about the mid-1970s, had their own kind of kitschy-Americana cool. And after World War II, most came with powerful eight-cylinder engines.
In normal times, we'd be thinking about summer vacation season right about now, and any of these 10 American station wagons would be perfect for the retro-REI camping trip or trip to the lake of your dreams. Think pre-World War II interstate trips on Route 66, or Eisenhower-to-Ford-era trips on the Interstate, family trips to the beach, camping, or to the rural cabin.
Special thanks to Old Car Brochures/The Old Car Manual Project for letting us use its vintage new-car brochure art featured in this list, and for the resources and fact-checking materials in the text of those catalogs. Its sites, www.oldcarbrochures.org and www.oldcarmanualproject.com, offer fascinating diversions worth hours of your time between at-home work assignments.
Make your comments and criticisms of my list on Twitter at @AM_Lassa. Which wagons have I left out? Here are my choices for the 10 coolest American station wagons to drive for this summer's imaginary vacation.
1937 Ford V-8 Station Wagon
American automakers farmed-out station wagon assembly to suppliers until the mid-1960s, but in 1936, Ford opened its own wagon plant in Iron Mountain, Michigan. That factory, in the state's Upper Peninsula, used raw material from "its vast timber operations near Lake Superior," according to David Traver Adolphus's article, "The American Woody," in the September 2005 issue of Hemmings Classic Car. The Iron Mountain factory shipped whole wooden bodies to Ford's assembly plants around North America. Price was $755, according to "The Standard Catalog of American Cars."
Riding on a 112-inch wheelbase, with 3-2-3, eight-passenger seating, the 1937 Ford V-8 Station Wagon offered choice of a 60-horsepower or an 85-hp, 221 cubic-inch (3.6L) V-8, and its dealer brochure, separate from the brand's full lineup booklet, nicely describes the market these cars sought. "For transporting a weekend party to the yacht, to the stables, the lodge, or to the cottage by the seashore, it is ideal since it enables the party to travel en masse, taking supplies with them in comfort."
1942 Chrysler Town & Country Car
A curious mix of Art Deco and Martha's Vineyard cabin styling, the Town & Country became a staple over the next three decades of upper-middle class suburbs. It was the sort of wagon you might buy if even a well-equipped Ford V-8 could no longer meet your needs and desires. Chrysler touted the '42 Town & Country as "the only station wagon with an all-steel automotive-type top."
It was just a hair longer than 217 inches, and about 75-inches wide, on a 121.5-inch wheelbase. The Town & Country could seat up to nine passengers, with its auxiliary center jump seat. Height, presumably without the optional luggage rack, was 68 inches, just 1.3-inches short of a modern Jeep Grand Cherokee's. The roofline predicted the "coupe-style" SUVs that would come along in another 75 years. Engine was a 120-hp, 250.6 cubic-inch (4.1L) inline-six, coupled to a fluid-drive semi-automatic transmission. "The Standard Catalog" does not have a price for this wagon, though the '42 Town & Country sedan cost $1,520.
1949 Buick Estate Wagon
Ionia Manufacturing in the eponymous town in Michigan built wagon bodies mostly for the various General Motors divisions, but also for Ford, Mercury, and Chrysler, before and after WWII. Buick's 1949 models—Roadmaster, Super, and Special—were all-new for the first time since the war, and Ionia built wagon bodies for the top-two models. The top-spec Roadmaster wagon was 214.5-inches long on a 126-inch wheelbase, and the Super was 209.5-inches long on a 121-inch wheelbase. The Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon came with a 150-hp, 320 cubic-inch (5.2L) straight-eight and standard Dynaflow two-speed automatic transmission. The Super Estate Wagon had a 248 cubic-inch (4.1L) I-8, rated for 115 hp with the standard three-speed manual, and 120 hp with the optional Dynaflow.
These Buicks were two-row, six-passenger vehicles, and like the '42 Chrysler, they featured a clamshell-style tailgate. The rear bench seat folded down like many of today's SUV seats, with the cushion folding forward into the rear footwell and the seatback folding flat. The brochure suggests "Sleep where you stop: Carry along an air mattress, and when you want to stop—presto!--sleeping quarters." Base price was $3,176 for the Super, and $3,734 for the Roadmaster, according to "The Standard Catalog of American Cars," our pricing source throughout this story.
1955 Pontiac Star Chief Custom Safari
The 1955-57 Safari was Pontiac's version of the Chevrolet Nomad, which also ran for those three years, as a sporty two-door, two-row station wagon, priced at the top of the model lineup.
