The golden age of Land Yachting, about 1955 to 1975, also marked the peak of popularity for station wagons. Whether you were the parent who drew carpool duty for the Scout picnic, the homeowner picking up plants and mulch for the garden behind the split-level, or the family packing everything up for a vacation tour on Route 66 or one of those newfangled interstate highways, the station wagon was the can-do vehicle that combined the style and comfort of the finest sedans with a huge cargo hold and often an extra seat that brought its passenger capacity to nine.
Station Wagon Lore
Wagons had been around in various forms since the 1920's, but until 1949 all wagons had wooden bodies. These "wooden ships" were beautiful, but they were also heavy, expensive and demanded lots of extra care. When carmakers switched over to all-steel bodies, beginning with the 1949 Plymouth Suburban, wagon sales began to take off. Woodies died out quickly; the last one was the 1953 Buick Roadmaster, and even its wood was confined to the tailgate and a small area around the windows and the upper part of the doors:
(For more about the '53 Buick Roadmaster woodie, read Tony Lindsey's story of the restoration of his '53.)
Oddly, people still wanted the woody LOOK, so carmakers responded with non-structural plastic imitation wood paneling applied over steel bodywork. The most successful of the fake woodies by far was the Ford Country Squire. If you grew up in any American suburb from the mid-50's to the early 70's, there's a good chance a Country Squire graced your driveway at one time or another, maybe one like this 1957 example:
In the 1950's, wagons were one of the fastest growing sectors of the market. This led to lots of innovation and creativity in wagon design. One of the hottest body styles in the 50's was the pillarless hardtop coupe or sedan. When applied to wagons, the results were quite striking, like this '57 Buick Century Caballero:
Many wagons came in two and four-door models. The two-door wagon, interestingly, served the bottom and the top of the market. Stripped-down two-door models were the price leaders, but the stylish Chevy Nomad was the first attempt at what we today would call a "sport wagon." Ford's two-door Ranch Wagon, while not as distinctive as the Nomad, looks sharp in 1958 trim:
Stylish as they may be, two-door wagons failed the practicality test and so they largely died out after the early 60's. Wagon designers turned their attention to the rear of the cars, devising at least a half-dozen different ways to open and close a tailgate. You can't think of a half-dozen? Here goes:
1. The Old Original Tailgate: Window hinges up, gate goes down. Simple and direct, but the lowered gate made it hard to unload cargo and the raised window was poised right at forehead height.
2. The Disappearing Window: The first tailgate innovation was to make the window drop into the gate. No more banged foreheads, but that pesky gate still was in the way.
3. The Door: Wouldn't it be nice if the back of the car opened like a door, too? The first "door-gate" was found on the Rambler Cross-Country. It was an option INSTEAD of the regular gate; in other words you made an irrevocable choice when you bought the car. The door made unloading easy, but it had its own drawback; you couldn't leave it open to carry an over-size load like you could with a gate.
4. The Two-Way Door/Gate: Through a clever latch design, it drops down like a gate, OR it swings out like a door. This is one of the genuine pinnacles of American automotive engineering. There has NEVER been a Japanese car with one!! Ford didn't call this the "Magic Doorgate" for nothing.
5. The Clamshell: In 1971,GM thought they could top Ford with a tailgate that disappeared completely. The window went up into the roof, and the gate swung down under the floor. Voila, unobstructed access to the cargo hold. Trouble was, the sloping design of the rear of the car necessary to accommodate The Clamshell cut into the load capacity of the car. The Clamshell passed from the scene after 1976.
6. The Liftgate: This design probably has European roots. Its first appearance on American wagons was in 1961, on the four compact wagons introduced by GM that year (Corvair Lakewood, Pontiac Tempest, Olds F-85, Buick Special).
