Q: Hi Greg, I’m wondering if you can comment on a column I think you wrote many years ago about station wagons, and especially a 426 Hemi Dodge Wagon? My family owned a ‘95 Chevy Caprice wagon and it was beautiful.
Here in November of 2022, most so-called station wagons are gone and evolved into large minivans or even bigger crew cab 4-door pickup trucks. Also, all the SUVs helped killed the wagons, too.
Can you do a column update?
Thanks, Bob K., Spokane, Washington.
A: Bob, I’m happy to do it; so let’s start with that 426 Hemi wagon you recall. It was back in 1964 that Dodge built a factory ordered 426 Hemi powered station wagon. Just one was ever assembled, and drag racing was the intention. It went on to win B/Factory Experimental class at the U.S. Nationals and then ran B/Modified Production later.
Tim Baker last drove the Hemi Wagon; 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.
Your family owned 1995 Caprice Wagon was a great vehicle; and I agree, they were the best when it came to a comfortable ride and multi-use properties. Built from 1991 to 1996, the large wagon beauties shared design with Buick and then in 1995, 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 2010 decade Corvette LT1, these early second generation LT1s from 1992 to 1997 featured steel blocks and aluminum heads.
These last, and fourth generation, General Motors (GM) wagons were the last hurrah 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 explosion with sales of final generation 1991-96 Caprice wagons coming in at 689,257 units while the Buick Roadmaster Estate came in at 225,455 vehicles during that 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, Mercury and Pontiac, a wagon never appeared.
His first car was a 1939 Chevrolet Business Coupe, although I must mention his 1986 Dodge three-seat passenger van. It was the smaller full-size van that I eventually bought from him to transport my growing family. We called it the “mother van” and it never let us down with its slant-6 providing the power (or lack thereof).
I also recall 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 also loved 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 6-passenger featured either two-door or four-door and was similar to the low cost Biscayne trim.
The Parkwood 6-passenger and new Kingswood 9-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, displaced in 1960 by the Tri-Power 348 as its top performance offering. (Those injected ‘59s are worth quite a few $$$ if one appears at an auction.)
Chevrolet discontinued any type of two-door full size wagons in 1961, as all Chevy wagons were four-door. 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 nice full-size, really fine wagons 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.
Thanks for your letter, and for helping us revisit just a few of the many wonderful station wagon memories of our lives.
(Greg Zyla is a syndicated auto columnist. He welcomes reader questions on collector cars, auto nostalgia and motorsports at email@example.com or at 303 Roosevelt St., Sayre, Pa. 18840.)