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Classic and Vintage Station Wagons - Why They're Awesome, Why You Want One, and Where to Find Them

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Station Wagons - An American Classic

The Station Wagon is an American classic. Station Wagons look better, handle better, and are more practical than any mini van or "SUV" could ever hope to be. They make great project cars, hot rods, and even race cars. It goes without saying that station wagons are the ultimate family car. Their unique combination of styling, utility , and drivability is unmatched by any other car. If you've experienced a Station Wagon, you already know how awesome they are for road trips, vacations, family life, etc. If you don't know, keep reading to find out why these cars just flat rock...


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The very first Station Wagons were called "depot hacks." Depot hacks weren't production vehicles; they were based on a commercial chassis (usually Ford) with a custom body built by independent companies for extra passenger and cargo space. These hacks (taxis) were used to haul people and their luggage to and from the train depot, hence the term depot hack. Over time, the term station replaced depot, wagon replaced hack, and these specialty vehicles became known as Station Wagons. The first commercially produced wagon, the Star, was introduced in 1923.

America's Best Station Wagons

 

The Golden Age of Wagons

 

Treasury of Station Wagon Living - Not just a car but a lifestyle...

One of the reasons I like wagons so much is they help take me back to a simpler time. Gas was cheap, families had time to spend together, and there were a lot less things to worry about. One of the things I really enjoyed as a kid was car camping with my family, and station sagons are ideally suited for car camping. They're easier and more relaxing to drive than a truck, but they have plenty of room for all your camping gear. The fold down rear tailgate on many early wagons works great as a small picnic table, and the back end of many station wagons is big enough to comfortably sleep in if you don't feel like setting up a tent. In fact, Station Wagons and car camping go together so well that Ford published a book on all the aspects of car camping in a '57 Ranch Wagon. It was out of print for many years but is available again. If you want a good nostalgia trip, you will enjoy reading this book...

1958 Dodge Custom Sierra Station Wagon - Nothing beats a Mopar 9 Passenger Wagon...

1958 Dodge Custom Sierra station wagon

1958 Dodge Custom Sierra station wagon

(Photo: Alden Jewell)

I love early Mopar wagons, and this 1958 Dodge Custom Sierra is one of the nicest wagons Mopar made in their heyday. It would be awesome with an updated suspension and a new Hemi with a blower...

This is the car featured in Ford's Diary of Station Wagon Living. It's a full sized car, but actually pretty compact for the time - about the same size as my Buick Special. These make really nice cars (especially if you're trying to replicate the projects in the book). I think they came stock with a 292 V8. If I was building one today, I'd go for Ford's 4.6 SOHC for lots more power and lots better gas mileage.

(Photo: gem66 on Flickr under Creative Commons)

Prewar Wagons - Station wagons from 1923 - 1950

Prior to WWII, most station wagons were classified as commercial vehicles and had wood or composite wood/metal bodies. These were very beautiful and today are highly sought after by collectors. Unfortunately the wood bodies weren't as durable as steel so there aren't many left today - if you want to buy one, expect to pay a lot of money for a nice one (of course you can also find one in not so good condition and restore it yourself if you have the skills.) In 1938, Dodge offered the first station wagon classified as a passenger car. This started the trend of these cars being a highly desired form of transformation, even though they didn't achieve huge popularity until several years after the war.

10 Reasons To Love Station Wagons - Reasons why they're awesome...

Some people like Pony Cars, others like Muscle Cars, and still others prefer Sports cars. There are even those who prefer an economy car or a sedan, not to mention trucks, vans, and SUVs. Wagons are my favorite though, and here are some of the reasons why...

  1. Station Wagons look slow, so they make good sleepers.
  2. They have lots of weight over the rear axle for better traction coming off the line.
  3. A Station Wagon has 4 doors without the social stigma of being a "4-door."
  4. They have lots of room to haul the wife, rug rat(s), groceries, etc.
  5. They're more affordable than most 2-door hod rods.
  6. If your wife kicks you out of the house, you can comfortably sleep in the back (just try sleeping comfortably in an SUV).
  7. All your friends can ride with you at the same time.
  8. You can easily haul several model airplanes and all related gear.
  9. There is lots of room for storing extra car parts.
  10. There is lots of room for camping and fishing gear.

