I see Jaguar has launched the XF Sportbrake at the Geneva motor show. It got me thinking. The heyday of the wagon, the estate car, the shooting brake – whatever you want to call it – was in the late-50s/early-60s. One of my favorites was Ford’s Galaxie Wagon, the Country Squire, with side-facing rear seats, fake wood down the sides and a trick tailgate. You could open it any way – left, right, up, down. An engineering marvel.
Chrysler wagons had one of the most exciting (and frightening) features of any car, which was the rear-facing seat. The kids would sit in the back and look out the back window, so when dad’s travelling at 80mph, and trucks are bearing down on you and slamming on the brakes, it’s like a 3D movie. Nash made a wagon in which you could fold down all the seats and make a giant bed. In promotional material they showed it going down the highway, dad driving, mom sitting behind him, and the passenger and rear seat are folded and the kids are sleeping. It says something like ‘Quiet safety’. Dad’s going 70mph and the kids are not belted in.
From that era, but not limited to wagons, was something called the child safety seat and it was just a plastic seat and it had a little plastic steering wheel with a horn in the middle and you slipped it over the bench seat. The only disadvantage was that every time you hit the brakes too hard the whole thing would just fly forward and the kid would hit the windshield. That was the safety seat.
You could get a nine-seat Chrysler station wagon, with the rear-facing seat and an enormous 423ci engine in it, or even a Hemi engine – and a stick shift! I have a 1954 Dodge station wagon that has a 241 Hemi, a three-speed stick and an overdrive. It was meant to pull a boat. It goes like a train.
The US wagon died when the luxury tax on cars above ,000 came in. Most of the big luxury wagons with air conditioning and all that were in the high 30s, so you would pay the additional 5% tax. But there was no tax on trucks, which were considered work vehicles. So the manufacturers just said, why don’t we build a car on a truck chassis? That’s where SUVs came from. People saved 5% that they could put into air-con and leather. The wagon couldn’t compete because it was considered a luxury vehicle.
I can’t think of an SUV I like but there are lots of wagons I love. I remember the Olds Vista Cruiser. It had a second roof, raised 6-8 inches, that had glass panels in the top to let the sun in. I don’t know if the Volvo 1800ES could be considered a wagon but it was the first vehicle I ever saw like that, where you could open that rear glass so you had a sports car that was kind of a mini-station wagon. I like the Chevy Nomad, although they’ve been overdone in the last few years, with people putting 22in wheels on them. Another that was pretty cool was the Buick Caballero. That was what they called a hardtop wagon, which meant that there was no pillar. So when you put down the front and rear windows there was an open space with no pillar in-between. That was Buick’s top-of-the-line wagon and it had everything.
I never got the whole shooting brake thing. You know, taking a Rolls-Royce or an Aston and making a shooting brake. Maybe if you’re on your land and you’ve got your Purdey shotgun and all that, but… no. Get a Range Rover.
I like single-purpose vehicles. I like the Chevy Volt because it’s an economy car, and electric. I like my McLaren because it does what it does very well. I like my station wagon because the seats fold down and I can put plywood in it. I don’t like cars that are supposed to be three things in one. It’s the same reason I don’t wear reversible jackets.
I think there will be a station wagon resurgence. When the minivan came out all the yuppie moms got one. Well, those kids don’t want what mom had. They want something cooler but they’re going to have to haul their kids to soccer games. The wagon has a great place in American culture. There’s that hilarious National Lampoon vacation movie, where the family buys the Wagon Queen Family Truckster, in metallic pea. It’s an amalgamation of every ugly station wagon.
I don’t get the whole luxury 4x4 thing. Lots of people don’t go off-road and with the XF Sportbrake you still have the comfort that Jag is known for. As always, the definition of a wagon is still unclear. Anything that’s built on a car chassis and has rear seats that fold down, and you can enter from the back, that’s a station wagon. It might be a different kind of station wagon, but it’s still a station wagon. Or is that an estate car or shooting brake?