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What is a Station Wagon?

By Gregory Hanson
Updated May 23, 2024
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A station wagon is a type of motor vehicle, usually built on the same base chassis as a similarly-sized sedan, and designed to maximize passenger and cargo space. These vehicles have a roof that does not drop down at the rear of the vehicle, allowing a full-height interior to extend from the dashboard to the rear of the vehicle. A station wagon typically has two or four doors and a rear gate. The rear area of a wagon is usually designed for many different uses and often features seating, sometimes rear-facing, that can be converted to cargo space.

The first station wagons to be mass-produced date to the 1920s. Initially, these vehicles, sometimes known as estate wagons at the time, were designed primarily to serve as transport to and from train stations. These early wagons typically had sides made of wood, and the nickname "woodie" was often used to refer to them. Later models gradually phased out wood as a practical construction material but often kept wood or faux wood accents in a nod to history.

Station wagons became one of the iconic vehicles of the postwar boom years in the United States. They enjoyed wide popularity both as family vehicles and as cargo haulers. Many popular sedan models were offered in station wagon variants, which kept the same basic structure, engine, and interior design elements, but added extra rear cargo space and a lift gate. Three-way gates were popular for the flexibility that they offered, as the window could be opened on its own or the gate opened entirely either vertically or horizontally.

Wagons became less popular in the United States in the waning years of the 20th century. Minivans and sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) came to replace them as the family vehicles of choice, and car companies preferred these vehicles both for the greater revenue that they generated and the lower fuel efficiency standards that were imposed on them. Station wagons remained in production and widespread use elsewhere in the world, valued for their mixture of cargo capacity and economy.

Many other types of vehicles in common use essentially evolved from the station wagon. Crossover SUVs and minivans both share some characteristics with station wagons and were designed to fill similar automotive niches. Hatchbacks sacrifice some cargo space in order to improve streamlining but share the station wagon’s rear hatch access to a combined passenger and cargo space.

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Discussion Comments
By John57 — On May 16, 2011

I always associated the station wagon with someone who had a lot of money! I don't know how economical they were to drive. I suppose if you had a large family, that was one of the best cars to have so you could fit everyone in.

There were 7 kids in my cousins family and they drove a station wagon. Many families only had one car back then, so you would need something like that! Maybe they will bring them back with an option to purchase a hybrid station wagon. It seems like anymore we need them for all the room to haul our stuff around and not so much for spaces for the kids.

By honeybees — On May 13, 2011

I remember the old station wagon cars! We never had one, but I was always excited if I had the chance to ride in one. I loved all the room you had in the back, but the coveted seat was the one that faced backward, so you were facing the cars that were behind you! We often had to draw straws to see who got to sit in that seat.

The crossovers and SUVs we have today remind me of those old station wagon models, but don't carry near the memories!

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