A Station Wagon by Any Other Name

Remember the station wagon? For a long time it was the perfect familymobile, with room for the kids and space in back for the new barbecue. It was the perfect icon of the American suburbs, but served faithfully on Route 66. The station wagon was America.

Over the years things changed, technology advanced, and the minivan rose to replace the station wagon. That made sense; the minivan performed the same functions and did a better job doing it. But America was getting richer and people wanted sport as well as utility. The auto manufacturers were happy to supply the illusion of sport to the power-hungry yuppies. Take a minivan, add larger tires and an engine that produces more power than you will ever need, and you have an SUV. (At the time, SUV meant ‘minivan with bad mileage’.) In fact, more power was not a requirement. All that was necessary was larger, more expensive and less efficient tires. Suddenly, you’re cool.

Let me deflect some folks by pointing out that some SUV’s aren’t macho minivans but rather relabled trucks. Why? They are trucks and they do a truck’s job. All utility.

Gradually, the SUV market has gone two directions. One we will call the Hummer Vector. Vehicles so impractical that people buy them just to prove that they are too damn wealthy to be encumbered by issues like precticality. The other direction I will dub the Station Wagon Vector. It’s been going on a long time, and apparently now the vehicles on this path have ditched the stigma of being SUV’s in favor of being ‘crossovers’.

We will ignore that Sport/Utility was itself a crossover…

No we won’t. Crossover from what? And to what? Utility/Sport-Utility? What is being crossed over?

Here’s my challenge to the marketing boys in the auto companies. Embrace the station wagon. Those guys buying cars, they’ve forgotten how much they hated sharing the back seat with thier sisters, and the road has regained a romantic aura. Those great road trips of their childhoods were in station wagons. The car that tamed the west.

I personally guarantee that if Ford or Chevy came out with a really good station wagon, with somewhat retro styling and the same name they used in the sixties, it would sell like hotcakes. Call it a station wagon, and use the power of nostalgia to sell it. Before too long, people will realize that the car makes sense on its own terms, and our dalliance with silly cars not well-suited for any practical use will come to an end.

Then in a few years you can reestablish the minivan as all retro and cool.

9 thoughts on “A Station Wagon by Any Other Name

  1. Sorry, but I have to disagree with your version of the Genesis of the SUV. SUVs originally sprang directly from truck-based utility vehicles: Chevy Suburbans (which date back to the late 1930s), International Travelalls, Jeep Waggoneers, etc.

    The modern minivan was “invented” by Chrysler/Dodge, and pretty much saved the struggling company’s bacon. But it was a completely independent developmental path from the SUV.

    Crossovers happened when consumers got tired of dealing with the disadvantages of truck-based SUVs. Auto-makers love using the regulatory loopholes that apply to light trucks (lower emission, safety, and mileage standards), and define some pretty unlikely vehicles as “light trucks,” which must make them crossovers.

    Chrysler PT Cruiser? A light truck. Right.

  2. One obstacle to a resurgent stationwagon is the landscape shifting underneath. In our youth, it was entirely no big deal to throw the kids and the dog in the back of the Vista Cruiser and set out for Camp Happy Family. But today, you are no longer allowed to have anyone in a position sans-seatbelt. In fact NC recently passed a law, saying that even our 8 year olds have to be in a modified seatbelt. Minivans – and to a lesser extant, SUVs – do a really great job of providing lots of kids with appropriate seatbeltage. An anecdote of similarity – I remember cousins visiting and all of us clambering into the back of the pickup truck, relaxing on a matress, and having not a care for occasional whiffs of the noxious exhaust as we sang songs or played on a 50 mile trip to wherever. Nowadays, Child Protective Services, would have us behind bars quicker an’ you could say, “Carbon Monoxide.”
    My boss (and therefore me as technical support) is part of an international think tank devoted to detecting and attributing global warming. Among the non-Americans (and several mericans too) “SUV” is a perjorative. Said with sneering disdain. Yesterday, as I followed the Lincoln Navigator home, I just didn’t see hitching the boat to it and driving down a forest trail. Hubris?
    As for retro…Ford has come out with its new Flex crossover, which to my eyes is not bad looking a’tall (yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and others will have differing opinion).
    Finally…for the MR&HBI dictionary, I originally misspelled global as glabal. Now what definition shall we give glabal?

  3. An an unrelated note – I don’t see them in the sidebar, but my rss feed for comments is showing spam. MR&HBI was miracously spam free for a long long time. Sad to see it show up. Other blogs have had to invoke login counter measures to avoid spam, and they thwart my browser for whatever reason. Sadly I’ve let those blogs go (sorry CarolAnne). I hope the spam here stays low enuf that Jer won’t have to get draconian.

  4. “Those guys buying cars, they’ve forgotten how much they hated sharing the back seat with thier sisters”?

    Oh, really.

    But I do agree with John about the origins of the SUV — especially given that we have an Expedition that actually does truckly things. (One can’t tow a 4,000-pound lead-keeled sailboat, or launch it, with a minivan.)

  5. I was a teeny bit incensed when I saw somewhere that my Pontiac Vibe was classified as a “station wagon” — sounded so (as you say) “retro”; but you’re right, for travel across the country it was perfect. We went from the West Coast to the East and back again, carrying a tent and bedding, clothing and bottled water, and a 65-lb dog. And got 31 mpg to boot.

  6. The history of the vehicle class notwithstanding, somewhere along the way the marketing wanks added the S to SUV, and a category was born. The S was Detriot’s way of saying, “no, it’s cool, it’s sporty”, which was synonymous with ‘justifiably profligate’.

    Now, apparently, ‘crossover’ translates the same way, but with more constraints.

    People do understand that every gallon of gas they burn strengthens mid-east dictatorships, right? Not to mention that each gallon puts Miami and New Orleans just a little deeper under water. They get that, right? Because I feel kind of bad on my road trips.

  7. glabal – heh

    someone should be keeping track of this stuff.

    The spam has made inroads lately. One thing i have to say about Haloscan, spam is something I’ve not had to worry about before. They’ve done a damn good job. Now there’s one episode that the spammers hit before Haloscan can blackball them. It sucks, but it could be a lot worse.

  8. The “Sport” in SUV came about as a result of EPA and CAFE regs. Back in the dark ages of the ’70s and ’80s, before the automakers had figured out how to effectively meet emission and mileage standards, cars got really crappy. A 500-cid Cadillac developed around 175 horsepower. One year, the “hot” Mustang had all of 100 hp.

    Trucks, however, had much lower emission and mileage standards, and a combination of market demand and clever niche-filling resulted in quite powerful, luxurious trucks. So the marketing wanks didn’t add the S until after the engineers had built it (or at least some of it, in the form of a big honkin’ high output V8) in.

  9. My jeep definitely lives toward the utility end of S-U spectrum, if that’s what it is. It spends lots of miles away from paved surfaces when I do drive it. I like to take it and a load of gear and food up into the middle of somewhere and camp/hike/explore new areas.
    It’s been most of a month since I’ve driven it though, so I don’t feel too guilty about gas consumption.

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