Scanning Around with Gene: Let’s All Pile in the Station Wagon!

Until Chrysler introduced the first mini-van in 1983, most American families with more than two kids probably owned a station wagon at one time or another. In some ways the station wagon exemplified the American auto industry in its heyday — big, heavy, and hard to park. But we loved them as kids, and piling in the station wagon often represented a fun family outing, whether the destination was the ice cream parlor on a hot summer day or a long road trip where sleepy little ones could curl up in the way back for a nap.

Station wagons weren’t just automobiles; they were often extensions of the home. Big enough to transport a lot of gear, the station wagon was the vehicle of choice for adventuresome families travelling to the beach, campground, or lake. Their big engines were plenty powerful to pull a trailer or boat, and while the kids might sleep in a tent, Mom and Dad could always stretch out in the back of the wagon, where comfort and privacy were a bit better.

Click on any image below to see a larger version.

And thanks to their large size, station wagons were quite the canvas for automobile designers, who used the expansive stretches of metal for two-tone color schemes, fake-wood panels, and all sorts of chrome ornaments and special features.

Originally used almost exclusively for transporting people from the train station to home, vehicles with larger back ends (to hold luggage) were part of a broader class of conveyance known simply as “wagons,” which of course pre-dates motorized vehicles. But because the first enclosed motor vehicles with extra room in the rear were so tied to the era of rail travel, the term station (for train station) and wagon were linked, and the term stuck.

It wasn’t until after World War II that station wagons made the transition from commercial transportation to popular family cars. Through the late 1940s, many had panels made of wood, due in part to weight issues and steel shortages in wartime. Thus the “Woody” wagon:

By the end of the ’50s, station wagons amounted to 17% of all U.S. car sales, and many versions were available, from entry-level economy models to high-end luxury versions. Manufacturers worked hard to top each other and wagons got a lot of distinguishing features, from all-around glass roofs to swing-out tailgates to push-button transmissions.

Want to know what kind of wagon Gene’s family drove? Go to page 2!

Posted on: May 18, 2012

Gene Gable

Gene Gable has spent a lifetime in publishing, editing and the graphic arts and is currently a technology consultant and writer. He has spoken at events around the world and has written extensively on graphic design, intellectual-property rights, and publishing production in books and for magazines such as Print, U&lc, ID, Macworld, Graphic Exchange, AGI, and The Seybold Report. Gene's interest in graphic design history and letterpress printing resulted in his popular columns "Heavy Metal Madness" and "Scanning Around with Gene" here on

21 Comments on Scanning Around with Gene: Let’s All Pile in the Station Wagon!

  1. I remember when my dad bought a big, yellow 1973 Buick Estate Wagon. We were satisfied with the 10mpg highway we achieved in our vacation trips across Texas. Not too bad for a 455cu engine. Quick a difference from my brother-in-law’s Opal.

  2. In the 60s, my family had a red Rambler station wagon. Made many family vacations in it, Arkansas, Tennessee, Colorado from Louisiana.

  3. As usual, I love scanning around with Gene.

    When it comes to the family wagon, the one that sticks out for me was our baby blue 1957 Ford. For a reason I can’t remember, in 1960 my father had the engine replaced – with one that came from a sporty Thunderbird. It was memorable simply for the fact that the engine overpowered the stock exhaust, so much so that starting the car in the garage was strictly verboten, as the whole house would rattle as the car thundered to life.

    And that explains our family name for the baby blue beast: Thunderwagon!

  4. Every summer from the late 60’s to the late 70’s my family would drive from NY to Montana every summer in a long line of Estate Wagons. There were five of us, plus whatever dogs and cats we had at the time. 12 hour driving days at 10 mpg, and lots of memories!

  5. Our Country Squire was big – but never big enough to keep my sisters and I from “touching each other or we’ll scream” in the back seat. Our patient parents loved family road trips in our station wagon – and I’m lucky they did!

  6. Although my folks had a decent sized family (4 kids!) my Dad steadfastly refused to buy a wagon. We had lots of big Mercury sedans, instead. Our friends & neighbors had wagons, and I guess because they were so different than our sedan, I really liked them.

    I love the picture of the Pontiac wagon on the first page! The illustrators who did that work should be national heroes. They were called Van & Fitz (Arthur Fitzpatrick & Van Kaufman) worked for GM from about 1959 to 1970 or so, and did primarily Pontiac ads. Those ads were one of my inspirations to go into art as a career.

  7. Yes, I love their work. Has a certain Leroy Nieman quality to it, only better! Thanks all for the great comments!

  8. If only we had more wagons to choose from today in the US market.

    Great article as always from Gene!

