In troubled times, Americans keep station wagons rolling

In troubled times, Americans keep station wagons rolling

15th June 2009, Comments 0 comments

US car giants General Motors and Chrysler might be sputtering through bankruptcy, but one of the most iconic American-made cars is refusing to be backed down the cul-de-sac of oblivion.

It's the car that Americans like Frank Anastasi have packed the family or entire Little League baseball team into for decades and headed to the beach, the hills, to Grandma's house or a distant away game.

It's the station wagon.

"I love this car," Anastasi said of his 1992 Chevrolet Caprice Classic Wagon.

"It's the best, most reliable, smoothest-riding car I've ever owned. It's got this big, big engine and it goes like a bat out of hell," Anastasi, who has used his wagon to ferry around half a dozen boys from his son's scout troop and baseball team in a suburb of Washington, told AFP.

"It has a third seat in the back so kids can sit there and look out. They love it, I love it," Anastasi waxed lyrical about the 17-year-old car with 125,000 miles (200,000 kilometres) on the clock and a paint job that still looks like new.

Riding in a station wagon is like taking a step back in time to a United States of apple pie, drive-in movies, and newspaper delivery boys.

"The front seat is a split-bench power seat with one of those arm rests that folds down. That's about the only option. It's not a very luxurious car but sitting on that front seat is like sitting on your couch," Anastasi oozed.

The station wagon has been around from the early days of the US car industry.

It got its name from the Ford Model T Depot Hack, which was used in the 1920s to transport goods from train stations.

After World War II, the wagon enjoyed a heyday as America went through a baby boom and needed big cars to transport big families.

But then the station wagon began to fade into American folklore as it was upstaged in the 1980s by Chrysler's minivan and then the sports utility vehicle, or SUV, a decade later.

The only car whose value is going up

According to Tim Cleary, president of the American Station Wagon Owners Association (ASWOA), GM was the last of the big three American car makers to stop producing station wagons in 1996, but now the workhorse wagon is making a comeback.

Car shows are "full of them", said Cleary, but these are not the wagons of yore. Although they have a third seat in the back, gone is the bench power seat in the front.

The vehicles look like a distant cousin on steroids of the wagon of last century and have names like Flex, Magnum and Edge to go with the muscle-look.

And they're not even called station wagons any more.


"American car makers are scared by the term 'station wagon'. Young people don't buy 'station wagons'. So now they're called 'crossovers'," said Cleary.

But station wagon owners remain fiercely loyal to their fuddy-duddy image cars.

Cleary recently drove 2,700 miles (4,320 kilometres) to pick through the interior of someone else's station wagon for parts for a vehicle he had just bought.

On the ASWOA website, a member recounted how he has been using his wagon to haul goods for 27 years while another member, Randy Bixenman, offered to pay up to 25,000 dollars for a 1955 Country Squire Wagon .

"Station wagons are probably the only car in the parking lot whose value is going up," said Cleary.

Station wagon owners are also quick to leap to the defence of American car makers.

"I have always driven domestic cars and found them to be excellent vehicles," said Cleary.

"Station wagons were built the same way for 30 years: V-8 engines which are incredibly reliable and rear-wheel drive which is the simplest design and best weight distribution. The American car makers got in trouble when they went into small cars and new technology with front wheel drive," he said.

"I don't know what GM did or didn't do as a business but I know that the quality of cars they've been making for a while is very good. Same with Ford and Chrysler," said Anastasi.

"When I hear people say GM doesn't make good cars, it's bull. When people wanted station wagons, they made station wagons. When everyone wanted big SUVs, they made them and they made 'em damn good," said Anastasi, whose other car is a 2004 Yukon Denali SUV -- by GM.

Karin Zeitvogel

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