Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Classic And Vintage Station Wagons And Why They're Awesome, Why You Want One, And Where To Find Them

Station Wagons - An American Classic

The Station Wagon is an American classic. Station Wagons look better, handle better, and are more practical than any mini van or "SUV" could ever hope to be. They make great project cars, hot rods, and even race cars. It goes without saying that station wagons are the ultimate family car. Their unique combination of styling, utility , and drivability is unmatched by any other car. If you've experienced a Station Wagon, you already know how awesome they are for road trips, vacations, family life, etc. If you don't know, keep reading to find out why these cars just flat rock...

Pre-History of the Station Wagon

Before station wagons, there were depot hacks...

1915 Ford Station WagonThe very first Station Wagons were called "depot hacks." Depot hacks weren't production vehicles; they were based on a commercial chassis (usually Ford) with a custom body built by independent companies for extra passenger and cargo space. These hacks (taxis) were used to haul people and their luggage to and from the train depot, hence the term depot hack. Over time, the term station replaced depot, wagon replaced hack, and these specialty vehicles became known as Station Wagons. The first commercially produced wagon, the Star, was introduced in 1923.

Treasury of Station Wagon Living

Not just a car but a lifestyle...

One of the reasons I like wagons so much is they help take me back to a simpler time. Gas was cheap, families had time to spend together, and there were a lot less things to worry about. One of the things I really enjoyed as a kid was car camping with my family, and station sagons are ideally suited for car camping. They're easier and more relaxing to drive than a truck, but they have plenty of room for all your camping gear. The fold down rear tail gate on many early wagons works great as a small picnic table, and the back end of many station wagons is big enough to comfortably sleep in if you don't feel like setting up a tent. In fact, Station Wagons and car camping go together so well that Ford published a book on all the aspects of car camping in a '57 Ranch Wagon. It was out of print for many years but is available again. If you want a good nostalgia trip, you will enjoy reading this book...
Ford Treasury of Station Wagon Living (Classic Reprint) 

1958 Dodge Custom Sierra Station Wagon

Nothing beats a Mopar 9 Passenger Wagon...

1958 Dodge Custom Sierra station wagon (Photo: Alden Jewell)

I love early Mopar wagons, and this 1958 Dodge Custom Sierra is one of the nicest wagons Mopar made in their heyday. It would be awesome with an updated suspension and a new Hemi with a blower...

1957 Ford Ranch Wagon

Not just a car, a way of life...

1957 Ford Ranch Wagon
This is the car featured in Ford's Diary of Station Wagon Living. It's a full sized car, but actually pretty compact for the time - about the same size as my Buick Special. These make really nice cars (especially if you're trying to replicate the projects in the book). I think they came stock with a 292 V8. If I was building one today, I'd go for Ford's 4.6 SOHC for lots more power and lots better gas mileage.

(Photo: gem66 on Flickr under Creative Commons)

Prewar Wagons

Station wagons from 1923 - 1950

Prior to WWII, most station wagons were classified as commercial vehicles and had wood or composite wood/metal bodies. These were very beautiful and today are highly sought after by collectors. Unfortunately the wood bodies weren't as durable as steel so there aren't many left today - if you want to buy one, expect to pay a lot of money for a nice one (of course you can also find one in not so good condition and restore it yourself if you have the skills.) In 1938, Dodge offered the first station wagon classified as a passenger car. This started the trend of these cars being a highly desired form of transformation, even though they didn't achieve huge popularity until several years after the war.
Famous Ford Woodies: America's Favorite Station Wagons, 1929-51 
Woodies & Wagons 

10 Reasons To Love Station Wagons

Reasons why they're awesome...

Some people like Pony Cars, others like Muscle Cars, and still others prefer Sports cars. There are even those who prefer an economy car or a sedan, not to mention trucks, vans, and SUV's. Wagons are my favorite though, and here are some of the reasons why...
  1. Station Wagons look slow, so they make good sleepers.
  2. They have lots of weight over the rear axle for better traction coming off the line.
  3. A Station Wagon has 4 doors without the social stigma of being a "4-door."
  4. They have lots of room to haul the wife, rug rat(s), groceries, etc.
  5. They're more affordable than most 2-door hod rods.
  6. If your wife kicks you out of the house, you can comfortably sleep in the back (just try sleeping comfortably in an SUV).
  7. All your friends can ride with you at the same time.
  8. You can easily haul several model airplanes and all related gear.
  9. There is lots of room for storing extra car parts.
  10. There is lots of room for camping and fishing gear. 

