Motoring Memories: The history of the station wagon motoring memories
1948 Chevrolet “Woody” Wagon
Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

Station wagon history goes back to the romantic era when the train was king. When it rolled majestically into the station, well- to-do passengers and their luggage had to be transported to the estate or the grand hotel.

A stage coach seemed hardly appropriate, and a buggy or carriage couldn’t carry milady’s many pieces of baggage. A wagon was the answer, but no ordinary wagon.

It had to be equipped to protect and carry both passengers and cargo, and thus was born the depot wagon, also known as the depot hack, or estate wagon, and ultimately the station wagon. In England it was the shooting brake.

In their most elegant form these vehicles were decorated with light wood framing and dark panelling, and were drawn by a fine team of matching horses.

When self-propelled vehicles arrived there was a gradual phasing in of motorized station wagons. These had truck or large car chassis fitted with custom wooden bodies.

It remained a specialized vehicle until the 1920s, the demand for station wagons being so limited that no motor vehicle manufacturer considered it worth offering one.

Then the irrepressible Billy Durant decided to make the station wagon a regular model. After the General Motors founder had been pushed out of GM for the second, and last time in 1920, he started Durant Motors Inc. Durant brought out the Star car in 1922 as a direct competitor to Henry Ford’s Model T. It proved quite successful, selling 100,000 in less than a year.

Encouraged by the Star’s acceptance, Durant added a station wagon to the line for 1923, thereby becoming the first mass producer to offer a factory-produced wagon.

Although station wagon popularity increased gradually through the 1920s it was hardly a runaway success. Ford, the largest station wagon marketer, sold only some 4,400 Model A wagons in 1929. Then in the late 1930s station wagons began to gain popularity.

Chevrolet brought out its Carry-All Suburban in 1936, but it was just a panel delivery truck with windows and passenger seats. Several manufacturers had entered the station wagon business by the time civilian motor vehicle production stopped for World War II in 1942, but Ford was still the wagon leader.

In the decades immediately after the war station wagons became totally integrated into North American life, particularly the phenomenon known as suburban living, the tract housing created to accommodate burgeoning young families.

These suburbs demanded private motorized transportation; public transit was thin or non-existent, and the long distances made walking impractical. The station wagon was the natural carrier of children, pets, garden supplies, home furnishings, and the myriad other items of suburban life.

But the wagon still had one serious deficiency to overcome before it could replace the sedan as the universal suburban wheelhorse. This was its wooden body cladding. Wood had always been a part of the station wagon, and it was a real nuisance.

Wooden wagons were expensive to build, and were prone to swelling, shrinking, creaking and groaning. They had to be varnished regularly to maintain them in good condition.

The answer was the all-steel station wagon. Willys was the first to offer one in 1946, but as it was based on the rugged Jeep it didn’t have the amenities of a passenger car. Crosley’s tiny 1948 steel wagon was too small to be considered a serious family vehicle.

In 1949 the Chrysler Corp. introduced its Plymouth Suburban, a truly useful all-steel station wagon based on a family sedan. It was an immediate success, and proved to be the station wagon wave of the future. Other manufacturers changed over, and the last wooden wagon, from Ford, would leave the scene in 1954. But station wagons were still strongly associated with wood, so the manufacturers began simulating it.

Until the appearance of the 1955 Chevrolet Nomad, and sibling Pontiac Safari, wagons still had a somewhat bulky look. The Nomad/Safari demonstrated that wagons could be every bit as stylish as cars, but the public wasn’t quite ready for it. The Nomad/Safari lasted only three years.

For sheer brilliance, however, we have to return to the early station wagon leader, Ford. Their two-way “Magic Doorgate” introduced in 1966 was a tailgate that could be opened like a door, or lowered like a tailgate. It helped Ford’s Country Squire station wagon become the quintessential suburban hauler.

The minivan, popularized by Chrysler, largely supplanted the station wagon, but there signs that this most useful of body styles is making a comeback. And there is still some magic attached to those old woody wagons, with the result that they are becoming popular collectibles.

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