Plaid and Canvas: Requiem for the Station Wagon

Everyone had one, and now no one does. Jason Diamond isn't alone in fondly remembering the heyday of the Volvo station wagon.

station wagon Volvo travel Woodie cars tradition outdoor gas safety

The Volvo station wagon.     Photo: crazytales562/Flickr

“It’s like a family tradition,” Adam Clarkson of Minneapolis, Minnesota, tells me. “My dad went on his trip when he was 18. He got drunk, wandered around, and met my mom. She was camping with her family, he bumped into her, and they just hit it off.” When I ask him if the family tradition he was referring to was to go camping, get drunk off cheap beer, and meet a life mate, Clarkson laughs. “No, but my dad, my two older brothers, and me all drove the same kind of car on our trips: Volvo station wagons.”

Clarkson’s dad, then a freshman at New York University, was visiting his parents in Wisconsin for the summer. Finding his old car bequeathed to his younger brother, and in need of something to drive down to Illinois to go camping with his buddies in those pre-Zipcar days, Clarkson’s father had no choice but to take his father’s ugly new Volvo. While ugly it may have been, it still took a lot of begging to get the old man to let go of the keys. "I think it was orange. My dad always omits the color. It was something embarrassing and very 1970s."

“[Dad] still says the car is why he met my mom. He thinks Volvo station wagons are lucky. So every time senior year came around for my brothers or me he would just start asking, over and over”—here, Clarkson starts to imitate his father’s Wisconsin accent—“‘When are you gonna take the Volvo to the lake?’ Like, he purposely kept buying Volvo station wagons with the expressed intent to have each of his sons use them on camping trips.” Clarkson pauses for a moment, then laughs. “It’s really hilarious, when you think about it. But those were really amazing cars.”

STATION WAGONS HAVE BEEN around in some form or another for nearly a century. Prior to becoming a mode of transport for families in the middle of the 20th century, they were initially used for commercial reasons. It wasn’t until 1923 that Durant Motors (a competitor of Ford’s) offered the first fully factory-built station wagon. The wagon’s ability to transport extra passengers as well as extra cargo took off, and by 1941, the classic Chrysler Town and Country model was the most expensive automobile offered by the company. In no time, “Woodies” (named for the extensive wood paneling used for the wagons) were everywhere; parked in front of suburban homes, and traveling up and down the freeway.

But by the 1970s, the wagon was the four-wheeled symbol of so much of what was ailing America. The gas crisis of 1973 gave people a reason to think twice about a car that cost double—and sometimes triple—the price of other sedans. Wagons also, simply put, weren’t cool. They were symbols of a pre-Woodstock America; conservative gas guzzlers that looked boxy, and were often painted in ugly hues of green and (like Clarkson’s grandparents’ Volvo) orange. At some point this century, nearly every major car manufacturer stopped making new station wagons. Minivans and SUVs became the norm.

Today, station wagons represent—as a kind of relic—a different time and just a generally different America. Their decline is described by CNN’s Alex Taylor III as “a classic case of automotive Darwinism.” If you grew up when Carter or Reagan were president, your parents probably drove a wagon. If you’re a Clinton kid, you were more likely to get around in a minivan. The George Bush Sr. administration was that awkward transition stage when you might have had either one. I was definitely a station wagon kid, and growing up, you had one of two: the geeky, wood-grain-panel ones that you’d expect to see Clark Griswold behind the wheel of or a Volvo.

In 2011, Volvo, realizing sales of new wagons had totally dried up, discontinued production of its last wagon model, the V50. The outcry was fierce among enthusiasts, prompting one Complex magazine list to ask: “What the hell is wrong with people? It is currently impossible to buy a Volvo station wagon, an old stand-by for anyone who needs a car than can do anything, go anywhere, and survive anyone.” One message board I looked at had an entire post with several hundred replies bemoaning the death of old reliable; until one commenter simply asked, “If they were such great cars, why aren’t they being made anymore?” The next reply, the final one in the thread, was short and to the point: “They just aren’t practical cars anymore.”

During their time, though, they were. The reasons were simple: station wagons were big enough for extra passengers and their extra luggage, but most of all they were safe—the ideal sort of car that any parent would want kids strapped into. And that’s probably something that also would speed the wagon’s decline: they were cars for parents. No kids turned 16 and decided they wanted their first automobile to be a Buick Roadmaster wagon. And while good gas mileage and easy repairs surely matter to today’s consumers—and you won’t get either one with a wagon—that hardly stops people from being nostalgic about them.

“I DIDN’T MIND INHERITING the Volvo,” Clarkson says. He recalls pulling up to his high school parking lot and seeing about a dozen station wagons that were borrowed or passed down from the parents of other students. “Volvo station wagons were actually pretty cool looking cars for the most part. My friends never made fun of me for driving it. I think it’s because it’s European.”

Everybody had a Volvo station wagon.” Mairead Case, a Seattle-born-and bred writer and editor living in Chicago, tells me via email.  More than anything, Case’s father who “grew up in Nebraska, driving long flat open roads in blizzards,” wanted a feeling of safety from the car that took his family to Canada in search of skiing. “Even after one decade and two active kids,” Case says of her dad’s meticulous care, “the car smelled like new. He certainly never picked up fast food in it, and if he bought a cookie at the coffee shop or anything he'd put it immediately in a Ziploc bag, then eat it on a plate once we got home.”

“My mom used to refer to it as 'Black Beauty' after the horse,” Mark Waclawiak of Austin, Texas, tells me about his mother’s black S70. “She loved that car so much.” His mother loved it so much that Volvos became the family’s car of choice. His sister, Karolina, recalls driving in the wagons for family camping trips in Maine, and driving from their home in Connecticut to Texas every summer. She says the trips were “hell,” probably due in part to “those half leather seats that stick to your body in the heat” that Mark mentions. There was just something about Volvo station wagons from the late 1970s to the early 1990s; they were cars that were very of their time.

It’s problematic to affix the label of “generation-defining” to something like a car, but from Case’s Seattle to the coasts of New England, there was a 20-year period where not seeing a Volvo wagon with bikes strapped to the top, or a family driving to who knew where, was a rarity. I still see older model Volvo station wagons driving around my own neighborhood in Brooklyn—bringing home groceries, taking children to and from school, or just aimlessly joyriding throughout Kings County. Some enterprising journalist could write some think/trend piece about the Station Wagons of Brooklyn, say it’s some sort of urban ironic statement or some attempt at holding on to a swiftly disappearing artifact of true Americana. But when I see some guy loading two kayaks up in the top of the roof of his own mid-1980s model Volvo station wagon, or I see long slats of wood sticking out the back of another wagon on the way to restore a brownstone somewhere, I realize something else: Volvo station wagons were just some damn fine automobiles.

Jason Diamond lives in New York. He has a wife, a dog, two cats, and a Twitter account that can be found at @ImJasonDiamond.

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