The Golden Age

Station Wagons 1950 - 1975

In my opinion, the best station wagons are American wagons made between 1950 and 1973. In the years following WWII, demand for cars started to grow. Wagon sales started out slowly, but grew rapidly during the 1950's. In 1951, station wagons accounted for only 3.3% of all car sales in the U.S. By 1959, they accounted for almost 17% of U.S. car sales. They were no longer considered utility vehicles, and for many car makers represented the top of the line in styling and functionality. The low end wasn't ignored either - both Ford and Plymouth introduced compact wagons in 1960 (Falcon and Valiant respectively), with Chevy releasing the compact Corvair station wagon in 1961 and the much more popular Chevy II (Nova) in 1962. Throughout the 1960's, innovation was the order of the day as auto makers tried to "one-up" each other. As the 60's came to a close though, auto makers turned more towards product refinement, although some innovation continued, like GM's "Clam Shell" tailgate design. Ford and Chevy introduced 2 door compact wagons in the early 1970's (Pinto and Vega respectively), just in time for the energy crisis of 1974. The energy crisis, along with new emissions regulations imposed by Congress, marked the beginning of the end. Production would continue for 2 more decades, but for the most part the Station Wagon's best years were behind it.

American Station Wagons: The Golden Era 1950-1975 (Those were the days...)

Station Wagon: A Tribute to America's Workaholic on Wheels

My Station Wagon Memories

The family wagon was an integral part of my youth...

1973 Dodge Crestwood Station WagonIn 1973, my parents purchased a brand new Dodge Coronet Crestwood station wagon with a 360 4 barrel engine and an automatic transmission. Since it was a demo vehicle, it came with all the options available at the time - air conditioning, power windows, semi-bucket front seats, and rear window exhaust deflector (a.k.a. spoiler). It was painted a beautiful shade of dark brown metallic, and was actually a pretty cool car even though I didn't realize it at the time. It was a huge improvement over their previous car (a 1964 Chevy Impala) and much more comfortable on trips to visit my grandparents. The back seat folded down creating a huge area in the back. When we'd go on trips, my parents would fold the seat down and my sister and I would sleep in the back.

My 3 Station Wagons...

My 3 Station Wagons...

My Favorite Station Wagons

Beauty, handling, performance, and styling...

For a True Believer, any station wagon is better than a non-wagon, but among wagons some are better than others. Station Wagon styles are at least as varied as other types of cars and no matter what your preferences are there is probably a Station Wagon suited for you. If you like "sporty," one of the compact wagons (Chevy Nova, Dodge Dart, Ford Falcon, or Plymouth Valiant) would probably be most to your liking. If you have a big family or lots of stuff to haul around you may prefer one of the full size wagons. If you want excellent handling and good road manners a mid-80's GM wagon (Olds Cutlass Cruiser, etc) might be your best choice. Here is a list of some of my favorite wagons and why they're my favorites...

1962 Plymouth Valiant Station Wagon

A face that only a mother could love...

The 62 Plymouth Valiant had front end styling that was, uhmmm, different and not exactly in a good way. I guess you could say they had a face that only Ma Mopar could love. Other than the front treatment, though, it's actually a pretty good looking car.The thing that makes the '62 Valiant wagon my favorite station wagon, though, is that one of the engine options was a high compression, 4-bbl 383 big block. The engine compartment is a little crowded for headers, but the F.A.S.T. guys are running in the 11's through stock exhaust manifolds so that isn't really a problem. This car could be both a grocery getter and a street terror at the same time. A stroked and mildly built Mopar 400 would make this wagon haul a lot more than just groceries while still having good street manners.

1962 Buick Special DeLuxe

Good looking mid-size...

