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Cars We Remember: Recalling the wonderful station wagons of years gone by

Greg Zyla
More Content Now

Q: I read your article a while back about all those great older station wagons. I once owned a 1994 Chevy Caprice wagon and it was a fine family mover. I wish I would have kept it.

I know there aren’t any more big wagons out there, but the big crew cab, 4-door pickup trucks and modern minivans and SUVs have taken over that market I would think.

For me though, nothing can match a wagon from 1955 to 1996 for its room and ride, especially the 1990-era wagons.

Charlie Z., Chicago

A: Charlie, you had a fine wagon with your ’94 Caprice, and I agree they were the best when it came to comfortable ride and multi-use properties. In 1994, both the sibling Buick Roadmaster and your Chevy Caprice wagon were the forbearers of the new for LT1-V8, albeit a detuned Corvette version producing 260-horses. This engine found in wagons like yours delivered performance that was hard to match. Not to be confused with the all aluminum 2010s Corvette LT1, these early second generation LT1s from 1992 to 1997 featured steel blocks and aluminum heads.

The General Motors (GM) wagons from 1991 to 1996 were also a last hurrah as they were the final and fourth generation of the large, rear wheel drive offerings. Built in Arlington, Texas, these GM wagons all rode on a 115.9-inch wheelbase although the big Oldsmobile wagon bowed out after 1992, while Pontiac’s Safari stopped production in 1989. However, the Caprice wagons struggled on in the wake of the minivan and SUV boom with sales of final generation 1991-96 Caprice wagons coming in at 689,257 while the Buick Roadmaster Estate came in at 225,455 during the same period.

Personally, my recollections of the station wagon dates back to the 1950s and 1960s when I always hoped my dad would buy one. Although this wish never came true and my dad bought many a nice car including Plymouth, Dodge, Chevrolet and Pontiac, a wagon never appeared. His first car was a 1939 Chevrolet Business Coupe.

However, my memory won’t let go of the time my dad came closest to “owning” a wagon. It was back in 1957 when I talked my dad into buying two raffle tickets for a brand new 1957 Dodge Station Wagon at the Bloomsburg Fair in Pennsylvania. I remember even saying special prayers the nights before the drawing that we would win, but that white with red interior Dodge wagon went to some other lucky ticket holder. I loved the ’57 Dodge looks, third-rear seat, interior and those special “pull up” door handles.

I was also very fond of the 1959-1960 Chevrolet wagons, including the Brookwood, Parkwood, Kingswood and Nomad trims that appeared those years. They rode on a 119-inch wheelbase and were powered by either a 235-inch 6-cylinder or two styles of V8 engines in 283 or 348 design. The Brookwood six-passenger featured either two-door or four-door trims and was parallel to the low cost Biscayne. The Parkwood six-passenger and new Kingswood nine-passenger were BelAir-based models and fell in the middle of the price range. The top wagon was the Impala-based Nomad, which first appeared in 1955 as a two-door sporty trim showroom winner. Notable in 1959 was the availability of a small-block Corvette style 283-V8 with fuel injection and then displaced in 1960 by the Tri-Power 348 as its top performance offering. (Those injected ‘59s are worth a few extra dollars.)

Chevrolet discontinued any type of two-door full size wagons as in 1961, all Chevy wagons were four-doors. Then in 1962, all wagons utilized the car nomenclature and were renamed Biscayne, BelAir and Impala as all the “woods “disappeared as did the Nomad name. However, Chevy brought back all three of the “woods” names again in 1969 to 1972, which surprised many but was an added nostalgic touch. In ’73, it was back to normal Biscayne, BelAir and Impala full-size classification wagons.

I can’t end this column without mentioning Ford, as it had many a nice full-size, really fine wagon through the years … especially those Country Squire trims. Also notable was Rambler, where full-size wagons called the Ambassador and later AMC Matador were interesting and popular for growing families.

Trivia? How about a factory built 1964 426 Hemi-powered station wagon. Dodge built just one and it won B/Factory Experimental at the U.S. Nationals and then ran B/MP later. It was last driven by Tim Baker, he was also famous for driving one of the Plymouth Golden Commandos in the mid-1960s. He got his chance thanks to his dad, Harry, and their love of performance cars at the family-owned Harry Baker Motors MOPAR dealership in Newton, Kansas. Harry bought the Hemi Wagon after it won the B/Factory Experimental class at the U.S. Nationals in 1964 driven by Fred Cutler, son of Dodge executive George Cutler.

As for modern full-size wagons, I’ll give the 2005 to 2008 Dodge Magnum RT Hemi and SRT8 Hemi a tip of the hat, as they were true full size station wagons, yet the wagon wording was never used in any it promotional ads. After 2008, there were no full-size wagons I can recall.

Thanks for your letter Charlie, and helping us revisit just a few of the many station wagons of our lives.

Greg Zyla writes weekly for More Content Now and Gannett Co. Inc. Contact him at greg@gregzyla.com or at 303 Roosevelt St., Sayre, PA 18840.