Reviled no more, vintage station wagons are more than grocery getters

Station wagons, the midcentury standard of family transportation, were—for a while, anyway—reviled by pretty much anyone in the market for a “cool” set of wheels. The long roof, displaced from its market slot by the minivan in the 1980s, languished in relative obscurity among collector cars until the last few years. As SUVs, crossovers, and even luxury pickup trucks occupy the modern family hauler niche, good ol’ station wagons have made a cameo comeback in the collector car market.

Hagerty’s Brian Rabold, Vice President of Valuation Services and editor of the Hagerty Price Guide, says interest in station wagons is wide ranging, and the appeal goes beyond woodies or ’50s models. Even the massive steel-bodied land barges that were once considered normal enough to include in family comedies like The Brady Bunch and National Lampoon’s Vacation are of interest.

Although ubiquitous during the Cold War era, most wagons were used up and thrown away, leading to some degree of rarity now. According to Gary Quinlan, vice president of the International Station Wagon Club, many met untimely demise in service as demolition derby cars.

If you’re looking to become a wagon owner (or already are one), congratulations. You shan’t be disappointed. These utilitarian vehicles have become cool again, and owning one is like having your classic car cake (thumbs up from passersby) and being able to eat it too (you can bring your family/friends with you). But before we get into what makes a good wagon buy, here’s a little history.

The first station wagons, known as depot hacks, were built to carry people and their luggage home from railroad stations. If you hadn’t already, now you can see the etymology of the name “station wagon.” Wooden-bodied, they offered more seating and cargo space than typical cars. During the interwar years, wagons’ wooden bodies became more curvy and complex, and they were marketed to upscale buyers as the ultimate vehicle to have at a country estate. Whether hunting, fishing, or gardening, there was plenty of space for gear behind the rear seats.

Fast forward to the years after World War II, when American steel production had advanced to a degree that allowed auto manufacturers to construct wagon bodies entirely out of steel. The resulting cars were quieter and more durable. Wooden paneling had become vestigial by the early ’50s, and later in the decade, synthetic. That’s when we began to see woodgrain vinyl sheeting applied to the slab sides of the flashy new fenderless cars. By the time wagons were ousted from the market by minivans nearly 30 years later, not much had changed in the basic layout.

What to look for

Quinlan says that, as with other classic cars, rust is the big thing to watch for. Unless you can do it yourself, body repair is usually very expensive. Paying $1,000 or $1,500 to have a rust-free car shipped to you from the desert (especially if you live in rust-belt states) is worth it when you consider the tens of thousands you could spend fixing a rusty car—and that’s if the damage hasn’t already progressed too far. The drawback for cars from warmer climates, of course, is most have sun damage to the interior.

“You can easily spend $3,000 getting into a new interior,” Quinlan says. “Don’t worry about the carpet. If you get a car with good door panels and seats, you have something to work with.”

He says some collectors buy a rust-free car with a trashed interior, then install the good interior parts from a rusted-out wagon to make one solid car. It’s probably not the approach a vintage Ferrari collector would take, but Quinlan points out that wagon folks typically aren’t part of the big-money crowd and do whatever they can to keep restoration costs down.

Where to look

While eBay prices tend to be a bit high—since sellers often “know what they have” and adjust reserve and buy-it-now prices accordingly—Quinlan says there are plenty of deals to be found on Craigslist and local classified ads. But he says it pays to be patient.

“You have to be kind of careful, because many wagons were run hard. A lot of people bought them as transportation and didn’t really care much about the car, so some of them are pretty well worn out.”

On the other hand, Quinlan says areas of the country with high concentrations of retirees are good places to find wagons. Florida and Arizona can be wagon-rich, as well as the Seattle-Tacoma area. But again, patience and thorough research are keys to finding a good deal. You never know, there may be a well-preserved wagon hiding in your own backyard.

Also consider …

When buying a wagon, don’t forget about parts availability. Quinlan says that from the back seat forward, finding parts for an American wagon is usually as easy as finding parts for a corresponding sedan or coupe. It can be a bit trickier to find parts for the boxy rear, however, because automakers didn’t build as many of them, and there hasn’t yet been an aftermarket industry to support wagons.

As far as price goes, as with any classic, the rarer the car, the more expensive it will likely be. Quinlan says American wagons from the ’50s and ’60s are hot right now. But if you keep tabs on eBay sales, models from the ’70s are definitely warming up. Even last-gasp models from the ’80s are beginning to climb in price. How much you can expect to pay for any given year range depends not just upon rarity, but also upon which generation is coming into money and is eager to snap up some childhood nostalgia. As the needle for middle-aged buyers moves from the 1970s into the ’80s and ’90s, expect to see more emphasis on European and Japanese wagons, which were more prevalent after Detroit pulled the plug on them, post-minivan.

Good bets to hold their value in the coming years are station wagons with unusual body styles, like two-door or hardtop wagons, and road-trip stalwarts like Oldsmobile Vista Cruisers. But regardless of whether or not a particular model is worth a bunch of money, the best wagon to buy is the one you like.