I found my 62 Buick Special on eBay. It's in very nice Number 3 condition and I bought it for slightly less than Number 3 price so I'm pretty happy. This little car has a wheel base of 112", so it's about half way in size between the compact wagons (Mopar Valiant or Dart, Ford Falcon) and the full size station wagons. In spite of being smaller than it full size wagon, it handles like a land yacht but it's still fun to drive. The Buick Special Series 4000 came with Buick's odd-fire V6 (not exactly the smoothest running engine ever produced) but the Special DeLuxe Series 4100 came with Buick's excellent little all aluminum V8. If you can find one of these in good condition it would make a really nice station wagon to collect or drive on special occasions. Keep in mind that it's not the most popular wagon ever produced, so parts might be hard to find. This is especially important if you find a basket case you want to restore - at least if you hope to restore it to stock appearance.

My 62 Buick Special

Awesome little mid-sized wagon...

undefined My 62 Buick Special is just a little bigger than my 64 Valiant, so I guess that makes it a mid-size station wagon. The similarities are kind of eerie... both have 13" wheels, both have similar displacement (215 cu. in. for the Buick and 225 for the Mopar), and they both use engines that were newly designed at the time the cars were built.

Vintage Buick Special Ad

I think this is for a 61 Buick Special but they're essentially the same as the 63 models...

Another Pic of my Buick

Dawn Patrol...

My 63 Buick Special Wagon at the crack of dawn

1963 Ford Falcon

Timeless looks...

The 1963 Ford Falcon was the last year of the rounded body style. The Falcon station wagon was a compact wagon about the same size as the Plymouth Valiant and the Chevy Nova. Like those other 2 wagons, the Falcon is light enough to perform well with an inline six cylinder engine. If I ever get my hands on 1 of these wagons, that's what I'll use. The 200 is the largest of Ford's Falcon series inline sixes (not sure about the 250) so that's what I'd build. The intake is kind of funky being cast as part of the head, but Offenhauser makes an adapter that (with a little machine work) lets you mount 3 stock 1-bbl carburetors with progressive linkage. Clifford Performance sells headers and cams, put together right this would be a neat little car.

1964 Plymouth Valiant

An A Body wagon can haul more than just groceries...

Mopar redesigned the Valiant in 1963, so the 1963 - 1966 series was completely different than the 1962 Valiant. They were smaller, lighter, and much better looking. I think the 64 Valiant Station Wagon is the best looking of the series; 1964 was also the last year the Valiant was offered with a push button automatic transmission. You could run a small block Mopar, but the early Mopar A Body station wagons are perfect for Mopar's Slant Six. Clifford and Hooker both have headers for the Slant Six, but for a street car the best exhaust option would be Dutra Duals. A factory 2-bbl intake setup would work very well on the street and more exotic options are readily available. You can choose from the factory Hyper Pack (single 4 bbl), dual 1 bbls on an Offenhauser intake, triple Webers, even EFI. My Valiant wagon will be running dual Webers on a modified Offenhauser intake.

11 second Slant Six Valiant Station Wagon - Mopars North of the Gate 2009

My 64 Plymouth Valiant

She's seen better days, but the best days are still ahead...

1964 Plymouth Valiant Wagon

1962 - 65 Chevy Nova

Nice little wagon that could smoke with an I6...

1962 Chevy Nova Station Wagon The 1962 - 65 Chevy Nova station wagon has an unfair advantage over other early compact wagons like the Plymouth Valiant or Ford Falcon - it readily accepts the small block Chevy. In my opinion though, this little station wagon is a much better fit for Chevy's inline 6. The Nova station wagon was produced in much larger quantities than the Dart, Valiant, and Falcon station wagons, so it's a lot easier to find one in good condition. Of all the station wagons on my list, the early Nova wagons are the easiest to find. They're also more popular than the other wagons, so prices can tend to be high in spite of the better availability. Even so, nice examples of the Nova wagon can be found for around $5-15,000 or less if you're patient. Basket cases can be found for as low $500. Unlike some of the other station wagons on my list, parts for the Nova are easy to find (it's a Chevy after all) so you don't need to shy away from the basket cases for fear of not being able to find parts. This may just be the best entry level station wagon you can get into.

1969 Olds Vista Cruiser

A fine full size Station Wagon...

