Readers of a certain age – say 50 years and older – undoubtedly remember the era when nearly every family in the neighborhood owned a station wagon. The station wagon – basically a sedan with an extended roof over the trunk – were the perfect vehicle to take the family and go shopping, visit grandma during the holidays or travel across the USA with the kids and the dog. My, my, how times have changed. When was the last time you saw a “real” station wagon that wasn’t a crossover or a sport utility vehicle?
With parking lots and roads filled with crossovers, SUVs and pickups everywhere you look it isn’t easy to find a station wagon nowadays. But find one I did, and it wasn’t a vintage 1957 Ford Country Squire with the wood trim or a 1971 Chevy wagon with the clamshell tailgate, but a 2019 Buick Regal TourX Essence. It was painted Sport Red (bright red with a tinge of orange) and it is owned by Dennis Szymanski of Benton Harbor. I’ll share the story about Dennis and his station wagon following a brief history of U.S. built and sold station wagons.
The consensus is that the first utility passenger vehicle that we now call a station wagon first appeared on the American roads around 1910. They were called “depot hacks” (short for hackney carriages) and were used to transport passengers and their luggage from the railroad depot to local hotels and area resort locations. Sometimes called “estate cars” or “estate wagons,” they were a two-box design with a custom-built wood body attached to a Ford Model T. In other parts of the world these long roof vehicles had names like Avant, Kombi, Sports Wagon and Variant.
For obvious reasons the early station wagons were nicknamed “woodies.” They would be built and sold from 1910 to just after World War II. The first mass-produced, all steel-bodied station wagon was offered by Willys-Overland Company in 1946 based on the platform of a Jeep. Plymouth in 1949 offered the first passenger car-based, all-steel station wagon with its two-door Suburban. In just a few years, all the station wagons built in the U.S. would abandon wood and use steel only. The final wood-bodied wagon was the 1953 Buick Estate.
The popularity of the station wagon – fueled by the post-war baby boom – soared in the 1950s and reached its zenith in market share popularity in the ’60s and the ’70s. It only took a few years before the two-door entry level station wagons like the Plymouth were joined by nearly all the major auto brands like Chevy, Ford, Pontiac, Mercury and Chrysler, excluding luxury brands, with a variety of two-door, four-door and even hardtop offerings. Many automakers, especially Ford with their Country Squire high-end series, went the extra mile to make their all-steel model appear to be a “woodie” by applying realistic looking simulated wood on their wagon’s sides and tailgate. Station wagons also sported some very interesting features that increased their popularity. Features like two- and three-way opening and clamshell tailgates, fancy roof racks and rear roofs that could slide open like a sunroof, like on the Studebaker Wagonaire.
Station wagon sales sagged quickly when first the minivans arrived on the scene in 1983, and sales almost disappeared around the 1990 period when interest in first SUVs clicked in with popular models like the Jeep Cherokee and Ford Explorer. Today about three out of four vehicles sold are a utility vehicle and a big majority are either crossovers or SUVS. As I’ve mentioned before in this column, there is an irony in this sudden abandonment of the station wagon. For all intents and purposes the SUV/crossover vehicles now selling like hotcakes ARE station wagons, only built a little taller with a smitch more utility.
Why this happened is another story. The fact remains that while the station wagon is still popular in Europe and other parts of the world, the demand has disappeared here in the U.S. Which leads me back to station wagon owner Dr. Dennis Szymski of Benton Harbor, a retired neurosurgeon who practiced for 30 years in St. Joseph. He asked to be called Dennis, so Dennis it is. Dennis was born in Detroit and received his degrees and training from University of Detroit, Wayne State University and did his internship at Parkland Hospital in Dallas. Dennis retired in 2013 but keeps busy being president of the Berrien County Woodworking Guild, volunteering at the Cycle-Re-Cycle organization and serving on the Heritage Museum board as vice president.
Dennis was drawn to a Buick Regal TourX station wagon because his hobby as a woodworker required a roomy vehicle to haul his woodworking equipment and supplies, but he didn’t want a SUV and/or a crossover. He did look at a Chrysler Pacifica minivan but “couldn’t see himself being a soccer mom guy,” even with the enticement of a $13,000 rebate from the Chrysler dealer. He discovered the existence of the Regal wagon from an article in a car buff magazine last year. His switch to a Domestic Three automobile is rather a surprise. Up until now his typical ride in recent decades has been a European luxury car from either BMW or Mercedes-Benz, although he surprised me with the list of rather exotic American cars that have inhabited his garage. Exotics (to me anyhow) like a Cadillac XLR (a two-seater, like Corvette), Cadillac CTS-V and a Hummer H-2. He also drove his young family on errands back in the day in big Buick and Oldsmobile wagons. It was fun for me to learn that his first car was a barebones 1960 Ford Falcon with a stick shift. Just about par with my first car, a 1960 Rambler with a stick shift.
“I get tired of cars after two years,” Dennis shared with me. He added that leasing is his preferred style for automotive ownership. I asked why and said he likes the thrill of having a new car every two to three years, plus the strong warranty in place eliminates worries. Dennis’ leased Buick Regal is a very striking looking automobile. While it is sold as a Buick, the Regal begins life as an GM Opel Insignia and is imported to the U.S. I reminded Dennis that he still has a German import in his garage. The Regal comes in three flavors: base, Preferred and Essence. Dennis’ top-of-the-line Essence Regal goes reasonably fast with a 2.0L. turbo four-cylinder 250 horsepower engine with a eight-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive. The Essence provides it owner with a wide range of power, safety and comfort features like adaptive cruise, hands free power liftgate, 18-inch aluminum wheels, forward collision alert, side blind zone alert plus dozens more features.
Sales of the Buick Regal TourX have been modest, with sales for the nameplate through four months or 2019 totalling 4,594 units. It appears the demand for station wagon models in the U.S. market remains very light. There are a lot more people wanting those high-roofed SUVs and crossovers and not a low-slung, attractive station wagon. The fact remains both are about the same vehicle in size, but one sits a little higher than the other and apparently that is the deciding factor in today’s car market.
Dar Davis founded the Lake Bluff Concours and chaired the event for many years. He has been writing this column since 1999. He can be reached at email@example.com.