Try to imagine a world without hulking SUVs and minivans on the roads. It’s a world in which only skilled trades workers drive pickup trucks, and everyone else drives cars in sizes ranging from “not that small” to “marina parking only.” This world accurately reflects American roads up until the late ‘80s, when Chrysler’s minivans and the Jeep Cherokee started to transform our desires for transportation versatility.
Before this, families had basically two choices for long-distance car transportation: station wagons and larger station wagons. Hollywood’s archetype for this experience was the long-suffering Griswold family from National Lampoon’s Vacation. So as a tribute to Clark and the rest of the clan, here’s a definitive ranking of the best “Family Truckster”-type wagons of that era. Someone hit play on the cassette of “Holiday Road” and we’ll be off!
10 Chevrolet Chevelle SS
No, that’s not a typo. For the premiere of the “colonnade”-style A-platform in 1973, Chevy offered an SS appearance package on the midsize Chevelle wagon, including turbine-style wheels and available swivel bucket seats. Engine options ranged from the standard and ubiquitous 5.7-liter V8 to the still-potent 7.4-liter V8.
But Chevy’s marketing people misjudged how many wagon buyers wanted “sport” with their space. When the new Chevelles came out in ‘74, the SS wagon was gone. A few still survive today, and are beginning to get noticed by collectors.
9 Ford Torino Squire
Ford in the 1960s and ‘70s offered wagons in nearly every model range, including an adorable Pinto two-door. But the 1970 Torino Squire was one of its classiest, with hidden headlamps adding some LTD-style flair to the midsize segment. The top-shelf Torino wagon was available with the full complement of Ford’s convenience and performance options, including a 7.0-liter V8.
Ford was a player in the popular-size wagon game until the demise of the second-generation Taurus in 2004, but the Torino may have been the most handsome.
8 AMC Hornet Sportabout
The smallest wagon on this list gave up very little to its larger competitors in terms of utility. And when the price of gas suddenly started rising in the mid-70s, the longroof Hornet started making a lot of sense to buyers who wanted extra cargo capacity and needed fuel efficiency as well.
With a few checks of the order form, the Sportabout could be equipped with a pleasing dose of “sport”... and notably, the Hornet wagon would later be the basis for the Eagle all-wheel-drive wagon often considered one of the first “crossover” vehicles.
7 Chevrolet Kingswood Estate
In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Chevrolet executives decided that their wagons needed distinct identities from the sedans on which they were based. So the Chevelle-based wagons were called “Nomad,” “Greenbrier” and “Concours”, while the full-size wagons bore names ranging from “Brookwood” and “Townsman” all the way up to this Kingswood Estate, which was basically a Caprice wagon.
The early-‘70s Kingswood marked the premiere of GM’s clamshell tailgate, which was standard on all full-size wagons, and was often electrically operated. It was super nifty to push a button and watch the glass and the gate retract into the car, but it added a lot of complexity to an already enormous car, and was a typically over-engineered GM solution to a problem that didn’t really exist. When the General's full-size cars were downsized for ‘77, the clamshell tailgate was left behind.
6 Pontiac Grand/Bonneville Safari
People buying a Safari instead of the equivalent Chevrolet wagon were presumably looking for a people carrier with a dash of flair and excitement missing from the baseball-and-hot-dogs brand. And for a couple of years, that flair came from the available Valencia cloth seats that turned an otherwise-utilitarian interior into a riot of ‘70s-approved earth tones.
Eventually, Pontiac turned its attention to the Trans Sport and Montana minivans, and GMC appropriated the Safari name for its version of Chevy’s Astro compact van. But the Safari wagons still turn heads even now.
5 Mercury Colony Park
Ford Motor Company’s most luxurious station wagon was the sort of car favored by real estate agents of a certain age, who wanted to transport clients in style and still have enough room for “Open House” signs and supplies. The Colony Park wagon was basically a Marquis/Grand Marquis sedan with an enormous aft cargo area in which one could install either a rear-facing or twin side-facing seats.
The big Merc wagon trucked off to the big yacht club parking lot in the sky after 1991, when the Sable wagon became the Lincoln-Mercury longroof standard-bearer. And while the Sable was an outstanding car and a great wagon, the lack of a wood-grain siding option meant something was lost in translation.
4 Buick Estate Wagon
For General Motors buyers who wanted a Cadillac but needed a wagon, this was their best option. Buick’s first Estate Wagon rolled out in 1970 with Electra 225-level interiors, an unusually contoured wood-grain appliqué on the outside, and the stately mien that was part and parcel of all big Buicks.
The Estate Wagon was part of Buick’s lineup — with various combinations of interiors and powertrains — well into the mid-‘90s, and was always a comfortable and powerful road-trip companion. Many Estate Wagons have taken on second lives now as durable work vehicles for skilled trades people who want to carry the tools of their trade in the back, and carry themselves in comfort up front.
3 Chrysler Town and Country
Cadillac and Lincoln never sold station wagons, which makes the Chrysler Town and Country unique in the high-end wagon arena. Basically a Newport with a roof as long as an aircraft carrier, the T&C was a worthy vehicle to carry Chrysler’s storied model name… along with room for as many as eight people and/or a bunch of 4’x8’ sheets of plywood (the established yardstick for cargo capacity).
After briefly appearing on the K-car-based LeBaron wagon in the early '80s, the T&C nameplate is best known in the modern era as the Chrysler-branded minivan, only recently supplanted by the Pacifica. And in all guises, it represented the high end of Chrysler’s people carriers, with a high level of equipment (and even available Mark Cross leather).
2 Oldsmobile Vista-Cruiser
The station wagon based on the popular Olds Cutlass carried the “Vista-Cruiser” name well into the ‘70s, but this list singles out the one sold through 1972 with the unique three-window Vista Roof designed to let in more light for the people riding in coach, and to cleverly hide the raised roof section over the third-row seat. Buick and Olds wagons both sold vista-roof wagons up until 1970, but it’s best known as an Oldsmobile feature.
Built on a stretched sedan wheelbase, the Vista-Cruiser is a road-trip icon, and numerous copies have shown up on roads and in car shows tricked out to look like 442s (side note: Oldsmobile never offered a 442 wagon). But it’s not the top wagon on this list.
1 Ford Country Squire
There’s a reason Ford called itself the Wagonmaster: it sold more station wagons than any other brand in America for years. It was also an innovator, creating the two-way tailgate (opening down or to the side) that was adopted by the rest of the industry by the ‘70s. And the Country Squire was the top of the wagon range for the Ford division, with LTD-level appointments and cavernous cargo room for that trip across the country, or to the lumberyard or grocery store.
Indeed, when the producers of National Lampoon’s Vacation wanted to create the “Wagon Queen Family Truckster” for the Griswold family to use in their epic adventure, they turned to famed customizer George Barris, who made it out of a ’79 Country Squire. What better basis for a legendary road-trip movie than a legendary American wagon?