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Collecting Woodies, Wagons and Wanna-be’s

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by John Gunnell  More from Author

Getting to know the wonderful world of wagons.

The evolution of the station wagon between the early 1900s and 1960s was a striking reflection of middle-class Americans’ urge to own fine vehicles and suburban homes. The first Ford Model A depot hacks were boxy utility vehicles, but by the late-‘30s, the richly varnished “woodie” wagon was an icon of stately suburban living. In most cases, these cars were custom-built creations with the wood bodies supplied by outside suppliers such as Cantrell, Hercules and Ionia.

In the late ‘30s, a small Pennsylvania company that specialized in wood car bodies was asked to draw up some prototypes for Chrysler’s Dodge Division. Paul R. Hafer of Boyertown Auto Body Works labeled his design sketches the Country Squire, Country Gentleman and Town & Country. In 1941, Chrysler adopted the latter name for a unique “barrel-back” car made of wood that was a true station wagon. This model was produced in limited numbers that year and the next. After that, the Town & Country name was used only on other body styles until 1950, when it was applied to an all-steel wagon. It has since been used on fake-wood-trimmed Chrysler models from K-car wagons to minivans. 

Immediately after World War II, car buyers—especially young, middle-class couples who were raising families and purchasing suburban homes—turned to the station wagon as an all-purpose vehicle that could serve their every need. After the wood-bodied depot hack was replaced by the all-steel carry-all, the station wagon went through revolutionary changes. Wagons soon came in every trim from plain to luxury and in two-door and pillarless hardtop models.

The sale of these cars—now made entirely of metal (sometimes with fake wood trim)—was stimulated by Americans’ new suburban lifestyle. Before long, “sport wagons” with names like Nomad, Safari, Caballero, Country Squire and Fiesta were seen. Ford published books showing its 1957 and 1958 wagons optioned as the “push-button camper of the future” with pop-out tents and boats

There was a proliferation of all kinds of station wagon models during the late-‘50s. Ford—known as the “wagonmaster”—had offered just two wagons in 1949: the same car with a six or a V-8. But then the popularity of station wagons also rose exponentially from the early ‘50s through the late ‘60s. By 1959, the station wagon was a model selling nearly a million units a year. No wonder Ford had a line of 12 wagons that year with two or four doors and six or V-8 power.

As the ‘60s started, Ford remained the top wagon maker with Chevy second and AMC third. Unit sales set new records in 1963, but the station wagon’s percentage of total U.S. car sales was also dropping. In addition to a trend towards more V-8-powered station wagons, 1963 also continued a drop that began in 1959 in the popularity of two-door station wagons:

 

Model Year Production of Two-Door U.S. Station Wagons

1959               1960               1961               1962               1963  

149,896         113,375         65,738           30,978           19,002

 

By 1964, a swing away from wagons was being driven by the rising popularity of vans, especially among younger Americans. Auto sales in America boomed in 1965, so station wagon production hit a new record, but the station wagon again got a smaller share of the total market. In the fall of 1965, Ford introduced an innovative dual-action tailgate for 1966. It could be opened like a door or lowered like a tailgate. By 1967, sporty mid-sized wagons could be had with big engines, bucket seats, mag wheels and even four-on-the-floor. Car and Driver magazine had an Italian-built Mustang station wagon that is still around. Pontiac toyed with the idea of a GTO wagon. Fancy wagons were “in” for 1969.

 

Model Year               Total Wagon Production               Market Penetration %

1951                           174,500                                             3.3 (*)

1952                           168,500                                             3.9

1953                           303,000                                             4.9

1954                           310,000                                             6.5 (*)

1955                           580,000                                             8.2

1956                           707,200                                             11.3

1957                           843,500                                             13.6 (*)

1958                           647,000                                             15.2

1959                           937,000                                             16.9

1960                           923,700                                             15.4

1961                           866,800                                             16.0

1962                           924,900                                             13.8

1963                           963,500                                             13.1

1964                           936,969                                             11.9

1965                           968,771                                             11.0

1966                           912,433                                             10.6

1967                           760,094                                               9.9

1968                           860,596                                             10.3

1969                           869,684                                             10.2

 

By 1970, station wagons were turning into monsters. Our ’70 Catalina Safari had a 400-cid V-8, plenty of fake wood and vinyl and a body as big as a boat. It got about 9 mpg around town. Plus, after we purchased it in 1978, we discovered that half of the body was made of Bondo. It was a rust bucket. The 1973 oil crisis, with its long gas lines, made such cars an instant liability.

Detroit tried to combat the big ‘70s-style station wagon’s “baggage” with a rash of Pinto, Vega, Pacer and Chrysler k-car station wagons that essentially combined two negatives: lack of utility and terrible build quality. Then, in 1983, we ran into Brock Yates at the Imperial Palace Collection. He was in the company of a Chrysler PR guy who was driving a prototype vehicle called a “minivan.” This van-on-a-K-car-platform had been damaged and brought to the IP restoration shop for repair. The next fall the minivan was on the market and kicking the stuffings out of what remained of station wagon sales. In addition to being small, but roomy, the minivan was also considered a light truck and did not have to meet the same Corporate Average Fleet Economy standards as cars.

