Before station wagons were cool

1958-ford-stattion-wagon-sm
1958 Ford station wagon sales brochure photo. Pretty in red and white, but ours in beige and white was cool, too.

“Station wagon—where did that come from,” a good friend laughed loudly after accidentally using the term to reference her Chevrolet Suburban.

Anyone born after 1970-75 or so will likely get that deer in the headlights look while asking questions like, “What kind of wagon did you say?” But, those of us driving the roads prior to the 1970s know exactly what a station wagon was. Still, however, it’s often an awakening to realize that what was once the standard mode of transportation for generations of American families quietly made the last exit off the freeway decades ago. Two things likely paved the road south for the icon of family motoring. One perhaps, the demise of the “full-sized” cruiser automobiles that were the platform for them. The other, likely the introduction of mini vans and the domestication of truck-based work vehicles, gussied up and relabeled as sport utility vehicles—or SUVS (aka soccer mom-mobiles).

Historical note to the previously mentioned younger crowd who never traveled to a ballgame, went on a family picnic or took a vacation riding in the back of a station wagon: The term was coined during the age of train travel, around the 1920s. Designed as utility vehicles and used at depots to transport people and freight lead to, “station wagon.” Primitive metal forming technology was expensive, therefore, the utility bodies were fashioned from hardwood incorporating metal front sections from regular cars and trucks of the period. This manufacturing method lasted through World War II and into the early 50s when advanced technology reduced the cost of an all-metal body. The popular style continued well into the 70s however, but the last of the “woody wagons” were all metal utilizing vinyl to obtain the faux wood look.

Today’s small SUVs and crossovers are occasionally referred to as station wagons. But, take my word for it if you’ve never ridden in a real station wagon, it’s just not the same experience.

Once the words were out of her mouth last week, the brake lights came on as my friend was driving right through her sentence doing about 65 to 70 words per minute and called her plush, modern SUV a “station wagon.” The silence before the laughter was deafening before she plowed into trying to analyze why “station wagon” so easily rolled off her lips.

While she thought about that, I shared with her as how it was actually odd that she used the term while talking to me. Old station wagons are cool today, and I’ve long harbored a secret lust for a ’55 Ford Country Squire wagon to compliment the trio of mid 50s Fords already in my stable. “Black,” I said. “Love the black with wood-grain trim on the side, and a red interior.”

“My father had a station wagon,” she said. “I backed it into a pole and bent the bumper when I started driving. I didn’t think he would notice right away,” she laughed. “I was wrong.”

“We also had one,” I echoed. “A 1958 Ford, beige and white, and huge. When I think about the car, I remember how my grandmother—my father’s mother—could so easily ruffle my mom’s feathers.”

My sisters and I were young, still grade school age, when dad traded the family’s blue ’56 Chevy sedan for the Ford wagon. Mom frequently made the short trip from Mount Pleasant to Pittsburg in Northeast Texas then, checking on dad’s parents, usually after school and always with three kids in tow. Soon after we acquired the big cruiser, mom and granny were engaged in another spirited conversation one afternoon, I’m guessing over one of my grandmother’s critiques on child rearing. Bless her heart, granny meant well, it was just in her personality to be everyone’s life coach.

Mom, in tears by then, loaded us up and gave ‘er the gas, headed south on Cypress Street toward highway 271 that would take us home. About the time the wagon’s motor revved up to shift gears, mom took the column-mounted shift lever and threw it up into second gear position, “three on the tree” style. That would have been just fine had she still been driving the Chevy. It was a standard shift. What mom had forgotten in her aggravated emotional state was that the wagon was not. It had an automatic. The first car with an automatic transmission dad bought.

Warning: Do not try this at home. What happens when you shift an automatic transmission equipped car from “D” to “P” as it’s passing through, oh, probably about 20-miles-per-hour, and still accelerating, is still a vivid memory. Loud and ugly grinding and grating noises emanating from under the car are accompanied by the rear tires violently bouncing up and down on the pavement from their abrupt termination of the ability to continue rolling smoothly. Signs inside the car that something is wrong include three wide-eyed children flying off the seats and into the floor (note: this was also the before seat belts era), the car screeching to a sudden and unexpected stop, and my poor stressed out mother uttering special words that she reserved just for such occasions. Words, that by the way, we were sternly forbidden to repeat.

Once the car came to a screeching stop, mom rested her head against her arms that were folded on top of the steering wheel for a moment, still in tears which soon became subtle, muffled laughter. Mom had that quality about her. She carefully moved the shift lever back into “D” and luckily, the big beige and white behemoth took us home without further incidents.

The wagon remained a part of our family for several years. I remember it being used to transport everything from groceries to bicycles to Christmas trees. I also remember one classic family vacation in the car during the summer of 1960 when we stayed at the Rose Motel located in, I believe it was Mena, Arkansas. We were still a year or two away from buying our first television at home, and I remember my fascination at watching the black and white set in the motel room, gazing at the news proclaiming that John F. Kennedy had been tagged by the Democratic Party to appear on the ballot in November against Republican nominee Richard Nixon.

Definitely before station wagons were cool—so, where did I see that ad for a ’55 Country Squire wagon? Maybe I’ll offer my friend a ride for old time’s sake, but I don’t think I’ll let her drive—not if backing up is required.

—Leon Aldridge

4 thoughts on “Before station wagons were cool

    1. Thanks, babe. I appreciate the response. Bet you didn’t think there were any childhood family stories you hadn’t heard, did you? Some of them more than once, but you are nice to not say, “Dad, we’ve heard that one,” …too often.

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    1. Thanks Jeanette. I appreciate the comments and so glad you liked it. I used to think things would slow down as I got older. Just not happening, seems like I’m busier now than I ever was. But I do miss the writing, and intend to make time to stay with it for a while.

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