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There are few things these days, particularly in the taxing world of the sportsman, that a station wagon cannot accomplish efficiently and with dispatch. So far, none have been known to take to the air in order to cross the wilderness barring access to that fabulous trout stream or that paradise of game just over the next mountain, but the four-footed—or four-wheel-drive—version of this ubiquitous vehicle can very likely traverse that wilderness on the ground. Furthermore, it can do so with a boat on the roof, an outboard motor tucked away inside, along with food, guns, tackle, sleeping bags, tents, stove, pots, pans, mess kits, gasoline cans, medicine chest and needle and thread, and still leave room for its passengers to travel with such speed and comfort as the trackless wilds allow.
For the less ambitious outdoors-man, too, the station wagon has become almost as indispensable as the old pair of pants he puts on for weekend work around the house. By the end of this year, America's 42 million families will have bought over 400,000 new models of this versatile vehicle, one to every 16 passenger cars sold, for reasons ranging from pure utility to snob appeal. But it is mainly the combination of these two that has caused the phenomenal boom in station wagons since the war, for while this type of car so ably serves every imaginable form of business and social activity in the increasingly popular suburban way of life, it retains the sporting dash that inspired its beginnings. And to satisfy these varied claims upon its services, the auto industry is turning out in growing numbers a closely competitive and almost bewildering array of models catering to the business, utility, social and sports fields.
Prices begin at $2,090 for the two-door, six-cylinder, 122-hp Chevrolet Handyman and soar to $4,800 for the four-door, V8, 250-hp Chrysler New Yorker DeLuxe Town & Country Wagon, loaded with every conceivable automatic and push-button extra. Typifying the range in between are the Ford Ranch Wagon, ideally suited to business and commercial needs; the heavy-duty, four-wheel-drive Willys on a Jeep chassis, sure-footed as a mountain goat for general utility and rough cross-country going; the Nash Rambler, with seats that fold down into a bed; the Pontiac Safari and the Chevrolet Nomad, both of which feature sweeping expanses of curved glass in the best tradition of a solarium. For hauling extra-heavy loads while still retaining the other benefits of the station wagon, half-ton pickup chassis are offered by GMC, Ford, International, Chevrolet and others, equipped with bodywork that meets the generic term, carryall.
All this is a far cry from the station wagon's earliest beginnings. Back in the 1880s, when gentlemen waxed their handlebar mustaches, ladies flounced around in bustles and the five Studebaker brothers sold $1,000,000 worth of carriages, the station wagon was a one-horse affair of limited use, doubtful comfort and modest speed. No one had yet spoken the magic word "automobile" and the horsedrawn depot wagon, as it was then called, was a high-built vehicle, with large, spidery wheels, four seats and a canopy. A table of trimming materials for a typical depot wagon of 1881 lists 36 items, including 2� yards of body cloth, four dozen knobs, six side lights, two apron straps, two pounds of curled hair, five dozen buttons and one gross of nails. The back seat of the depot wagon was removable so that freight could be carried. It was ideal for meeting trains or carrying guns, picnic baskets and the manifold accessories and comforts of a daylong shoot.
At the turn of the century the horseless estate wagon was a natural corollary to the horseless carriage, but in those days manufacturers of gasoline autos lacked sufficient faith in the dependability of their products to market such a vehicle. For the most part, owners bought a stripped chassis and installed a box or platform on it. Comfort, seating capacity and luggage space were up to individual factors. Considering the internal-combustion engines then available—noisy, evil-smelling power units that required constant attention—the reliability of the horseless station wagon was about inversely proportional to the load carried. Only two manufacturers had courage enough to build semicustom station wagons and offer them as such, albeit in limited numbers. They were White and Stanley, both of whom made steam cars.
However, the individual type of early station wagon gathered impressive headway under the imaginative guidance of wealthy private owners. Probably the most lavish example of this kind had a body built to order by J. R. McLauchlen of the Cadillac Custom Body Department and installed on a 1922 Type 61 Cadillac V8 chassis. The customer indicated that no expense was to be spared and ash slants were used, backed by solid mahogany panels. Upholstery was in pebble-grain leather; roof and curtains were of high-grade canvas; middle and rear seats could be removed to make room for baggage.
This job was at once the zenith and the nadir of the true individual station wagon, for that year the Star Motor Co. (a Durant subsidiary) got the jump on the industry with the first low-priced, mass-produced station wagon. The Star featured a mahogany body trimmed with ash, seating six. Two of the seats were removable. The chassis was a regular passenger job with a four-cylinder, 130-cu. in. engine. Price, complete with starter and demountable rims, was $610. There is no record of sales, other than that they were "brisk." The great exodus of the American city dweller to suburban areas had not yet begun; no one dreamed of the hundred uses to which the station wagon would later be put. It was still the rich man's toy.
A CAUTIOUS NIBBLE
Ford, ever alert, in 1922 offered optional station wagon bodies by York, Hoover and Mifflinburg on the Model T chassis, but did not market a complete job until 1928 when the Model A replaced the Tin Lizzie. That year sales amounted to one unit against a total of 818,733 passenger cars. Only a year later, however, Ford drew 4,418 station wagon customers and a new form of transportation had gained public acceptance.
During the following decade the industry nibbled cautiously at the station wagon market, while Ford built up a dominant position. Hudson, for instance, produced an experimental Depot Car, circa 1930, on its six-cylinder chassis, but for some reason held off manufacture of what was a handsome wooden four-door job. Six years later Chevrolet came out with the first all-steel station wagon, called a Carryall Suburban, with the six-cylinder, 72-hp, 122-in. wheelbase chassis of the half-ton truck. It seated eight and sold for only $535. But in 1939, although both Plymouth and Dodge had already been out a year with composite wood-and-steel Suburban station wagons, Ford still accounted for about half the total production.