Station wagons were once the image of family road trips and weekend vacations back in the day. Most of today’s younger generation will never know what it’s like to sit in the back seat playing Punch Buggy or I Spy as they drive by canyons and miles of roads inside a good-old station wagon. Let’s look back and learn about the rise and fall of America’s deep entanglement with the station wagon and how it gained a cult following.
What is a station wagon?
Station wagons date back around 1910, when independent manufacturers started rolling out modified bodies of the Ford Model T for commercial use. They were originally called depot hacks because they were hackney carriages utilized around train depots, but were also referred to as estate car and shooting-break at some point. In terms of construction, a station wagon utilizes a two-box design similar to hatchbacks but a lot longer.
Station wagons ruled the roads from around the ‘50s to ‘80s; the time when its love affair with the middle-class American family was at its peak. This image, however, is far from the original use of station wagons during the industrial revolution, particularly the railroad era. Due to market demands, design evolutions, and postwar effects, the station wagon’s design changed from being a tiny wooden bus of the late ‘20s to a low-roofed two-box car of the early ‘40s.
How station wagons shaped the car industry
The huge development leap between 1920 and 1940 was just the beginning for the station wagon design. It was only after the Second World War when the demand for station wagons in the used car market started to rise, many of which were from middle-class families. This trend shift was the driving force that led Ford to produce a daily-driver-friendly station wagon known as the Country Squire. A few years later, other companies decided to follow. Because the design did not veer too far from the sedan body styling, station wagons received a very warm welcome from the general public.
Meet the Ford Country Squire
The Country Squire was Ford’s premium station wagon decorated with external wood grain trim. Its introduction in 1950, transformed station wagons from being a commercial vehicle to a family car. The first generation of the Country Squire featured more wooden panels than steel, giving it the nickname “Woodie.” Producing a vehicle made of wood was expensive but Ford was able to capitalize on it because they owned a forest and a lumber mill. Succeeding models of the Country Squire departed from the “Woodie” image and was made with full steel construction. However, Ford decided to keep the wooden side trim as a homage to the original.
Manufactured for 41-years straight, the Ford Country Squire was one of Ford’s longest running name badges, only being beaten out by the Thunderbird and the Mustang. America fell in love with the Country Squire’s large cargo area and increased cabin comfort, which eventually led to its dominance in the station wagon segment.
Ford set a benchmark against its rivals when it introduced the “Magic Doorgate” that debuted in the 1966 model of the sixth-generation Country Squire. The Magic Doorgate was a two-way operating tailgate configuration that allowed the tailgate to either fold down or open to the side. This mechanism required retraction of the rear window, which was part of this revolutionary tailgate upgrade.
The eighth-generation Country Squire known as the Panther was the last produced of this great model. Towards the end of its life, the Country Squire had an advanced 5.0-liter electronically fuel injected V8 engine. It was lightyears away from the first 3.9-liter flathead V8 of the 1950 Country Squire. Throughout its eight-generation lifespan, the Country Squire shared the same platform with vehicles from Mercury and Lincoln. Even though the Country Squire was discontinued in 1991, Ford kept making station wagons under the Taurus and the Escort nameplates during the ‘90s. The final station wagon produced by the blue oval was the Focus Wagon, which was discontinued in 2007.
The fall of station wagons
The introduction of minivans in the early ‘80s and the rise of SUVs in the ‘90s caused the decline in the demand for station wagons, leaving car manufacturers no choice but to discontinue their production. The Country Squire was in the Ford production line for over four decades from 1950 to 1991, seeing eight rich generations of technological advancements and design shifts.
Despite decades of service, station wagons were relatively short-lived compared to sedans and trucks, which still flourish today. While there are still a handful of nameplates like the Subaru Outback and Volvo V60 in the market, some people fear that they are on their way out as well. But, who knows? Some trends cycle back. Designers might come up with a way to stimulate the demand just like the old days.