The station wagon is dead — again — and like the many demises it has already suffered in its long fruitful life, this one comes with an asterisk. The reason for the asterisk is that there are still dozens of vehicles on the market that answer to the name “station wagon.” The reason for the declaration of death — and subsequent obituaries — is Volvo’s recent announcement that it will soon stop selling station wagons in the U.S.
In 1999, the niche purveyor of sensible transport for NPR-Americans sold 40,000 station wagons and felt its fortunes were on the rise thanks to the quirky, post-ironic aesthetic sensibilities of a new generation of car buyers. “It used to be that when you were married and expecting your first child, it was time for a Volvo wagon,” company spokesman Daniel Johnston told the Wall Street Journal in 2000. “Now Gen-Xers are buying them because they think wagons look cool.” Jump-cut to 2010 when, according to Fortune, Volvo sold just 480 station wagons in the U.S. Clearly, Gen X has moved on.
While Volvo never sold the kind of boxy land barges that exist in our collective consciousness as the archetypal station wagon, the company has been selling its own take on the form since the days when those massive machines were bruising highways from coast to coast. And thus its departure from the market feels momentous, or at the very least, it gives us an opportunity to mourn the passing of a vehicle we find easy to live without and yet hard to let go of.
What is it about the mid-century station wagon that calls to us so strongly? Browse Ford’s marketing literature from the 1960s, and the answer quickly becomes obvious. Those ungainly, gas-guzzling rattletraps, 18 feet long and more than six feet wide in some cases, were the precursors to our beloved smartphones and iPads, gigantic, ozone-destroying devices that helped us cultivate our appetites for multi-tasking and hyper-mobility.
It took awhile for them to achieve these qualities. The predecessor of the station wagon was the depot hack of the 1850s, a horse-drawn carriage that specialized in picking up passengers and goods at train stations and ferrying them to hotels, lodges, and country estates. Eventually, these evolved into motorized vehicles and acquired a new name, station wagons.
In the early decades of the 20th century, station wagons were built from wood and steel on a one-off basis by carriage shops and a few car manufacturers. In 1929, Ford began producing them in greater quantities for use at summer hotels, but the overall market remained minuscule. In 1932, the entire industry built just 1,418 wagons.
That changed rapidly in the wake of World War II. Americans had started moving to the suburbs and raising larger families. A vogue for do-it-yourself projects meant that in addition to hauling more toddlers around, people needed cars that could easily transport lumber, concrete, and other building supplies. Rising affluence also meant that families had both more time and more money to spend on vacation. As early as 1949, the New York Times was publishing first-person dispatches on the phenomenon of station wagon camping and the way it allowed its adherents to channel-surf America. “One of the great advantages of camping in a car is mobility,” Times contributor Walter Sosnoski exclaimed. “If we did not like the looks of a place, we simply drove on. We were not held to a rigid travel schedule because of advance reservations, and this freedom to do as we please made our entire vacation an easy-going adventure.”
In the 1950s, newspapers and magazines started prefacing articles about station wagons with the declaration that they were no longer just for the “landed gentry” or the “horsey set,” but had instead gone mainstream and established themselves as the preferred choice of the suburbs. Only 29,000 station wagons were sold in 1946. A decade later, in 1956, that number had grown to 707,200.
What the Model T set in motion, the mid-century station wagon perfected: Mobility not just as a transitional state, a way to get from Point A to Point B, but rather as a primary mode of being. Chevrolet had its Nomad, Rambler its Cross Country. But the manufacturer that arguably worked hardest to position the station wagon as a miracle machine ushering in a new way of life was Ford. In the late 1950s, it published a series of books and pamphlets with names like The Ford Guide to Outdoor Living on Wheels, The Ford Treasury of Station Wagon Living, Volumes 1 and 2, The Newest Adventures in Station Wagon Living.
“The wagon is really a school bus,” this last tome declares. “The wagon is a workhouse for the do-it-yourself suburbanite…the wagon is a bedroom…the wagon is a kitchen…the wagon is a traveling nursery…the wagon is a rolling recreation device…the wagon is an entire mobile home…All these uses add up to something more than transportation, convenience or utility.”
Indeed, they added up to a new sense of self, a way to situate oneself more flexibly and autonomously in the world. We look back at the 1950s as an era characterized by rigid social mores and gender roles, but in reality it was a time when new technologies were radically expanding the possibilities of life, making the world infinitely more configurable than it had ever been, and thus giving individuals more options, more independence, more freedom to do as they pleased, setting up camp when the place they’d arrived at felt like the right place, driving on when it didn’t. In the wake of a car that could serve dinner and sleep four comfortably, who wanted to stay bound by the old rules and mores?
In the mid 1950s, Ford created the Station Wagon Living Program, a kind of third-party developers network. As a result of this evangelism effort, hundreds of small companies started creating products — apps, you might say — that extended the capabilities of the station wagon. “Backyard inventors are producing kitchens that slide out of the rear of the wagon, car-top tents, doubledeck bunks, shelters that enclose the opened tailgate, lightweight collapsible chairs, tables, cabanas, lounges, baby cribs and playpens that can be stowed in the wagon and hauled to beach, cabin and camp,” reported The Newest Adventures in Station Wagon Living.
There were plug-in coffeemakers, portable generators, disposable tents and sleeping bags made from a miracle fiber that Ford described as “paper plus.” The ideal was complete autonomy and flexibility, delivered in user-friendly, streamlined fashion. In 1958, it collaborated with the Reynolds Metal Company to produce a concept vehicle from a standard issue Country Sedan wagon that featured 900 lbs. of accessories mounted to its exterior, including a nine-foot boat, a tent, a shower with hot and cold water, and a kitchen. All of it could be launched, unfurled, or otherwise deployed automatically via push buttons, with no user manuals or manual labor required. The energy source was the wagon’s 12-volt battery. Hyper-mobility, this exercise in “push button station wagon living of the future” implied, wasn’t just for cultural outliers like Jack Kerouac. Even stolid suburban moms and dads longed for hyper-mobility, instant reconfiguration, extreme autonomy.
If parking spaces hadn’t gotten so tiny, if the ozone layer wasn’t so delicate, if minivans hadn’t offered the stay-at-home moms of the 1980s a more modern, business-like aesthetic with which to placate their stunted workplace ambitions, station wagon sales might yet remain robust. Instead, they peaked in 1965 at 968,771. But if our demand for the vehicles themselves has waned over time, our demand for the values that informed them has only grown. And that’s why although we may no longer have room for them in our garages, we’ll always have a space for them in our hearts. • 9 March 2011