The Olds Vista Cruiser was introduced in 1964. A really unique feature was a split glass skylight over the 2nd seat and small glass panels over the rear cargo area windows. In 1967, the Vista Cruiser was restyled, resulting in one of the best looking station wagons to ever be produced (IMHO). The standard engine was an Olds Rocket 350, with the Olds 400 from the 4-4-2 becoming available in 1968. In 1970, the Olds 455 became an option. Transmission options were a 2 or 3 speed automatic or a 3 or 4 speed manual. The 69 Vista Cruiser is my favorite because it had the styling of the early 2nd generation Cruisers (in 1970 Olds changed the styling) and a "Dual Action" tailgate. The standard engine and transmission offerings are adequate, but if I ever get my own Vista Cruiser I'm going to run a Cadillac 500 V8 backed by a 4 speed automatic overdrive transmission. The 69 Vista Cruiser is a really good looking car and it's probably my favorite station wagon, even though it's not a Mopar.

Olds Vista Cruiser

The ultimate wagon?

Vista Cruiser (Photo: dave_7 under Creative Commons)

Any Full Size Chrysler Wagon

My current favorite is the '72 Town and Country

72 Chrysler Town and Country The ChryslerTown and Country is one of my favorite full size station wagons. It was available in both 6 passenger and 9 passenger models; the 9 passenger Town and Country had a folding 3rd seat that faced to the rear of the car. This wagon was huge and is one of the largest station wagons ever produced. Lots of room to haul a large family, camping gear, all your worldly possessions, etc. To get all that mass moving, the best engine is Chrysler's excellent 440 (the Town and Country was offered with several lesser engines as well). If you can find one of these, it would make an excellent family car (don't expect great gas mileage though), tow car, or a great project car. No matter what you use it for, the Town and Country is one sweet ride.

1970 Datsun 510

Small station wagon for the street or Pro Rally

The Datsun 510 series was a neat little car produced from 1968 - 1974. The coupes were popular in certain sports car racing classes and are considered collectible today, but I like the station wagon version of the 510. It is very small by American station wagon standards, but it has all the requisites - 4 doors, fold-down rear seat, "wagon" roof line, and rear hatch. The 510 wagon is also rear wheel drive which is always a plus but rare for Japanese cars. The engine is pre-smog, reliable, easy to work on, and easy to modify. For a reliable daily driver you can just leave the engine stock, but a few hop-ups coupled with a beefed up chassis and some suspension mods would make the 510 wagon perfect for Pro Rally or blasting down the fire roads through your local forest. As a street machine, the 510 would make an outstanding sleeper if you put in a later model Nissan engine with a turbo running lots of boost. I want one...

Datsun 510 - A Really Great Compact

Pro Rally, anyone?

1980 (1981?) Datsun 510 Station Wagon One of my friends had one of these in high school. Long story... we're both lucky to be alive, the car is long gone, and it was my fault. Anyway, I've wanted to find one and restore it ever since. This particular one is a later model (1980 or 81?) with rectangular headlights. My friend's 510 was an earlier one with round headlights - which look much better IMO. This would be a really fun car with a late model Nissan turbo engine.

(Photo: dave_7 on Flickr under Creative Commons)

1972 Ford Pinto Station Wagon

Lots of fun in spite of only 2 doors...

Even though it only has 2 doors, the Pinto wagon is one of my favorite small station wagons. The original Pintos came with 2.0 litre inline 4, but in 1974 an optional 2.3 litre OHC 4 was offered as an option. The 2.3 OHC is a very cool engine that can be turbo charged and built to very high power levels. These little 2 door wagons with a turbo'd 2.3 would make excellent sleepers and could embarrass many muscle cars in a drag race. I want one. It would go really nice with the Datsun 510 and Chevy Vega compact wagons that I'm going to own some day.

1971 - 74 Dodge Coronet Crestwood

I have many happy memories of this car...

73 Dodge Crestwood Station Wagon Because of the memories I have of family vacations in one of these, the 1974 Dodge Crestwood is my absolute favorite car. My parents' 74 Crestwood wagon took us safely on many family vacations, taught me how to drive, got me back and forth to my first job, and gave me my first taste of independence. Unfortunately I was stupid at the time and didn't appreciate the finer points of owning and driving a Station Wagon. One of my last acts before joining the Air Force was stripping this beautiful, mint condition car of the engine and transmission and towing the body to the county dump - an act I'm now ashamed of of and hope God will forgive me for. I still have the engine in my garage. The Coronet wagon's base engine was Chrysler's 318, but a car this large really needs at least a 360. 383's and 440's were also available as options. When I find my 74 Coronet it's going to run a Mopar 360 stroked to 400 cubic inches.

