A short history of the station wagon

For versatility, the station wagon is hard to beat. Today's station wagons (remember when they were called beach wagons?) are a far cry from the crude creations of the past. They're comfortable, much more economical to operate than they used to be, do many jobs well, and they're selling fast.

While the new breed of minivans could pose a threat to the wagon, the wagon still appeals to a wide range of style-conscious buyers who want more than just a people-carrying conveyance; they want a workhorse as well.

Wagons can be utilitarian or fashion plates, plus all the ground in between. They come with front drive, rear drive, 4-wheel-drive, automatic or manual, gasoline or diesel, turbocharged or non-turbo, domestic or import. Like the regular-size automobile, they come in all sizes, colors, and prices.

The post-World War II move to the suburbs did a lot to popularize the station wagon. A station wagon, in effect, is part bus and part truck. It's a very special type of ``family car.'' In a large wagon of today you can carry the local Little League baseball team, plus equipment.

The motor-driven wagon as we know it today was first built in 1923, according to the historians at the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association in Detroit. The body was wood, the ``windows'' were canvas curtains, the paneling birch, and the roof supports maple.

Now, in contrast, the ``wood-sided'' station wagons of today are wood-simulated plastic -- and that's not all bad. They're far easier to take care of than the old wood-sided wagons of the 1920s and '30s.

Chevrolet was first to break the wood mold when it came out with the first all-metal wagon in 1935, although the metal wagon didn't become ``the way to do it'' till the early 1950s.

The best year for station wagons was 1973 when 1,283,889 units were built.

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