Evans looks at the enduring appeal of the traditional American station wagon…
Across the pond
Huw Evans – news & views from North America
There was a time, back in the late Eighties and Nineties, when traditional American station wagons were decidedly uncool. If you were a modern family on the move, your choice of wheels was either a Minivan or an SUV. Today, both these types of vehicles have become so ubiquitous on North American roads that if you drive anything else you are essentially making a statement.
As far as station wagons go, they are almost non-existent in the North American market today. The last truly traditional American wagons were the B-Body Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon, Chevy Caprice Estate and Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser, which bit the dust after the 1996 model year. Since then, the soft roader onslaught has meant that just about any manufacturer, even some European and Japanese makes which offered estate cars, have needed to add bigger tyres, body cladding and lifted suspension to turn them into pseudo-SUVs with names like Allroad or Outback.
As for traditional station wagons, the wheel has come almost full circle. Drive a full-size Eighties or Nineties GM or Ford wagon today, and you’re making a statement. Drive something older and you’d be surprised at how much interest your car will generate at the local cruise night or car show. Even if you watch period Eighties TV shows over here − examples such as ABC’s The Goldbergs and CBS network’s Young Sheldon come to mind − a station wagon features quite prominently.
And why not? Besides their growing cool factor, traditional American station wagons were ruggedly built, many with full frames and sturdy rear-wheel-drive architecture. Most of them featured dependable V8 engines and sturdy transmissions. Parts commonality with other Detroit offerings, including big coupes and sedans, meant that just about any corner garage could service or fix them. Many had seating for six, seven or nine and could easily pull a decentsize camping trailer or boat behind them.
Today, classic wagons can make for a great entry point into the hobby. Browse through the classifieds and you can net yourself a prime condition Eighties or Nineties GM or Ford wagon for four figures. Even older cars, such as those from the Sixties and Seventies, tend to go for significantly less in wagon form than their prized two-door coupe or convertible counterparts and are much rarer − chances are you won’t often see another one like it.
My own fondness for American station wagons really developed about a decade ago. At that time Classic American was looking for a new hauler to replace its S-10 pick-up. Editor Ben Klemenzson contacted me and asked if I could help with the search. After a number of false starts, we finally found something suitable and it was a monster − a 1976 Buick Estate Wagon, 20ft long and weighing close to three tons.
I remember picking it up in Saulte St Marie, where Michigan and Ontario meet at the edge of Lake Superior. It was a two-owner vehicle and a survivor, boasting just 68,000 original miles. I made an offer, signed the papers and a couple of hours later the car was ready to roll.
The drive back home was one of the most memorable road trips I can recall. It was a beautiful day and the big Buick just wafted along the road. Granted, its 455 cubic inch V8 fed by a Rochester Quadrajet meant fuel stops were frequent during the stateside summer of $4 per gallon petrol, but what a car! The stainless exhaust gave a nice rumble and the factory air conditioning worked like a charm, as did the much-maligned clamshell Glideaway tailgate found on 1971-76 big GM wagons. I thoroughly enjoyed having that car in my custody before it was shipped back to the UK and ever since then I’ve had a hankering for another one like it.
When it comes to looking for a classic American station wagon to call your own, it pays to do your research. Many traditional American wagons led hard lives, being run into the ground or ending up on the demolition derby circuit, but even though the numbers have been culled significantly in the last two decades, good ones are still out there and can still be had for very reasonable money, provided you know where to look.
Which reminds me, I’ve just been scanning through the classifieds again and found another 1976 Buick Estate Wagon, this one originally from California and finished in Buick Liberty White with Di-Noc wood panelling, roof rails and factory chrome wheels.
I have to say, I’m sorely tempted…