Ever-popular station wagons keep rolling and hauling along

Despite the strong performance of the minivan, the station wagon refuses to go away. It can carry the kids to school or the ballpark, the trash to the dump, the lawn mower to the repairman, and the family (and friends) to the mountains or the beach. It has long been one of the most functional people-movers on the road. And in some quarters, it's even a status symbol - not simply a utilitarian work-horse. Wagon sales are up 16 percent at Ford, ``primarily due to the acceptance of our new Taurus wagon,'' says Robert L. Rewey, head of the Ford division, although the hottest-selling wagon at Ford is the Escort. ``Many people thought the station-wagon market would fade away with the introduction of the minivans,'' he adds.

``There are always people who are traditionalists,'' explains Thomas E. Gale, design vice-president for Chrysler Motors. ``If they've been buying wagons for a long time, they may want to continue to buy a wagon.'' And why not.

``While the minivans of today are really tall cars and are doing a good job of replacing the full-size wagon,'' reports Mr. Gale, ``I think there is still a place for the conventional station wagon.'' Chrysler has been struggling over the wagon issue, trying to rationalize the investment and make a wagon pay off. The company has just launched its upsized minivan, thus expanding the inside space and making room for even a 4-foot-by-8-foot slab of plywood.

The station wagon - or beach wagon, as it was sometimes called in days gone by - came about for a very good reason. It carried a lot of people, plus luggage, and could do things that the standard car was not designed to do.

The first station wagon to come off an American assembly line, according to the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association (MVMA), was a 1923 Star by Durant Motors, although wagon lovers had earlier been able to buy a chassis and then have the wood body installed at a custom shop. The first Ford Model-A wagon hit the road in 1929 - built of plywood with canvas curtains over the side windows. It sold for $650 and could seat up to eight. In 1935, Chevrolet produced an all-steel station wagon, based on a panel delivery truck chassis, but it wasn't until the late 1940s that all-steel wagon bodies were rolling off the assembly line. By then, the flight to the suburbs also was on a roll, and to millions of motorists, the wagon became the only way to go.

But with the introduction of such utility vehicles as the Ford Bronco, Chevrolet Blazer, the Jeeps, and the small van-like trucks, wagon sales began to sag. In response, Ford introduced the two-way tailgate, the spare tire was moved into the fender wells to increase the carrying capacity of the wagons, and locked storage compartments became standard fare.

In 1973, station-wagon sales hit 1.4 million, although by 1986 it had fallen to 857,000. That's still a lot of vehicles, however.

Some historians, according to the MVMA, trace the heritage of the station wagon back to the Conestoga wagons that plied the early trails westward from the populated East. It also is an offshoot of the old horse-pulled 19th-century depot wagons which bridged the distance gap from the early railroad depots to the hotels. The term ``station wagon,'' in fact, was used as early as 1902 by the Stearns Motor Company, reports the MVMA.

In the 1987 model year, the United States auto industry offered 43 models of four-door station wagons, down from 45 in 1986. The import wagon totals, however, are up - from 31 a year ago to 38 in 1987. Do the imports know something that the domestics don't know?

So, hats off to the new-old station wagon that just keeps rollin' along.

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