In 1969, Petula Clark sang in a Plymouth Sports Suburban station wagon commercial, “Just look what Plymouth’s up to now / Driving will never be the same again for you.” While the intention was to celebrate the new model’s styling, performance, and cargo area, little did the jingle writers know how forward-thinking that lyric truly was.
SUVs had, in essence, been on the market for some time. But just five short years after this commercial, Jeep would begin using the exact term “sport utility vehicle” to sell its 1974 Cherokee. Throw in a few oil crises and a minivan craze that gave automakers a way around CAFE regulations, and voilà: Driving truly hasn’t been the same.
But while SUVs and their crossover descendants have taken America by storm, leaving the station wagon to be but a distant memory shared by Baby Boomers and lucky Gen X’ers, Europe has experienced a markedly different relationship with the estate car. But before we can understand how that happened, we need to briefly brush up on our history of the once beloved “American” station wagon.
The Rise and Fall of the Wagon
Often used as taxis or service cars, station wagons obtained their name from their commercial ancestors who worked at train stations. As the automobile became a staple of everyday life, the wagon became a model directed at the upper class to use on their estates. Popularity grew and, by the 1940s, the wagon had become something of a prestige vehicle, with the models fetching a higher price than regular vehicles.
After WWII, as rations faded away and personal spending increased, shiny new interstates and a bigger wallet allowed for more road trips, tourism, and mass consumption. And waiting in the wings to carry all the happy hopes and dreams of a post-war society was the family-friendly station wagon.
By the 1950s, the wagon had become a staple of American society. And it held on to that celebrity status until the mid-70s, when the decade’s energy crisis necessitated smaller, more fuel economic cars. By the ‘80s the minivan had come onto the scene, hammering the final nails into the wagon’s coffin. With less strict CAFE standards due to its classification as a ‘light truck’, the minivan and eventual SUVs served as an easy way out of new regulations for many automakers.
And so, by 1996, the last wagons rolled off the assembly line with the Buick Roadmaster and Chevrolet Caprice Classic estate models representing the end of an era. But like most good stories, this one has an alternative ending. As American tastes for the wagon turned sour, our friends across the Atlantic developed their palates and, in turn, developed the wagon into something—dare we say—cool.
A Practical Car for Practical People
Have you ever stepped inside an old house and thought Huh, I guess people were really small a hundred years ago? Walk around most European cities and you’ll get a similar feeling. Compared to most of Europe, America is like a new prefab home. It’s got an open floor plan with wide roadways and plenty of natural light. By contrast, Europe has a spaciously-conservative, medieval-minded design with plenty of craftsman touches but circuitous doorways and tiny closets. While it strikes many people as wasteful to see a giant Chevy Suburban navigating the tight grid of Manhattan, just imagine it on a Parisian side street.
When the oil crisis hit, America wasn’t the only one who got hurt. But while we temporarily invested in sedans until we could turn our attention once more to perfecting big SUVs, Europe focused on improving what it was already doing well: small, economical hatchbacks. And as gas prices steadied, those cars got a little larger, setting the foundation for a love affair with the wagon.
Money is a Motivator
In addition to having more space with which to innovate, America also enjoys much cheaper fuel than most European nations. (Think about that next time you’re whining at the station.) All things considered, in the states, about 13% of what we pay at the pump is tax. In countries like England, Germany, and France, that number is over 60%–and that’s before a 20% Value Added Tax is slapped on. Add in higher octane ratings and it’s seriously expensive to own and operate a vehicle in most European countries.
For many citizens, they just learn to live without them. With fantastic inter-urban travel, most people manage long and short distances with an affordable rail pass and a bicycle. But in America, outside of major metropolitan areas, that option isn’t really feasible. So, car ownership has become much more of a necessity here than it has in Europe, giving us one more excuse to pull from our hats when defending our dependency on vehicles—particularly SUVs and crossovers.
A Capable SUV for Patriotic People
Indeed, if you’ve ever experienced a harsh Minnesotan winter or a particularly rainy season in Florida, you can understand the benefits of higher clearance and 4WD. But in all honesty, most people who drive SUVs don’t drive them like an SUV. And instead of marketing spacious, capable, and economical wagons to these folks, automakers instead decided to create something new: the crossover.
Much like a trust-fund-baby-turned-Instagram-influencer, the crossover is a product of good breeding but has de-evolved to the point of becoming dreadfully “basic”. Nearly every SUV advertisement shows drivers overcoming obstacles and conquering the wide frontier—blasting through mud, climbing a mountain, safely surviving an otherwise fatal accident. SUVs help ambitious healthy people reach their adventurous goals, with better fuel economy than before and a decent price point. But more than that, they instill a sense of American bravado, of freedom. (Remember this Super Bowl ad by Jeep?)
But what about people who don’t regularly need to clear a snowbank or haul their hiking gear into a canyon? What about the people who just need room for the kids and the occasional trip to Home Depot… but with the possibility of adventure? Well, the crossover, with its attractive styling and decent capability, fair-to-middlin’ cargo space and higher stance, is at the ready—in nearly every trim and color you could imagine.
With the exception of the Subaru Outback, most wagons available in the US are European luxury models with high price tags. And as far as American automakers go, there’s the Buick Regal TourX. A model which the manufacturer is staunchly insisting is a crossover (It’s not.) But that drives home a pretty important point: Americans may never get over their distaste for the station wagon. With images of faux wood-paneling and poor fashion choices, the station wagon shares space in many consumer’s minds with that one time they got sick on shellfish. It’s a turnoff. And it’s a shame, because with the cargo space and seating capacity of an SUV but a much more desirable center of gravity, the wagon is a great vehicle that’s fun to drive.
So, while we gobble up basic crossovers like pumpkin-spiced lattes, our friends in Europe get to enjoy stylish wagons that, like a fine wine, get better every year. Here’s hoping that, like all the other dead trends Millennials and Gen Z’ers are resurrecting, the wagon is one of them.