73 Dodge Coronet

Awesome Mopar wagon with Big Block power...

undefined This Coronet station wagon recently sold in Reno - the asking price was less than $5000!!!. I checked it out but didn't buy it 'cause my wife said if I got it I'd have to sell my Buick Special and that "ain't happening." It was a very nice car though - great paint, zero rust (very rare for a Mopar), decent interior, and a 400 big block. I can just imagine this with a stroked engine - around 472 inches - and a Six Pack intake. Oh well, some day...

1972 Dodge Coronet Crestwood

I learned to drive in one of these...

undefined My parents bought a brand new Dodge Coronet Crestwood wagon when I was 8 or 9 years old and it was the family car for about 10 years. I have many memories tied to that car - trips to Sacramento to visit my grandparents, learning how to drive, my first date, cruising with my friends, crawling under the dashboard to disconnect the odometer so my dad wouldn't know how many miles I'd put on it when I was out with my friends... Some day I'm going to have one of my own.

1976 - 1980 Dodge Aspen

A nice mid-size wagon...

The 1976 - 1980 Dodge Aspen was based on Chrysler's F-Body platform, and was one of the last rear wheel drive cars produced by Chrysler before they went over to the dark side of front wheel drive. The Aspen (and Plymouth Volare) used a transverse torsion bar front suspension that gave a softer ride than the earlier A-Body cars but handling suffered. If you're not building a canyon carver, you should be OK. The Aspen is a nice mid-size wagon with light weight and good aerodynamics so you can get pretty good fuel mileage. If you get one, try to stay away from the 1976 and 1977 models - they had quality control problems that were mostly solved by the 1978 model year.

1995 Honda Accord LX

Another excellent Japanese station wagon...

Except for the Datsun 510 wagon, I'd never seen another Japanese station wagon that I liked. Most seemed kind of bland and some were downright ugly. That changed one day when I pulled in behind a Honda wagon at the gas station. I'd never seen one like it before, and it was a good looking car. I asked the owner about it and it turned out to be a 95 Accord LX Station Wagon. I'm hooked. I've been a big fan of Hondas ever since we got our S2000 but never thought I'd own a Honda wagon until I came across the 95 Accord. The LX version came with a non-VTech B series engine (the VTech was only available in the EX model), but the VTech should be an easy swap. If (when) I get one of these, though, I'm going to go for a K engine swap with a turbo. Talk about a sleeper... this combo would be fast enough to blow off a lot of so-called street racers and have all the practicality of the station wagon platform. All in all, I rate this as a "must have" wagon.

Classic Station Wagons For Sale

Where to find one...

It can be tough to find a good station wagon for sale. Most were bought by family guys, not car guys, and tended to get junked (crushed) instead of collected and restored. Many others were derby'd by people who didn't know any better. Still, it's possible to find good deals on classic station wagons - maybe just not locally. The best source of classic and vintage wagons for sale is eBay. You might think it's not a great idea to buy a car from someone you don't know halfway across the country - and it isn't unless you're careful, do your homework, ask lots of questions, and be careful (yeah, I know I said "be careful" twice). Actually, eBay motors makes it relatively safe to buy a car on line. They have a good system in place for hooking up buyers with professional vehicle inspection and transportation companies, Even if you decide not to buy your wagon on eBay, it's worth checking out their listings to get an idea of what you might pay when you finally find your dream station wagon. Here are a few to check out...

Tips for Buying a Car on eBay

The best way to avoid getting ripped off is to know as much as possible about the car before you commit to buy (i.e. place a bid). Talk to the seller early and often. If the car is within driving distance, inspect it yourself. If not, contact a professional vehicle inspection company in the seller's area. Yes it costs money, but it could save you from losing much more. It can also help weed out bad sellers... if the seller isn't willing to allow an inspection then you should probably look elsewhere for your station wagon. Also, talk to the seller about transportation. Almost all sellers will expect you to arrange transportation, but some are more helpful than others. Many sellers will expect an advance payment at the end of the auction. If you will be picking up the car yourself, see if they will wave the deposit and accept full payment at time of pickup (delivery). I guess I don't need to add that if you're paying in person it's much safer to pay with a cashier's check instead of cash...

Don't let yourself get ripped off...