The 1983 movie "National Lampoon's Family Vacation" begins with a convoluted premise: The dealership delivers the wrong new car to Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) after his old car has already been disposed of. The only loaner available is a metallic green boat of a station wagon.
The whole set-up makes very little sense unless you know the back story: The movie is based on screenwriter John Hughes' memory of a childhood trip to Disneyland in 1958. Although the film was set 25 years later, nothing could replace the iconic American vehicle.
In fact, the station wagon has had a long, strange trip of its own. The term was coined for the 1911 Pierce Arrow. Back in those days, most people still traveled by train. Wealthy passengers with their bulky steamer trunks would be greeted at the station by - what else? - station wagon. These vehicles had real wood paneling, with enclosed passenger space and an open area for luggage.
It wasn't until after World War II, when burgeoning families moved to the suburbs, that the station wagon really came into its own. By now, the paneling was wood-grained steel, a more practical alternative.
The strict definition of a station wagon, according to www.stationwagon.com, is a "stretched wheelbase, rear-wheel drive vehicle, derived from a standard production automobile (usually sedan or hardtop) chassis." In other words, a station wagon like the Chrysler Town & Country was a four-door sedan with extra room behind the passenger seat. Hard to believe now, but the station wagon was once a status symbol. The 1957 Chevy Nomad's $2,757 base price made it more expensive than the Bel Air convertible.
While other kinds of cars were adding muscle in the '60s, the station wagon offered more compact alternatives like the Ford Fairlane (1962) and Chevy Chevelle (1964). These are the cars that hundreds of Baby Boomers grew up in. In a 1999 New York Times article, John H. Cushman, Jr., recalled the station wagon he shared with his parents and six siblings: "The toddler squeezed in the front seat between Mom and Dad; the older three girls in the back seat; the baby on a mattress between the second and third seats, and midsized youngsters in what we always called the `way-back' - the third, rear-facing seat that was almost always a feature of the big wagons." These days, such an arrangement would be judged child endangerment; in those days, Cushman recalled, the "way back" provided "psychologically the most distant and private preserve."
Departing from the way back was accomplished through a wide variety of tailgate configurations. The earliest station wagons had a window that flipped up and a tailgate that dropped down. Chrysler introduced a hand-cranked roll-down window in 1950. By the 1960s, the window could be lowered electrically either from the driver's seat or with a key in the tailgate lock. Some models had a tailgate that would swing open like a door.
Eventually, those evolutions gave way to the more primitive liftgate with an inoperable window. That was, perhaps, an early sign that the station wagon was on its way out. The 1974 gas crisis was another nail in the station wagon's coffin. By 1983, as noted, only a comedy writer could make a station wagon the vehicle of choice for a family road trip. With the introduction of the minivan in 1984, the station wagon was truly headed toward the sunset. Volvo and Subaru have vehicles that carry the designation, but they have more in common with the hatchback or SUV than with the attenuated sedan that was the true station wagon.
There are still enough aficionados to warrant an American Station Wagon Owners Association (ASWOA), with an annual convention and merchandise bearing the slogan, "Save the Whales - Restore a Station Wagon!" For more information, visit the website: www.aswoa.com