 After the minivan had its day in the sun, compact SUVs became the new darlings of American families. In a way, these were smaller, taller station wagons with four-wheel drive. The traditional full size wagon clung to life through 1996 and then the last survivors-the Corvette-powered Caprice and Roadmaster wagons, bit the dust. The 2005 Dodge Magnum brought back a “station wagon type” vehicle with a sleek appearance, but it lasted only through 2008. However, some are predicting that wagons are today poised for a comeback.

“To me, they’re just going back and redoing the same idea,” says Ron Kowalke, the author of the 1998 book Station Wagons: A Tribute to America’s Workoholic on Wheels. “Crossovers are basically station wagons with modern styling and improved crashworthiness. So we’re in a cycle where we’re getting away from the wagon-killing minivan to cars that have their roots in the wagon.”

Kowalke put his book together after reading an old Ford Motor Company publication called Station Wagon Living that detailed the accessories and camping equipment that a late-‘50s Ford wagon could be outfitted with. “it got me thinking that many people probably had vivid memories of growing up with a station wagon in their family,” says Kowalke. “Maybe they remembered going to Disneyland in a Plymouth Suburban or on vacation in a Ford Country Squire.”

Kowalke put out a call for people to send him station wagon stories and photos and the response was overwhelming. He says the photos were really great and some of the stories were just hilarious. Most of the station wagon nostalgia he tapped into involved models of the ‘50s or early ‘60s, which makes sense since those were the eras in which the station wagon’s popularity peaked.

During his research, Kowalke made contact with the founder of the American Station Wagon Owner’s Association (www.aswoa.com) and found the club’s philosophy to his liking. “Each year the ASWOA convention is held in a different part of the country and 95 percent of the members drive their wagons to the meet,” Kowalke explains. “That’s one of the things I like most, besides the pure nostalgia aspect of owning an older station wagon—I love the utilitarian aspect—the idea that people have wagons as collector cars and still use them.”

Strangely enough, Kowalke considers woodie wagons to be what he calls “knick-knacks” today. “People are not restoring them to take to ASWOA meets with lawn chairs inside and old valises on top,” Ron argues. “They’re top-of-the-list investment quality collectibles and I’m not dissing them, but I don’t think a lot of them are being used day to day. They’re in a category unto themselves.”

To Kowalke, nostalgia counts most. “I think that first and foremost, what people want in a station wagon comes from a memory standpoint,” he says. “You hear collectors say things like ‘My grandfather owned one of those” or “I took my driver’s test in a wagon” or “My dad loaned me his to take on my first date.” In many cases, the collector may have inherited his parents’ or grandparents’ car and is still driving it. What people deem collectible is what they’re familiar with.”

Kowalke thinks wagon product placements in ‘50s and ‘60s TV shows had a lot to do with their postwar popularity. He agrees that seeing Chrysler wagons on “Sky King,” Pontiac wagons in “Sheriff of Cochise” and Ford wagons on “Lassie” helped sell many extra cars. “I think if you grew up watching ‘My 3 Sons’ or ‘The Brady Bunch’—I believe they had a Plymouth wagon—you saw nice looking TV characters piling into wagons and that stuck in your memory,” says Kowalke. “Kids watched those shows and absorbed that kind of exposure.”

When asked to pick 10 vintage station wagons to collect, Kowalke avoided specific selections. “Any of the hardtop station wagons are collectible and there are many of them, the Nomad being the best known” he said. “Woodies are an obvious choice and Jeep wagons with wood trim seem very collectible.” Kowalke avoided a blanket endorsement of the rarer two-door station wagons as a shoe-in for collector status. “Two-door wagons are not very efficient for getting in and out of,” he explained. “But, on the other hand, some of them are really beautiful.”

According to Kowalke, station wagon owners have an advantage in the used parts marketplace. “I write stories about salvage yards and I’ve discovered that you can find a lot of really collectible station wagons in the yards,” he reveals. “They seem not to be as picked over as some other cars because they have unique sheet metal and glass that can only be used on another wagon.”

Kowalke does own a 1996 Buick Roadmaster station wagon that he purchased as both a future collectible and a utilitarian machine. “It’s a leather seat luxury car, a performance machine with a Corvette LT-1 engine that plants you in your seat and hauler for the go-kart my son was racing a few years ago,” says Ron. “It’s a 3-in-1 car, but now we don’t use it a lot because it is very thirsty and expensive to run. He says he dreams of taking it to a future ASWOA meet.

As for his ultimate personal wagon, he puts his Buick high on the list, but admits that he seems to find a new “ultimate” wagon every time he visits a salvage yard. “I wish I had the storage room to tuck them all away,” he says. “But, if I could find a ’57 Chevy two-door wagon that would be the next one in line I would want. From a styling standpoint and the colors they used on those cars. I would say that’s my ultimate dream station wagon for when I retire.”