Both cars were inspired by the 1954 Chevy Corvette Nomad Motorama car, a two-seat two-door wagon, and perhaps even more than the '42 Chrysler Town & Country, these truly were precursors to such modern models as the BMW X6 and Mercedes-Benz GLC and GLE Coupes.
This is distinct from American two-door sedan-style wagons marketed as handyman utility cars in the '50s, popular long before everybody drove pickup trucks. The two-door Safari was 202.9-inches long, 75.4-inches wide, with a modern crossover vehicle-like height of 61 inches, and it came with a 180-hp two-barrel, or 200-hp four-barrel 287 cubic-inch (4.7L) V-8, coupled to a three-on-the-tree or a Hydra-Matic four-speed automatic transmission. List price was $3,124, the only '55 Pontiac base price exceeding $3,000
After 1957, the Safari nameplate was attached to the Bonneville, Executive, Catalina and LeMans wagons through the '60s and '70s.
1956 Rambler Cross Country
George Romney, chief of the newly formed American Motors Corp., future Michigan governor, and failed candidate for the 1968 GOP presidential nomination, shuttered Hudson not long after it merged with Nash-Kelvinator in 1954. The surviving Rambler marque continued to offer smaller, reasonably sized cars as the big three offered prairie schooners roughly 205- to 220-inches long. The Cross Country was 193.6 inches on a 108-inch wheelbase, and was 71.3 inches wide and 58.6 inches tall. Its 195.6 cubic-inch (3.2L) six made 120 hp and 170 lb-ft. It was a two-row, six-passenger wagon, with "airliner" fully reclining front seats and a one-piece tailgate.
But what made this Rambler so freaking cool was its body style, a four-door pillarless hardtop station wagon, the first in the U.S. industry. GM had just introduced its first four-door hardtops a year earlier with the 1955 Olds 88 and Buick Century. In case that's not enough, check out the woodgrain applique on the green Cross Country, which looks like it could be pulled off the sides of the car and flipped over to make a fabulous Mid-Century Modern coffee table. Base price, $2,326.
1957 Oldsmobile Super 88 Fiesta/Buick Century Caballero Riviera
See a pattern here? To me, four-door hardtops are even more evocative of Mid-Century American automobilia than station wagons, and when you combine the two, I just can't resist. Ionia Manufacturing built the Olds and Buick hardtop wagons for just two model years, ending with 1958, but the over-the-top, late Harley Earl-era styling really makes them stand out. (The '58 models, which added dual headlamps, got heavier with chunky-looking, creased sheetmetal and tons of added chrome.) The Buick was available with two or three rows for six or nine passengers, and offered divided second row seats, while the Olds was available as a two-row, six-passenger car only. Tailgate was a two-piece, clamshell design.
Ford's Mercury division also made four-door hardtop deluxe wagons, the Country Cruiser series, for the 1957-60 model years.
The Olds Super 88 Fiesta came with a 277-hp, 400-lb-ft 371 cubic-inch (6.1L) V-8, coupled to either a three-on-the-tree or Jetaway Hydra-Matic two-speed automatic. The Buick Century Caballero Riviera had a 300-hp, 400-lb-ft, 364-cubic-inch (6.0L) V-8 and standard Dynaflow automatic. A cheaper Special Caballero Riviera was available, with a 250-hp, 380-lb-ft 264 (4.3L) V-8 and choice of manual or Dynaflow. Oldsmobile (1957 base price): $3,017-$3,220; Buick (1957 base price): $3,167-$3,831
1960 Chrysler Town & Country
Chrysler didn't even offer a b-post station wagon alternative to the New Yorker Town & Country and Windsor Town & Country when they premiered in the 1960 model year. New Yorker Town & Countrys were America's most prestigious production station wagons from the 1950s to the early '80s.
The '60 New Yorker Town & Country was powered by a 350-hp, 413-cubic-inch (6.8L) V-8, and was 219.6-inches long, on a 126-inch wheelbase. The entry-level Chrysler Windsor Town & Country, powered by a 305-hp 383-cubic-inch (6.3L) V-8, was 215.4-inches long, on a 122-inch wheelbase. Both cars came with a pushbutton Torqueflite automatic, standard, and offered optional rear-facing third-row seats.
