1949 Plymouth Suburban
1949 Plymouth Suburban
Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

Station wagons hold good memories for a lot of people. Although now largely supplanted by mini-vans, the station wagon was for several decades the quintessential family vehicle.

The station wagon is nostalgic for another reason too; it traces its heritage back to the magic memories of train travel because it was from the railway station that the station wagon got its name. In order to haul passengers and their luggage when they were met at the station, hotels had car or truck chassis fitted with box-like wooden bodies for extra carrying capacity. Thus the depot hack, later the station wagon, was born.

Prior to World War II, and for a few years after, station wagon bodies had traditionally been constructed out of wood. They were expensive to build and to maintain as they were subject to loosening, peeling and rotting.

This all changed in 1949 with the introduction of the all-steel station wagon. The Plymouth Suburban (there would be a Dodge version too) 2-door wagon, part of Chrysler Corporation’s completely restyled post-war line of cars, exemplified the genre.

Willys-Overland had produced an all-steel wagon in 1946, but it was more of a utility vehicle based on the rugged Jeep chassis, rather than a comfortable family car. And back in 1935 General Motors had brought out its Chevrolet Suburban Carryall, less of a station wagon than a panel truck with windows and seats.

The 1949 Plymouth Suburban was a true car-like vehicle that combined the ride and convenience of a sedan with the expanded carrying capacity of a wagon. Its shorter Deluxe model 2819 mm (111 in.) wheelbase chassis made it a fairly compact package. Power came from the usual reliable but unexciting 3.6 litre Plymouth side-valve, six cylinder engine that developed 97 horsepower. With a weight of over 1409 kg (3100 lb) the Suburban was not about to break any land speed records.

Tom McCahill of Mechanix Illustrated magazine tested one of the first Suburbans. They all came originally in “horse’s hoof brown,” as he called it, which he went on to say “had all the merchandising appeal that a barrel of raw oysters has for your seasick Aunt Sadie.” They were soon made available in a variety of colours, however.

In Tom’s report he wrote that he pounded the Suburban over the road on a trip from New York to Florida and back at 121 to 129 km/h (75 to 80 mph) and said that the engine showed no signs of strain or overheating. It did, however, burn a quart (approximately one litre) of oil every 480 km (300 miles). At normal speeds he reported that the oil consumption returned to zero.

Driving at that speed may not seem like an impressive feat today, but one must remember that this was over 50 years ago. Automotive engineering, metallurgy and oil chemistry, not to mention highway engineering, have all come a long way since then.

McCahill also praised the comfort and handling of the Suburban. One of the things that really impressed him was its un-station wagon-like qualities of quietness, and the lack of squeaks and rattles. “The Suburban was as quiet as a bought-off insurance witness,” said Tom. With its vinyl interior and fold-down rear seat that formed a flat loading platform, it was also a very utilitarian package.

One of the things that didn’t thrill him was the traditional Chrysler sensitivity to dampness, although he did test it in a somewhat severe way: by driving it in the Atlantic Ocean. When a particularly large wave shorted out the ignition Tom was lucky to get the Plymouth out of the water using the starter motor. If he hadn’t, the wagon would have gradually sunk into the sand, and Tom would have had some explaining to do.

As would be expected, the Suburban was no performance ball of fire; McCahill reported a very leisurely zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) acceleration time of 24.6 seconds. Top speed was 135 to 136 km/h (84 to 85 mph). The Plymouth was definitely not in the Oldsmobile Rocket 88, or even the Ford V-8 league.

But in spite of its apparent slowness, the Plymouth had lasting qualities. Tom discovered that Bill France, president of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, owned a Suburban. He bought it on the strength of Plymouth’s remarkable reliability in regional stock car races; while the hot dogs burned themselves out racing with each other, the little Plymouth just stroked around and often won.

Plymouth was never known as much of an innovator, although it did pioneer “Floating Power” in the form of very soft engine mounts in 1931. It was better known as a sound reliable car that stood up well and provided good value for money.

The Suburban, then, fitted Plymouth’s image perfectly. It was practical and comfortable, and provided countless years of good transportation for thousands of families. Although only approximately 20,000 Suburbans were sold during that first year, this was a respectable figure when compared with the sales of wooden wagons.

It wouldn’t be very long before the woody wagon would be abandoned and all stations wagons would be made of steel. While Chevrolet, Pontiac and Oldsmobile also had all-steel wagons in 1949, it was Plymouth that seemed to offer the best value, and capture the imagination of buyers. It is therefore, the best remembered of the first all-steel wagons.

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