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Family: The Driving Force

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author photo by Autotrader November 2007

It’s a given today that car manufacturers design many vehicles for families. The phrase “soccer mom,” for example, conjures up the image of a parent driving her children to their activities in a mini-van. Car commercials extol the virtues of the fold-down third row of seats, storage for groceries and sports equipment, and TVs and DVD players to keep the kids entertained. All of this may lead you to believe that the “family vehicle” is a relatively new concept. But family vehicles have a long history dating back to the earliest days of the automobile. For purposes of this article, we’ll limit our definition of “family vehicles” to station wagons, vans, SUVs and crossover vehicles.

For decades, the station wagon was considered the ultimate family vehicle. But did you ever think about what the name actually means? A station wagon, also known as a depot hack, carry-all or suburban, was originally a commercial wagon that carried passengers and cargo, often to and from a railroad station. Station wagons from the 1910s were built by independent manufacturers, with wooden bodies on a truck chassis (the beginning of the “woody” wagon). The first production station wagon, however, was the 1922 Durant Star C. It had a wooden body, open sides, a canvas top, and could seat six.

By the 1930s, several major manufacturers, including Ford, Chrysler, Dodge, Chevrolet, and Pontiac, were marketing station wagons. Most of the station wagons of this decade were actually classified as commercial trucks rather than cars, and manufacturers often used the term “suburban” to describe these vehicles.

Until the all-steel 1949 Plymouth Suburban, most station wagon bodies were made from woods like maple, birch, oak and ash. They also had curtains on all openings except for the glass front windows and windshield. Some models, such as the 1936 Plymouth Westchester Semi-Sedan Suburban, offered glass windows all around as an option. As for safety features, other than safety glass in the windows, they were practically non-existent. Several models, such as the 1930 Ford Model A station wagon, could seat eight passengers plus their baggage and had removable back seats.

Later in the decade, station wagons began to be classified as a car, starting with the 1938 Dodge P6 Westchester Suburban. One especially notable invention of the 1930s was the Stout Scarab, created by William Stout. Inspired by Stout’s expertise in aircraft design, the Scarab was a sleek and futuristic multi-passenger vehicle (MPV). It had an aluminum body and could seat up to eight people, with configurable seating. Only nine were built, but the Scarab was the forerunner of today’s mini-van.

In the 1940s, station wagons continued to be manufactured, but they didn’t really take off until after World War II. Civilian car production ceased and station wagons were in high demand overseas, so many sedans were converted into station wagons. Eventually, wooden bodies disappeared, although some models continued to have wooden doors or decorative wooden panels. The 1948 Packard Station Sedan (their equivalent of station wagon), for example, had doors that were partially wooden and partially steel, with a wooden tailgate.

Wooden car bodies required a lot of maintenance and care, which made them more expensive. The 1953 Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon was the last wagon with a full-wood body. Some station wagons had simulated wood grain panels so drivers could enjoy the look of wood without worrying about its upkeep. This trend of simulated and “wallpaper woodies” would continue until the 1996 Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon. It recently emerged again with aftermarket “woody” kits following the release of the Chrysler PT Cruiser in 2001.

1949 marked the introduction of the Volkswagen Type 1 “Transporter,” a full-sized commercial van. But in the 1950s, the station wagon was THE car for suburban-dwelling, middle-class families. They also became the perfect vehicle for family vacations. Full-sized station wagons could seat up to nine people: three in the front, three in the middle and three in the back, which was often a rear-facing “wayback” seat.

Some station wagons had two doors instead of four, but the most successful wagons had four doors. There was a huge variety of body styles in station wagons, including hardtops, and station wagons had all of the classic features of the decade, like fins and lots of shiny chrome. Another feature that became popular in the '50s was the roll-down rear window; prior to this decade, tailgates generally flipped down and the rear windows flipped up.

Station wagons continued to be popular through the 1960s, especially with the introduction of compact and mid-sized station wagons. The Ford Falcon, the Chevy Corvair Lakewood and the Dodge Lancer (a clone of the Chrysler Valiant) were all available as two- or four-door station wagons. The biggest innovations continued to include tailgate variations on full-sized wagons. Starting in 1967, Ford wagons had a “Magic Gate,” which could be let down from the center like a tailgate or opened from the side like a regular passenger door. This way you could easily get both cargo and people out of the back end. On the Ford Country Squire, you could also get side-facing rear seats that folded down.

