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Wagon

The station wagon is also referred to as an estate wagon or estate car. It’s a body type that looks like a sedan but the roof extends rear to cover the passenger and cargo space. In the back, there’s a third or fifth door tailgate instead of a standard trunk lid. Some wagons have folding rear seats which adds more cargo room to the mix.

Merriam-Webster defines it as, “an automobile that has a passenger compartment which extends to the back of the vehicle, that has no trunk, that has one or more rear seats which can be folded down to make space for light cargo, and that has a tailgate or liftgate.”

Other Names

BMW station wagon - BMW TouringIn New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and America, it’s commonly called the station wagon or simply a wagon. In the rest of the world where English is the primary language, they are often referred to as an estate car.

Some British-speaking areas refer to it as a break while the early American models were called woodies because of the wood construction.

Manufacturers also designate names to their models. Some examples include:

Different from a Hatchback

Many people assume that a hatchback and wagon are the same things, but there are numerous differences. While they both share a two-box design, the rest is quite variable.

The station wagon features a D-pillar, while the hatchback doesn’t have to.  The wagon also makes cargo space a priority. That’s why the roof extends all the way to back of the vehicle. In the hatchback, the roof slopes down after the C-pillar to make style priority over space.

Chevrolet Cruze Station Wagon - interior viewThe station wagon also uses a folding flat floor while the hatchback often has a clear contour to the cargo floor. The seating is another area of distinction because the wagon usually has two or three rows of seats. On the other hand, a hatchback typically has one or two rows instead.

With the rear suspension, a wagon utilizes rear suspension to handle the load. This isn’t always the case with a hatchback. They also have a top-hinged liftgate or two-part tailgate. Hatchbacks on the other hands use a lift back design where the opening is sloped and the door lifts up.

Automakers often have multiple configurations to the same model. A great example of this was with the 2005-2007 Focus that had a sedan, wagon, plus the three and five-door hatchbacks.

History of the Wagon

The Beginning

The early station wagons were part of train travel. That’s why they were referred to as depot hacks. Other names included the suburban and carryall. Before the 1930s, automakers assembled their passenger compartments with hardwood. Then, they framed it in steel and coated it with some colored lacquer for extra protection.

The first wagons came from trucks which is why they were looked at as a commercial vehicle. That’s why the framing wasn’t covered like a typical automobile. Even the early versions had fixed roofs but didn’t have the glass to close the passenger area. Instead, they had curtains of unrolled canvas.

Custom body builders were in charge of designing all the passenger compartments because creating all-wooden bodies was time-consuming. Early manufacturers included Hercules, Mitchell Bentley, Cantrell, and USB&F. During 1919, custom wagon bodies were placed on the Model T chassis by the Stoughton Wagon Company.

1941 Chrysler Town & Country - woodyTen years later, Ford was the biggest name in station wagons. That’s because they owned a hardwood forest in Michigan which supplied wood for the production of the Model A wagon. By the 1930s, these wooden station wagons signified prestige in the community. Wooded station wagons were more expensive than regular automobiles at the time. In fact, the 1941 Town & Country became Chrysler’s most expensive vehicle in that year’s lineup.

The downside to the wooden wagons was they required constant attention. The varnished bodies needed recoating plus the screws and bolts needed to be tightened regularly.

The Emergence of an All-Steel Wagon

GM released an eight-passenger Chevy Suburban in 1935 that had an all-steel wagon body on top of the commercial truck chassis. Then, after the war, there were new advances made in production so the all-steel bodies became more practical. This eliminated the noise, maintenance, and cost that came with the wood body.

In 1946, the Willys Station Wagon became the first all-steel, factory-built wagon from North America. It has a trim that reminded consumers of the wood bodywork. Then, in 1949, the Plymouth Suburban was released. This all-steel design was constructed on an automobile chassis instead. By 1950, they discontinued their Woodie wagon and converted that design to all-steel as well.

In the mid-1950s, automakers used wood accents, but these eventually got replaced by vinyl graphics instead. By 1955, the only two companies with a Woodie model was Mercury and Ford.

1988 Jeep Grand Wagoneer - drivers side front viewOther wagons with wooden appeal throughout the years included the Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser, Buick Estate, Chrysler Town & Country, and Chevrolet Kingswood Estate. The Jeep Grand Wagoneer is most recognized for their wood-grained design.

The 1950s through the 1970s were the best years for sales of wagons in the U.S. There were multiple styles for consumers to choose from including two and four-door versions. Rambler, Mercury, Buick, Oldsmobile, Chrysler, GM, and Ford all had their versions up for grabs.

Layout of Popular Wagons

Most of them at the time had room for six to nine passengers. The first model to put a rear-facing seat in the back was a 1957 Chrysler. Many other automakers followed suit and placed their rear seat backward as well.

Then, in 1964, Mercury and Ford placed two seats in the trunk that faced each other. Each of these held two people, so that changed the capacity to ten people. As the years went on, the seats narrowed and only carried one passenger each, which reduced capacity to eight.

Some other features from this era included acrylic glass skylights in some models. There were also wagons with a raised roof for more headroom and a forward-facing third row, or jump seat for two.

Changing Times

Chevy Vega Kammback - wagonThe 1970s were when the two-door wagons reached the height of their popularity. AMC, GM, and Ford all had models in the market. The Chevy Vega Kammback is the first American-made four passenger station wagon.

After these years, the sales of wagons, in general, started to decline. During the oil crisis of 1973, people began moving away from the design. That’s why Chrysler launched their minivan design in 1984. Consumers liked the concept and this caused automakers to focus more on the SUV and minivan market.

In 1996, the Buick Roadmaster and Chevrolet Caprice were discontinued. They were the last American-made full-size wagons. Then, the Ford Taurus wagon ended production at the end of 2005.