Chrysler's 1964 wagons were the last available as four-door hardtops. Within a few years, all pillarless hardtops, whether two-door, four-door or wagon, come under intensifying scrutiny in light of the Ralph Nader-sparked safety movement. Wagons in particular are susceptible to rollover crush because of long rooftops without adequate vertical pillars, which is why modern three-row wagons are hard to find. The passenger areas need stiff, relatively thick roof structures that eat up third-row space, so the taller bodies found on SUVs are more accommodating of three-row seating. Base price: $3,691 (Windsor Town & Country); $5,212 New Yorker Town & Country.
1963 Studebaker Lark Wagonaire
Famed industrial designer Brook Stevens designed a sliding roof panel as a kind of mid-cycle update for the new-for-1960 Studebaker Lark wagon. It opened the top from just behind the thin c-pillar, to the back. The idea was you could haul home tall items, say, a new Sears Kenmore refrigerator, placed upright on the cargo floor. We expect at least a few of these were hooned back in the day, with second or third owners "surfing" in back. More than four decades after the Wagonaire's introduction, GMC copied the idea for the Envoy XUV SUV.
The Wagonaires were available in Regal or upmarket Daytona trim levels, offered with a 112-hp 169.6-cubic-inch (2.8L) six, a 180-hp 259-cubic-inch (4.2L) V-8, a 210-hp 289-cubic-inch (4.7L) V-8, or a supercharged 289 rated for 289 horsepower.
According to our friends at Motor Trend, Studebaker built just 15 such '63 Lark Wagonaires with this latter R2 engine package. It also offered them with a four-speed manual, as well as three-speed manual or automatic. It was 190.3-inches long and 57-inches tall, on a 113-inch wheelbase, and available only as a two-row, six-passenger car. The one-piece tailgate was, obviously, hinged at the bottom.
Studebaker moved production from South Bend, Indiana, to Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, after the 1963 model year, and ceased business after the '66 model year. Base price range ('63): $2,550-2,700.
1964 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser/1965 Buick Sportwagon
If you can't have a pillarless hardtop, why not a Vista Roof (Olds) or Skyroof (Buick)? The '64 model year was the last in which Ionia Manufacturing built Olds and Buick full-size wagons. These two in-house assembled cars essentially replaced them.
While the Vista Cruiser and Sportwagon shared their bodywork forward of c-pillars with the F-85/Cutlass and Special/Skylark, respectively, both were longer, on bigger body-on-frame platforms than the F-85 and Special wagons. The '64 Olds Vista Cruiser was 208-inches long on a 120-inch wheelbase, versus 203 inches on a 115-inch wheelbase for the F-85 wagon, and the Sportwagon and Special wagons had similar dimensions. With their Vista/Skyroofs, the Olds was 58.3-inches tall, and the Buick 57.5-inches tall.
Engines were a 230-hp or 290-hp 330-cubic-inch (5.4L) V-8 for the Vista Cruiser, and a 210-hp or 250-hp 300-cubic-inch (4.9L) Wildcat V-8 for the Sportwagon. Both were offered in two- and three-row variations.
Obviously inspired by the Volkswagen 19-window Microbus (which went to 21 windows for '64), the Vista Cruiser's Vista roof survived four iterations through the '72 model year. The '73 Vista Cruiser had only a small sunroof and was on GM's new Colonnade A-bodies. Buick used the Skyroof from the 1965 to '69 model years, though the Sportwagon name lasted through 1972. Oldsmobile (1964 base price): $2,938-$3,122; Buick (1965 base price): $2,925-$3,214.
1966 Ford Country Squire
Ford called itself The Wagonmaster in those days, and I'm singling out the '66 model because it was the first with the Magic Doorgate. The one-piece tailgate with power window was hinged so that it could open like a conventional tailgate, or like a door, with an upper and lower hinge on the driver's side.
The third-row option was unique to Fords and Mercurys in this era, with dual-facing rear seats. If you could fit two kids on each side, voila, you had a 10-passenger wagon.
But the full-size Ford wagons were all-new for 1965, when both Ford and GM full-size models were fully redesigned, taking a big design leap over the '64s. The vinyl woodgrain-paneled Ford Country Squire, with its LTD interior and exterior trim, became the poster-car for cul-de-sac suburban America.
The '66 Ford Country Squire was 210.9 inches on a 119-inch wheelbase and was 79-inches wide and a low-ish 56.7-inches tall. The '66 Country Squire's engine options included 289 (4.7L), 352 (5.8L), 390 (6.4L) and 428 (7.0L) V-8s ranging from 200-345 hp. Heyday for the Ford Country Squire lasted until the mid-'70s. Base price range (1966): $3,289-$3,372.