The disappearance of station wagons has been discussed so much that I don’t need to restate it. But I thought I’d make a diary about arguably the most famous station wagon of them all.
Midway through the 1950 model year, Ford began advertising the station wagon version of the top-of-the-line Custom Deluxe as the Country Squire. This first Squire was a true woody. It was not just for styling, the car’s rear half was actually made from wood. This was the product of limitations of steel at the time. It meant wagons were very expensive to build and quite rare. The first Country Squire was based on the highly successful 1949 Ford, which singlehandedly saved the blue oval from bankruptcy.
The 1952 Country Squire was completely different, it was now an all-steel body, making it much cheaper to manufacture. This idea of keeping design elements that were previously needed by an old method but were made purely ornamental has a name, skeuomorphism. It also now had 4 doors. Initially, the stylized trim was real wood, but it was swapped for fiberglass midway through 1953. The inline 6 engine was dropped. The Country Squire was not the only wagon in Ford’s lineup, there was also the Country Sedan and Ranch Wagon, but the Squire was the most luxurious, symbolized by that wood grain.
The rise of the station wagon was a product of the baby boom. Before the war, people were having so few kids that the Census was projecting America’s population would peak at a mere 135 million in 1950, and then start dropping. That meant most people were well served by a sedan, with no need for a third row of seats. But suddenly, Americans were getting in the mood once again. Between 1940 and 1960, the number of families with 3 kids doubled, the number with 4 kids quadrupled. The result was that wagons went from just 3% of all cars built in 1950 to 17% in 1960, as families outgrew their sedans and needed seating for 9.
The 1955 Ford was not a big styling departure from the 1954, and next to Chevrolet and Plymouth, Ford was clearly the ugly duckling. The wood trim was now just vinyl decals, which it would be to the end. In 1956, a 12 volt electrical system was added and seatbelts were made optional, though few people bought them.
For 1957, Ford finally caught up in styling, and certainly were more restrained than Chevrolet, the result was Ford outsold them that year for the first time since 1935.
For 1959, the Ford gained an extra 2 inches in wheelbase along with extra chrome. But, it wound up looking dated as Chevrolet and Plymouth were now integrating their headlights into the grille while Ford stuck with the old way of having them high and separate from the grille.
1960 brought a redesign with a more contemporary look. In 1961, a more convenient tailgate arrived. Before, it was a two-piece set up where you swung the rear window up before lowering the tailgate. But now, the window would retract into the tailgate, either by a crank or by electric motor.
For 1965, the Country Squire was redesigned with that popular styling gimmick pioneered by Pontiac, stacked headlights. The leaf spring setup was replaced by coils, which improved ride and handling and increased space in the rear. In 1966, Ford made another great leap in tailgate technology, now the rear gate could be swung open like a door, but the window had to be down for it to work. Seatbelts became standard that year.
For 1968, hidden headlights were added. Ford’s system was unique. They were to be opened by engine vacuum, but that didn’t work fast enough. So, they did the opposite, they had a vacuum reservoir that held the covers closed against a spring that would quickly open them. The problem was that the reservoirs tended to leak, and when the cars were parked, they would slowly open, making them look stoned.
Starting in 1969, Ford stopped advertising its station wagons under separate model lines. The Country Squire was rolled into the LTD lineup and became the LTD Country Squire. Hidden headlights disappeared after 1970. In 1972, it became possible to get Lincoln’s 7.5 liter V8.
Ford made much out of the “magic doorgate”. As said before, the tailgate could be lowered or opened to the side like a door, but now it could be opened with the window up or down.
This was the golden age for Ford’s station wagons. They outsold everyone else. It led to the Country Squire becoming the ultimate 70s suburban cliche.
This would explain why they were so well represented in the 1975 movie Stepford Wives. It was a satire of suburban conformity about the men of a Connecticut Town who wind up murdering their wives and replacing them with submissive, busty robots.
And to this day, the Griffin Family, in Family Guy drive a Ford wagon, although it’s not a Country Squire since it has no wood panelling.
And it’s not hard to see why, since they were just so common back then, consistently selling over 100,000 annually. My dad and my uncle were driven around in one, and I’m sure yours were too.
In 1975, the Country Squire once again came with hidden headlights, although it was a more traditional look. By this point, the Country Squire’s size problem was evident. It was 225 inches long and tipped the scales at almost 5,000 pounds with 5 mph bumpers. With the energy crisis, things had to change.
1979 brought a much needed downsizing. The Country Squire lost 1000 pounds in weight. The 6.6 liter and 7.5 liter V8s were discontinued, leaving only a 4.9 and 5.8. In 1983, fuel injection was added.
Also in 1983, the Country Squire got its most famous movie role ever, sort of. It was used in National Lampoon’s Vacation, and was given ugly styling to become the “Family Truckster”, but there’s no mistaking what lies underneath all those extra headlights and altered windows. But in a way, this was sort of a send off for the traditional full sized station wagon.
In 1984, Chrysler introduced the world to the minivan. Compared to wagons, they were more maneuvarable and fuel efficient. Ford itself would join the minivan craze with the Aerostar in 1986.
Also, many families were deciding they didn’t need something as big as the Country Squire. Midsized wagons, including Ford’s own Taurus, almost certainly cut into their market share.
When Ford redesigned their full sized cars, they chose not to include wagon variants, the last Country Squire and its cheap vinyl wood rolled off the assembly line in December 1990.
Ford was uncanny. The same year they killed off the Country Squire, they brought out the Explorer. The Explorer, and its many imitators, would proceed to destroy what was left of the station wagon market before ravaging the market for minivans and even the humble sedan.
The Country Squire was once the king of the wagons. It and its wood panelling were a cliche of American Middle Class life in the 70s and 80s. But it was killed off right before the SUV wiped out the rest of the wagons.