  9. In the mid 60s, I had an aunt & uncle who drove a station wagon everywhere they went, and they only had one child. The one thing I thought of when I read your article was climbing in and out the back of it through the window. I was a chuncky kid and they took Polaroid movies of everything. They took one shot of me climbing in or out of the back and every time we had family get togethers they would show show their home movies. One of the favorite things the kids would always shout out was, “Make Ronnie go forwards and backwards”. So for the next minute or so I would be on the big screen climbing in and then out, in and out of the back of that station wagon. Quite hilarious really.

  10. We had a 1960 Ford Falcon Station Wagon when I was about 5 years old. I remember riding down dirt roads on the tailgate while it was down. Nowadays my dad would’ve been arrested or something for that! Those were the days of carbeds for babies and no booster or car seats, either.

  11. When we got married in the summer of ’72, we bought a new ’73 Ford Gran Torino stationwagon. It had the woody-sided look — wish I had a photo of it now! At that time we were part of the pit crew for a couple of fellows who were into racing (Formula Vee and Formula Atlantic), and we used the wagon as a sleeper when we were out at Mosport racetrack (see overnight with them. Lots of room in the back for the two of us and our sleeping bags!

    It was a great vehicle and we kept it until 1980, when the timing chain broke. Got rid of it then, but six months later I saw it parked on the street near where I worked. It was unmistakeable as it had a Shell racing sticker on one of the windows…. So someone who could tinker had fixed it up and it was back on the road.

    Although it was the year of the notorious “rusty Fords”, ours was undercoated and never developed a speck of rust. My dad had the same model, without the undercoating, and the difference was amazing.

    We have really fond memories of that wagon!

    Lesley & Hal
    Edmonton, Alberta

  12. In those days, our overnight home was parked in what is now the ‘corporate tent’ area. Our buddies, of course, overnighted beyond the pit area on the other side of the track.

    Lesley & Hal
    Edmonton, Alberta

  13. I was pleased when page 2 came up and there was the Jeep Wagoneer. Mine (as well as Gov. Schwartzeneger’s) is a blue 1987 Grand Wagoneer woodie!

    mark scantling New West Pop Art

  14. Our first “wagon” was a 1941 Dodge Sedan Delivery. It was a bright shiny green (reminds me of green M&M’s) with wide whitewalls on red rims with chrome center caps. My grandfather bought it new and passed it on to my Dad around the time I was born (1967).

    I have fond memories of that car. A real classic.

  15. Clyde S. McConnell

    October 23, 2008 at 1:02 am

    I too remember those pre-dawn departures Gene mentions. In my case, it was a V-8 Ford with a disappointing two-barrel carburetor. But that vehicle took my dad and me to New York and back, and I later learned to drive with it.

    I remember the Studebaker Lark, but not the station wagon model Gene shows. Was anyone else struck by the conservatively handsome design of that model? In some ways it looks a bit like my 2005 Forester.

    Thanks once again, Gene.

  16. As a kid in France, It was only possible to dream about those beautiful wagons,

    But the concept is still alive : the fist thing I bought for my three kids was precisely a wagon (oh, by the way, we call it “break” or “estate” in France),

    It would have been a Forrester if I could afford it.

  17. My family had an early 70’s Mercury version of the Country Squire – yellow with “wood” siding. We would travel twice a year from Northern KY to Maryland to visit relatives. The thing I remember is the packing of the luggage rack. This was only done by my father. He would have everything, to be taken, in the driveway. It was always a great production of loading and unloading until everything fit in the most areodynamic manner, covered with a tarp and tied down with rope.

    My second memory is of my grandfather. He worked in construction and instead of driving the customary pickup truck, he always had a Ford Country Squire. He would keep all of his tools and supplies in the back of the wagon. It sometimes rode pretty low. He would buy a new wagon every year. By the time he traded one in, the floor would be practically covered in sawdust and dirt.

  18. I grew up in Sao Paulo state, Brazil and my father had a Chevrolet Opala Caravan.
    It was roomy enough for a family of eight (dad, mom, and 6 kids!) plus everything needed for a weekend on the beach or when visiting relatives in Goias state.
    BTW, we call it “perua” in Brazil.

  19. Looking at an 88 Squire. Sweet ride, especially interior. Could anyone get close on an est.mpg. highway use?

  20. Not a wagon, but read all the way through: I just barely remember the blue Checker we had, which my mother adored because you could fit a twin-size mattress on the floor in the back (for the kids to snooze on long trips to the grandparents).

    When it finally died, we got a brand-new 1974 Buick Century wagon, which I eventually learned to drive on. As big of a boat as that was (you could fit a stack 4×8 sheets of plywood in it), my mother complained that the Checker was so much better because it was BIGGER inside!!! We loved it because we could ride in the “back-back” and make faces at the drivers behind us.

    Ah, modern cars will never have the same charm.

  21. Always enjoy revisiting treasures from my childhood, although I feel odd when I realize my kid favorites are now antiques. Guess that makes me a classic! :^ )

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