But the most innovative wagon feature of all had nothing to do with the tailgate:
That's a '63 Studebaker Wagonaire, with its unique sliding roof panel. Perfect for hauling that new refrigerator home from Sears. It leaked, but like a lot of Studebaker's ideas it was basically sound, needing only some refinement work that the ailing company couldn't afford.We've seen retractable hardtops return, will this be next?
Station wagons are almost gone now, having been supplanted almost entirely by sport utility vehicles and minivans. Some of the ancestors of SUV's and minivans were even called station wagons. "Station Wagon" was VW's official name for the vehicle that came to be known as the Bus. The Willys "Station Wagon" pictured below is really more of an early SUV, with its truck-derived heritage:
(Just think of it as Grandpa's Grand Cherokee.)
Wagon Oddities (and one gem!)
Well, it wouldn't be a Land Yacht Marina page without a voyage into the unusual, the funky, and the just plain bizarre. Submitted for your approval:
Cadillac Station Wagons
Cadillac NEVER made a wagon, but that hasn't stopped people from wanting one and doing something about it. The following three examples are only a tiny sampling of the many variations of custom Caddy wagons out there:
1. The '63 Cadillac Vista Cruiser
Well, it sure looks like an Olds VistaCruiser roof sitting atop this '63 Caddy Sedan DeVille. This car was photographed at an eastern Pennsylvania car show in 1989 or 1990. The owner wasn't around to answer any questions. The workmanship is excellent, but the car has one key practical shortcoming as a wagon, which is that it does not appear to have a working tailgate, as this rear view shows. (Yes this is the same car; the colors look different because these photos went through two different scanners.)
2. A very simple and clean '85 Fleetwood wagon
Many Cadillac wagon conversions take advantage of the fact that GM shared body styles among its divisions and as a result the Sedan DeVille and in some years the Fleetwood Brougham had a lot of structure in common with full size Buicks and Oldsmobiles. This was particularly true from 1977 to 1985 leading to opportunities for such fine conversions as this '85 belonging to a member of the Cadillac Club of Finland:
3. A Lone Star masterpiece!
Feast your eyes on this beautiful '73 DeVille wagon with tastefully done wood trim. According to the owner, Sarah McGarrahan of Arlington, Texas, this car was one of six sold in 1973 by Frank Kent Cadillac of Fort Worth. The workmanship on the rear is magnificent. Click here for a view of the rear of the car.
4. The Cadillac Catera Station Wagon!
Would you like your Caddy to zig . . . and hold all your fishing/picnic/beach/whatever gear too? Well, just click here and see. You can have it all . . . uh, but like all the advertisements say, "some restrictions apply." Restrictions like, you can't bring it back home with you. And you might want to take a few Cadillac emblems along with you to replace the Opel logo. And it's not a station wagon, it's a "tourer," or as the British would say an "estate car." Details, details, details. But this is what a Catera wagon COULD be, because the German Opel Omega (or the English Vauxhall Omega), is what a Catera is under the skin.
Name This Car!
The following vehicle was photographed at the Macungie, PA show in the early to mid 80's, I think:
Well, it's probably more of a sedan delivery than a wagon, strictly speaking, but that's a minor point. The first question is what motivated someone to join a mid-60's Chevy coupe to the business end of a Ford Country Squire of the early 70's. As with the Cadillac Vista Cruiser,. the owner wasn't around to answer questions. Anyone out there know anything about this car?
Your Father's Camry, Again
This project car is a '61 Toyopet Crown Custom wagon, part of Toyota's first wave of U.S. exports. Before you laugh too hard, consider this. Name another steel-bodied wagon with suicide doors. Yes sirree, there aren't any (hearses don't count!), at least none that were sold in the U.S. So you can be the first, and the only, person on your block to have a suicide door wagon!
Wagons may be gone from dealers' showrooms but they live on in the hearts, minds and garages of many Land Yacht lovers. Here's a regular wagon train of links:
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The New Land Yacht Marina © 2006-2007 All Rights Reserved. 1985 Cadillac photo (C) Cadillac Club of Finland and used with permission.