The Golden Age - Station Wagons 1950 - 1975

In my opinion, the best station wagons are American wagons made between 1950 and 1973. In the years following WWII, demand for cars started to grow. Wagon sales started out slowly, but grew rapidly during the 1950s. In 1951, station wagons accounted for only 3.3% of all car sales in the U.S. By 1959, they accounted for almost 17% of U.S. car sales. They were no longer considered utility vehicles, and for many car makers represented the top of the line in styling and functionality. The low end wasn't ignored either - both Ford and Plymouth introduced compact wagons in 1960 (Falcon and Valiant respectively), with Chevy releasing the compact Corvair station wagon in 1961 and the much more popular Chevy II (Nova) in 1962. Throughout the 1960s, innovation was the order of the day as auto makers tried to "one-up" each other. As the 60's came to a close though, auto makers turned more towards product refinement, although some innovation continued, like GM's "Clam Shell" tailgate design. Ford and Chevy introduced 2 door compact wagons in the early 1970s (Pinto and Vega respectively), just in time for the energy crisis of 1974. The energy crisis, along with new emissions regulations imposed by Congress, marked the beginning of the end. Production would continue for 2 more decades, but for the most part the Station Wagon's best years were behind it.

In 1973, my parents purchased a brand new Dodge Coronet Crestwood station wagon with a 360 4 barrel engine and an automatic transmission. Since it was a demo vehicle, it came with all the options available at the time - air conditioning, power windows, semi-bucket front seats, and rear window exhaust deflector (a.k.a. spoiler). It was painted a beautiful shade of dark brown metallic, and was actually a pretty cool car even though I didn't realize it at the time. It was a huge improvement over their previous car (a 1964 Chevy Impala) and much more comfortable on trips to visit my grandparents. The back seat folded down creating a huge area in the back. When we'd go on trips, my parents would fold the seat down and my sister and I would sleep in the back.

My 3 Station Wagons...

My 3 Station Wagons...

My 3 Station Wagons...

For a True Believer, any station wagon is better than a non-wagon, but among wagons some are better than others. Station Wagon styles are at least as varied as other types of cars and no matter what your preferences are there is probably a Station Wagon suited for you. If you like "sporty," one of the compact wagons (Chevy Nova, Dodge Dart, Ford Falcon, or Plymouth Valiant) would probably be most to your liking. If you have a big family or lots of stuff to haul around you may prefer one of the full size wagons. If you want excellent handling and good road manners a mid-80's GM wagon (Olds Cutlass Cruiser, etc) might be your best choice. Here is a list of some of my favorite wagons and why they're my favorites...

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stationwagon

1962 Plymouth Valiant Station Wagon

A face that only a mother could love...

The 62 Plymouth Valiant had front end styling that was, uhmmm, different and not exactly in a good way. I guess you could say they had a face that only Ma Mopar could love. Other than the front treatment, though, it's actually a pretty good looking car.The thing that makes the '62 Valiant wagon my favorite station wagon, though, is that one of the engine options was a high compression, 4-bbl 383 big block. The engine compartment is a little crowded for headers, but the F.A.S.T. guys are running in the 11's through stock exhaust manifolds so that isn't really a problem. This car could be both a grocery getter and a street terror at the same time. A stroked and mildly built Mopar 400 would make this wagon haul a lot more than just groceries while still having good street manners.

stationwagon

1962 Buick Special DeLuxe

Good looking mid-size...

I found my 62 Buick Special on eBay. It's in very nice Number 3 condition and I bought it for slightly less than Number 3 price so I'm pretty happy. This little car has a wheelbase of 112", so it's about halfway in size between the compact wagons (Mopar Valiant or Dart, Ford Falcon) and the full size station wagons. In spite of being smaller than it full size wagon, it handles like a land yacht but it's still fun to drive. The Buick Special Series 4000 came with Buick's odd-fire V6 (not exactly the smoothest running engine ever produced) but the Special DeLuxe Series 4100 came with Buick's excellent little all aluminum V8. If you can find one of these in good condition it would make a really nice station wagon to colle