Remember the wagon

Remember the Wagon?

The period starting around 1995 and ending in early 2008 will very likely be remembered for the new American summer vacation cliché. The family outing, the short vacation, trips to the beach, mountains, or even Grandma’s house, soundly revolved around the family SUV. Big enough to seat the entire family in a distinct measure of comfort, strong enough to denote safety, and aggressive enough in appearance to make a definitive statement about the driver, there was certainly a lot to love about the SUV. Of course, that was before the age of triple digit oil barrel prices. Now, the beast that the Sport Utility Vehicle appeared to have officially killed way back in 1996, the station wagon, is making a comeback.

The lineage of the station wagon can be traced all the way back to a variant of the Ford Model T, but according to some station wagon aficionados, the first true station wagon was the 1923 Star made by Durant Motors Company. The station wagon truly bloomed into the car of choice for large families, as one might expect, with the baby boom following World War II. The move of families away from urban areas and into the suburbs paired with the spread of the highway system and the increase in average family size made the station wagon practical. And despite the wagon never occupying the same public love as the sports car or even the pickup truck, prior to the 1970s gas crisis, the station wagon accounted for nearly one out of every five cars on the road.

The gas crisis of the 1970s, much like the gas crisis of today, put a crimp in the practicality of the large, American station wagon. The minivan, officially launched in 1984, helped to push the station wagon further towards retirement, and ironically, the widespread boom of the Sport Utility Vehicle in 1995, meant that the 1996 Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon was the last true American station wagon on the market. Everyone, it seemed, had traded low and wide with tall and off-road-capable.

Or did they? Despite one replacing the other, the station wagon and the SUV share a lot in common. Until 1938, station wagons were officially classified as commercial trucks and were routinely built on the chassis of half-ton pickup trucks. The break down for the modern SUV is the same. Those which are built on a laddered frame, more reminiscent of a classic truck due to the ability to distribute weight, are considered trucks by fuel economy standards. However, those built on a solid, one piece frame – often called Crossovers – are usually classified as cars, and in many states, station wagons. Yes, it appears that the station wagon never died, it just went through an aggressive makeover.

Granted, it’s quite easy to look at a crossover and assert, “that doesn’t look like my father’s station wagon” and you would be correct in asserting that. Like many bellbottoms before them, the station wagon has returned under a new guise and has been updated to pass muster in the modern world. Like most cars today, the overall look is more aggressive, merging the handling of a car, roughly the appearance of a sport utility vehicle, and yes, the practicality of a station wagon. And the advances go beyond looks. The smaller crossovers and blatant modern station wagons like the Audi A4 Avant, Volvo V70, and the Subaru Forester, have marked increases in fuel economy when compared to the SUVs that they are quickly starting to replace.

Yes, it was the fuel crisis of the 1970s that led to decline of the station wagon, and the SUV that originally killed them. However, it was the gas crisis of 2008 that gave rebirth to the modern station wagon, or whatever the car manufacturers are calling them. Keep that in mind as you pile the kids into your Ford Flex, Chevy HHR, or Honda CR-V for a trip to Grandma’s.

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