Manufacturers also experimented with new roof configurations in the 1960s. The 1963 Studebaker Wagonaire was especially innovative because it had a retractable rear roof section, which allowed the car to easily carry big items, like refrigerators, upright. Unfortunately, part of the roof leaked. Buick and Oldsmobile released wagons with raised glass sunroofs.

More passenger vans appeared on the market, such as the Chevrolet Corvair Sportsman and the Dodge A100 compact van. Vans became the vehicles of choice during the hippie movement because they could carry a lot of people, camping gear, musical equipment. “Vanning” culture took off in the late 1960s and early 1970s as people customized their vans with unique paint jobs and colorful interiors. It also became popular to get a full-sized van, like the Ford Econoline, customized for camping and traveling. These vehicles became known as conversion vans.

But the 1970s also included two events that had a lasting impact: the strict CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) emission requirements in 1972 and the oil crisis in 1973. Both helped the demise of many full-sized station wagons. In response, some manufacturers released sub-compact, two-door wagons, like the Ford Pinto and the 1971 Chevrolet Vega Kammback.

1984 was a banner year for the family vehicle: the introduction of the mini-van by Chrysler. Chrysler built its mini-vans (sold as Dodge Caravans and Plymouth Voyagers) on the same platform as its station wagon. It met a lot of requirements as voiced by customers in the late 1970s — a side-entry sliding door, removable seats, the ability to park in a regular garage (a result of being front-wheel-drive) and enough room between wheel wells to hold plywood. The front seats were two buckets, and the center bench seat sat three. A third row of seats was available as an option. Chrysler’s mini-vans took off in a huge way. GM released the Chevrolet Astro and the GMC Safari a year later, and a year after that, Ford released the Windstar. These were built on truck platforms and were taller than the Chrysler mini-vans.

Only a few full-sized wagons continued to be released; the Ford Taurus wagon, first released in 1986, became a bestseller and stayed in production until 2005. The rear-facing wayback seat was eventually eliminated due to safety concerns. At the same time, imported compact station wagons hit the market, from manufacturers like Honda, Nissan, VW, Toyota and Subaru. Some of these wagons had the option of four-wheel-drive, which foreshadowed the all-terrain SUV craze of the 1990s.

The first SUV in America, the Toyota Land Cruiser, actually came out in 1960 and was soon followed by the Jeep Wagoneer. These SUVs were based on four-wheel-drive military vehicles and purchased primarily by rural buyers, who appreciated their ruggedness and ability to traverse almost any terrain, until the 1990s. Station wagons had become passé and mini-vans were for families, so many urban drivers turned to the SUV for its outdoor feel, towing capacity and large cargo space.

Large pickup trucks have taken off for many of the same reasons. The extra row of seats in many trucks (some of them full-size and some more compact) meant that you could still transport more than two people as well as your cargo. SUVs and large trucks have also become a status symbol, and are popular with celebrities.

The latest crop of family cars is the crossover, also sometimes known as the crossover SUV. The crossover is the answer to people who like the off-road capabilities and size of the SUV, but long for a more car-like ride, better handling and improved gas mileage. Crossovers can be built on car platforms, truck platforms, van platforms and even wagon platforms. The popular Scion xB crossover is unique in that it has a “box body” — it literally looks like a box on wheels. You can learn more about this emerging type in our article Crossovers 101: An Overview.

Some forms of the crossover are very reminiscent of the station wagon, and mini-vans and SUVs continue to go strong as family cars. Today’s family car buyer has more choices than ever before, with a plethora of entertainment and comfort features. But nothing can replace the memory of fighting over the wayback seat in that old wood-paneled station wagon on long road trips.


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The History of the Suburban

Model A Trader: 1930 station wagon

Motoring Memories: William Stout and his Scarab

RE Olds Transportation Museum

1948 Packard Station Sedan

A Short History of Station Wagons in the USA

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Family: The Driving Force - Autotrader