Way, Way Back: The '60s Through the Back of a Station Wagon

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jun 03, 2014

GREENWICH, CONNECTICUT—Our automotive passions are defined by the cars of our youth, and for a suburban kid like me that meant the station wagon. The iconic vehicle of my preteens was the way, way back of a Ford Country Squire station wagon.

The Buick Caballero, seen at Bonhams auction at the Greenwich Concours, was an unusal hybrid--a "hardtop" station wagon. (Jim Motavalli photo) We kids entered through Ford’s patented “magic tailgate,” which could swing sideways like a door or fold down like a tailgate. The electric back window was just coming in, and seeing the glass whirr down was the height of modernity. It was our own little world back there, complete with crushed Cheerios underfoot and smeared, sticky windows for us to watch the passing scene. 
Automakers produced wood-paneled wagons through the early 1950s, but my era starts with the fake wood paneling on those Country Squires. Much easier to maintain, though inarguably somewhat gauche, like the bogus leather naugahyde of the period.
 The Desoto Fireflite was a lovely wagon, with room for all the cowboys and indians.Memories of that era came flooding back, like Proust and his madeleines, when I encountered a 1957 Buick Century Caballero Estate Wagon at the Greenwich Concours d’Elegance last weekend. The tri-tone splendor of this wagon—not to mention its epically long name—was taken for granted back before mom discovered the SUV.
 On the '49 Olds, the wood (what there was of it) remained real. The Caballero name capitalizes on the western craze of the period, when every kid wore a coonskin cap and chaps, and Davy Crockett ruled on TV. Around the same time, Ford produced—and my friends’ parents bought—many a “Ranch Wagon.” Don’t forget the Studebaker Conestoga! This was around the high-water mark for wagons—they achieved 16.9 percent of the American market in 1959.
As kids in the 1950s and ‘60s, we had no idea how new that suburban world was—just since the end of World War II, when GIs came home and got cheap government-guaranteed mortgages. Dads were gone during the week but fully present on weekends, when those wagons hauled us to the beach and Little League games. Our parents may have been swilling martinis and swapping partners at key parties come nightfall, but while the sun shined they were the height of propriety.
 Ford's offering for 1956 was a grocery getter. Think of the Caballero as the SUV of its day. It was a pillarless design, a “hardtop” wagon whose purpose was to add some sportiness and glamour to mom’s taxi. These—and an assortment of two-door wagons—weren’t big sellers, and are pretty rare now.
The very names of wagons, similar to SUVs today, were designed to evoke the romance of the open road rather than the closed circuit of the suburban community. Nash Rambler had the Cross Country, Pontiac the Safari, and Chevrolet the Nomad. My favorite name belongs to the Mercury Turnpike Cruiser of 1957-58. Yes, Chevy also sold a lot of Suburbans—some folks didn’t need to have any illusions.

 Most recently, the wagon has fallen on hard times. Volvo, the name in wagons in the ‘70s and ‘80s, actually stopped making them for a while as consumers overwhelmingly preferred SUVs. The New York Times reported that this “seismic event” is now old news, because Volvo is getting back into wagons with the 2015 Volvo V60 T5 Drive-E. It joins a modest resurgence that also includes the Audi Allroad, BMW 328i Sports Wagon, Acura TSX Sport Wagon and Cadillac CTS wagon. Yes, like the Caballero of old, wagons have gotten sporty again.
 The 1960 Dodge Polara wagon had more curves than Marilyn Monroe. It was a pillarless design like the Caballero, and it hauled your gear!Sporty wagons make sense to me, and to many of today’s families as well. They need to work on the names, though. “Allroad” is pretty good, but how about the BMW Vista Cruiser, Volvo Globe Trotter and the Acura Safari?  
 The Nimbus concept car has rooftop solar and generator to recharge the batteries. Is it a modern reimagining of the hippie VW Microbus? (Nimbus photo)Incidentally, hippies reinvented their parents’ wagons as the peace-sign-adorned keep-on-truckin’ VW Microbus. We hear rumors that the Microbus, redesigned in a elegant retro manner, may finally be making a comeback. In the meantime, there’s this delicious Nimbus concept car designed by Eduardo Galvanis. It’s an electric car with an on-board generator (like the BMW i3) to recharge the lithium-ion batteries. The retro exterior is covered in solar cells.

OK, and this period, near-wordless ad for the 1959 Chevrolet Brookwood wagon is a classic:

Get the Car Talk Newsletter