Ironically, though he parks his own wagon because of its appetite for gas, Ron feels that little wagons such as Crosleys, Ramblers and Pintos do not constitute a large niche in the wagon hobby. “If you like Crosleys, you’ll want a Crosley wagon,” he points out. “But they are not a mainstream collector wagon like the big 6- and 9-passenger jobs. The trajectory of their value hasn’t climbed very steeply, but certainly they have a very small, but loyal following.”

What about vintage station wagon values in general? Kowalke feels that it depends on the type of wagon crossing the auction block. “The Nomads and woodies are in a category to themselves,” he explains. “And panel wagons (which are wagon-based trucks) seem to bring high bids, but most of them are resto-mods. However, the mainstream wagons that are not so different or unusual, except for their wagon styling, tend to stay about the same in value. They’re not depreciating, but they’re not appreciating by leaps and bounds.”

At the same time, Kowalke agrees that older wagons are rare to find today and has ideas on why that is. “They’re still cars that, even if they’re restored, they are going to get used up in some fashion. The survival rate is probably not as good as that of other collector cars. Add to that the rough treatment they got in the past. For instance, the station wagon was the end-all be-all car for demolition derby drivers, so a lot of them got crunched. I’ve got some old photos of demo derbies back in the ‘50s and ‘60s and when you see what they did to the station wagons it makes you cry. You see station wagons that today would be very desirable collector cars and they’re all wadded up—just smashed.”

Kowalke thinks that anyone who wants an older station wagon should not put off the purchase until tomorrow, since tomorrow may not come. “Very few station wagons are advertised in hobby publications any more and it’s getting more difficult to find them in salvage yards, too,” he warns. “Either they have been sitting there so long they’re ready to be reclaimed by the earth or you run into periods when scrap prices go so high that the wagons get crushed. Old station wagons are very heavy and that makes them prime meat for the crusher.

 

Auto Trader’s “10 To Own” Station Wagon Picks 

  1. 1941 Chrysler Town & Country Barrelback
  2. 1940 Ford V8 Station Wagon
  3. 1957 Chevrolet Nomad
  4. 1957 Pontiac Star Chief two-door Custom Safari
  5. 1957 Buick Caballero station wagon
  6. 1960 Mercury Country Cruiser Colony Park Station Wagon
  7. 1959 Rambler Ambassador Custom Cross-Country Station Wagon
  8. 1958 Oldsmobile Super 88 Fiesta Station Wagon
  9. 1946 Willys Jeep station wagon
  10. 1949 Plymouth Deluxe two-door Suburban

Note: Selections based on combination of historical significance, investment potential and eyeball appeal. One-off custom-body wagons not included.

 

 

The Chrysler Town & Country barrelback is a uniquely styled station wagon offered only in 1941-1942. (Jim Rugowski photo)

 

The 1955 Nomad was the first of the “Tri-5” Chevy sport wagons with two-door hardtop bodies and Motorama styling.

 

Bob Anderson’s 1936 woodie is one of many 1930’s Ford wagons that are popular with restorers and rodders alike. Bob’s car is actually a right-hand drive British market car with minor performance modifications.

 

Station wagons that are different or have a history are more collectible. This car in Wayne Lensing’s Lefthander Chassis Museum has both. It is the ambu-wagon that carried Lee Harvey Oswald after the JFK assassination.

 

Olds high-po engine legend Joe Mondello brought his hopped up Cutlass wagon to the Atlantic City Classic Car Auction, but failed to get a high reserve.

 

The 1972 Olds Cutlass Vista Cruiser looks like a Hurst Olds because it is. The car was specially built for use by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway medical director that year, when a Hurst Olds paced the 500-mile race.

 

John Slusar’s 1959 Edsel station wagon is a frequent visitor to many events including the vintage races at Road America, in Elkhart Lake, Wis.

 

Station wagon collectors use their cars to do fun things like haul around teardrop camping trailers decorated with old-fashioned state visit decals.

 

Station wagon product placements in many TV shows helped sales. No cars were used in James Garner’s TV Western “Maverick,” but Kaiser sponsored the popular series and released a dressy “Maverick” station wagon model.

 

Wagons were generally produced in smaller numbers than passenger cars, but there are still ultra-rarities out there. This 1948 Healey Westlands Estate is one from across the pond. (Rick Feibusch photo)

 

Eldon Hostetler’s Hudson Museum in Shippshewana, Ind., did not have a 1940 woodie station wagon, so he purchased a derelict example of this rare model and used it to create this exact copy of a beautiful design.

 

Although purposely built to look like a run-down 1950s family conveyance, this rat rod Plymouth station wagon reflects a great amount of detail and craft.

 

The Family Truckster that starred in National Lampoon’s “Family Vacation” movie was bound for Wally World and is now housed in the Lensing Automotive Museum in Roscoe, Ill. It was built form a Ford LTD Country Squire wagon.

 

Because of their weight distribution characteristics, early ‘60s station wagons made good drag cars, especially during the wheelstanding funny car era.

 

Another of the more desirable two-door hardtop station wagons is the Mercury Voyager. This is the 1958 edition.

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