R.I.P. to Station Wagons: The Death of a Noble Breed

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Mar 18, 2011

I'm a confirmed station wagon junkie. My ideal garage needs two things in it: A wagon and a convertible, and these days it has both. It's not just that wagons are practical. Minivans are even more practical, and I've never felt inspired to buy one of those "swagger wagons."

The iconic '59 Ford Country Squire was a suburban road warrior. (Ford graphic)
The iconic '59 Ford Country Squire was a suburban road warrior. (Ford graphic)

I know this marks me as some kind of nerd, but I think station wagons look cool. Maybe it's buried in my childhood. How could I not love wagons when my grandmother and great aunt both drove them: a circa 1958 Borgward Isabella Combi (my favorite auto brand name) and, if memory serves, a 1952 Nash Rambler. I never got around to asking them why they drove such exotics, rare even back then. Grandma later had a '67 VW Squareback--remember those? I learned how to drive a stick shift from its perforated plastic seat. The Squareback had such a rusty floor that I could see the muffler from the driver's seat, and inhaled a year's supply of carbon monoxide every time we went for a ride. That explains a lot, doesn't it?

Wagons are in the news these days because, just like convertibles (and dinosaurs), they're going through a die-off. The Volvo wagon is an iconic car of my childhood, and maybe that's why there's one in my garage, but in 2010 Volvo sold just 480 of its V50 model in the U.S. (two per dealer), and now it's phasing the poor thing out. Fellow Swedes Saab are still soldiering on with the 9-5 SportCombi wagon, but Saab's in recovery mode and isn't hitting any sales milestones, either.

Alex Taylor III of Fortune grew up, like me, in Connecticut suburbia, and he writes, "Ford Country Squires, with their acres of imitation wood, were particularly prized. Sportier owners displayed yacht flags representing their initials on the driver's side door. Black Labradors and Golden Retrievers were practically standard equipment." This is the sainted land of "Are we there yet?" You can almost smell the Howard Johnson's stops and E-Z Rest motels from the educational family vacations.

We didn't do the yacht flags, but I know what he means. Those seven-seater Country Squires ruled, particularly for carrying Cub packs to den meetings and hordes of squirmy kids to the beach. Twenty years earlier the wagons had real paneling and are now prized as "woodies."

Look at that happy family in their Falcoln Squire! (Ford graphic)
Look at that happy family in their Falcoln Squire! (Ford graphic)

Greg Beato writes in The Smart Set that at the height of the wagon craze you could page through the Ford Treasury of Station Wagon Living, which advised, "The wagon is a workhouse for the do-it-yourself suburbanite...the wagon is a bedroom...the wagon is a kitchen...the wagon is a traveling nursery...the wagon is a rolling recreation device...the wagon is an entire mobile home...All these uses add up to something more than transportation, convenience or utility." Read it yourself here. The graphics are priceless.

So what happened? Obviously SUVs dealt wagons a glancing blow and, around the same time, Chrysler's minivans swooped in for the kill. The old format couldn't compete with electric sliding doors and 20 cupholders.

Wagons won't really "die"--they'll always have a diehard following, and could be revived at any time. But most of the recent attempts, largely with Euro-bred sport wagons from BMW, Mercedes and Audi haven't hit the consumer sweet spot. For "car guys," the term "performance wagon" is an oxymoron.

The Nash Rambler wagon colored my childhood. (Flickr photo)
The Nash Rambler wagon colored my childhood. (Flickr photo)

My Car Talk colleague Jamie Kitman (like me, a Volvo 122S wagon owner!) says a heavy continental investment in crossover SUVs killed the Euro sport wagon. "If manufacturers had put the same money toward station wagons, people would be buying station wagons," he writes. "When you go to lease a BMW 5-series wagon and find out that you can have an X5 for substantially less, good sense often goes out the window."

If historic wagons appeal to you, Stationwagon.com is the site for you. In a sign o' the times, it has been inactive since 2004, so the "new models" page is from 2002 and just becomes nostalgic--there were a lot more wagons available then. But take the time to cruise the "gallery," and feast on the glories of, for instance, the 1962 Falcon Squire. (My friend's mom had one.)

If I sell my Volvo it will be to buy another wagon. The one that got away was a cool '64 Plymouth Valiant V200. It came to me for $300, complete with Slant Six, a platform bed covered in shag carpeting, a small chandelier, and the pungent remains of illegal substances in the ashtray. After something like 600,000 miles, it blew a rod. What a gallant ride!

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