Wagons in the Modern Day

In more recent times, small wagons have been marketed in America as a low-cost alternative to an SUV or minivan. Slowly, they’ve been replaced by crossovers which resemble the station wagon body.

2014 Subaru Outback Wagon - right front viewSubaru is a company that made a name for itself by offering the full-size Outback and Legacy wagons in the U.S since 1989. They are produced at their American plant in Lafayette, Louisiana. While other European carmakers attempted to sell their wagons in America with unique labeling schemes, they never gained popularity. Most often, the sedan counterparts offered more features and a better price tag.

Worldwide Use of the Station Wagon

Europe

Station wagons remained a large part of car sales for many years in Europe. By the 1950s, all the British manufacturers had at least one wagon model in their lineup. They also used unique names for the vehicle. For example, Morris estates used the term Travellers while Austin named them the Countryman.

Germany continues to be the largest station wagon market in the world. They sell almost 700,000 wagons there each year which consumes about 20% of the market. Volvo was another leader of estate cars in Europe. Because of their higher price, they’ve been seen as luxury cars which signify prestige.

Other Parts of the World

2018 Toyota Corolla Fielder - station wagonJapanese automakers didn’t build wagons until recently. The popularity of them lives on through the Toyota Corolla Fielder and Subaru Levorg.

In New Zealand and Australia, Holden Commodores and Ford Falcons were the top sellers. These were discontinued and replaced with SUVs instead. In China, wagons are just being introduced to the market and they are seeing a rise in popularity.

Tailgate Design

One of the biggest aspects to a wagon is the tailgate design. It’s unlike most other vehicles, but several different varieties have been in production. Throughout history, here are the designs that have been utilized by automakers for their wagon.

Split Gate

This upward-swinging window design worked in conjunction with a downward swinging tailgate. They both require manual effort to open and were the earliest forms of tailgate design for the wagon. The popularity of this style occurred in the 1920s and lasted through the 1940s, although Ford used it until 1960 on some models. Later, this same technique showed up on camper shells.

Retractable Window

Tailgates featured a hand-cranked rear window during the 1950s. Eventually, manufacturers added electric power so the driver could operate the window with ease.

Side Hinge

The side-hinged design opened up like a door and mainly found its way to the three-seat station wagons. This allowed the back row passengers to make their way to their seats through the rear door. Later, this became the dual-hinged design.

Retractable Roof

GMC Envoy XUV - Retractable RoofThe retractable roof worked with a conventional tailgate to allow travel with larger objects. This design was used on the 2003 GMC Envoy XUV and Studebaker Wagonaire.

Dual-operating Gates

Some tailgates opening by pivoting or folding down plus they had retractable rear glass. Many of Ford’s wagons during the 1960s offered this design. Then, GM provided a notch to the rear bumper which acted as a step which made entry easier.

Clamshell

This is also referred to as a clamshell design where the tailgate seems to disappear when open. The power-operated rear glass slid upward while the lower portion of the tailgate dropped below the floor. GM used this on their full-size wagons from 1971 through 1976 including the Caprice, Belair, and Kingswood models.

Liftgate

The one-piece design used on smaller wagons. It was similar in design to a hatchback vehicle.

Swinging Window

Ford Taurus Wagon - rear viewThis full-height, upward-lifting window opens separately from the door. Gas struts held it and used on the Ford Taurus and Renault Laguna II.

Folding License Plate

The upward folding plate attached into the lower tailgate. When the tailgate folded, the plate hung so it was still readable. The Subaru Baja and Volvo Amazon used this innovation, but it wasn’t widely popular.

Fun Facts about Station Wagons

1 – The wood was the expensive part of wagons at first. Since they used wooden bodies, it cost more to produce a wagon than any other vehicle. Obviously, Ford had an advantage since they had a forest and mill on hand. This gave them the opportunity to price their vehicles competitively and produce them faster than other brands at the time.

2 – At the wagon’s peak, American sold one for every five vehicles.

3 – The wagon is synonymous with a great family road trip. Who doesn’t remember pilling into the back of the wagon and hitting the open road? It’s part of what makes Clark Griswold’s vacation so funny.

Fun Facts about Station Wagons

1 – The wood was the expensive part of wagons at first. Since they used wooden bodies, it cost more to produce a wagon than any other vehicle. Obviously Ford had an advantage since they had a forest and mill on hand.

2 – At the wagon’s peak, American sold one for every five vehicles.

3 – The wagon is synonymous with a great family road trip. Who doesn’t remember pilling into the back of the wagon and hitting the open road? It’s part of what makes Clark Griswold’s vacation so funny.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is the Subaru Outback a station wagon? It’s actually classified as a compact SUV, although that most likely is just for marketing purposes because it looks like a station wagon. This design offers all-wheel-drive, lots of cargo room and ample ground clearance. In 2017, there were almost 200,000 sold.

How did the station wagon get its name? Originally, people referred to them as depot hacks because they were used as taxis at the train depots. Later, they became known as suburbans and carryalls.

Did Cadillac make a station wagon? Yes, there were Cadillac wagons, but they weren’t built in Detroit. Instead, Hess & Eisenhardt from Ohio produced them on a commercial chassis. The famed coachbuilder utilized variations of hearses, ambulances, and limousines to build the cars. Most of the time they weighed about two and a half tons plus had all the luxury amenities you would expect from a Cadillac.

Are station wagons still made? Yes and no. As far as American automakers, there isn’t a car classified as a wagon anymore. All the body styles that would have been a wagon are now called SUVs or Crossovers. In other parts of the world, there are plenty of wagons still being produced. These include the Volkswagen Golf SportWagen, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Jaguar XF Sportbrake, BMW 3 Series Sport Wagon, and Audi A4 Allroad.

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