The incredibly versatile custom van is a symbol of adventure, leisure and independence, and it…
In 1949, General Motors gave us the two-door hardtop. Six years later, it rolled out the four-door hardtop and the hardtop wagon. Indeed, GM was first with the two-door Chevrolet Nomad and Pontiac Safari, but the me-too brigade came out with four-door hardtop wagons with a bit more utility.
Alas, though manufacturers flirted with that style, the hardtop wagon was not embraced industry-wide as its more common coupe and sedan brethren. With good looks and rarity on their side, they offer something different from the typical collectible—here’s a retrospective on these family trucksters.
Yes, it was lowly American Motors Corporation that was first with a four-door hardtop wagon. AMC said of the 1956 Rambler Custom Cross Country Hardtop wagon, “Now you can enjoy all the fun of a fresh-air convertible and the smart, luxurious utility of a station wagon—all in one brilliant automobile.” Wheelbase was a trim 108 inches, but Rambler’s selling point was that it was Rambler-sized on the outside while being king-size inside, so owners didn’t give up much… unless you wanted a V-8. That arrived for 1957 in the form of the new 190-horsepower 250. For 1958, after the dissolution of Nash, Rambler upgraded the hardtop wagon to the Ambassador series, with the Custom Cross Country now on a 117-inch wheelbase and powered by a 270-horsepower 327. Marginal changes arrived in 1959, but the Ambassador had a slight restyle for 1960, plus the standard 327 was downgraded to 250 horses (with 270 optional). With the 1961 redesign, the Rambler hardtop wagon was no more.
In 1957, Buick offered two hardtop station wagons: the Special Riviera and the Century Caballero Estate Wagons, both of which featured “low-silhouette styling [and] Riviera design” (the latter a nod to Buick’s nomenclature for hardtop). Aside of trim level and equipment, the main difference between the two was that the Special made do with a 250-horsepower 364, while the Century featured 300 horses. Buick continued the pair for 1958, including the same mechanical specifications under the hood, but now wrapped in unique “Air Born B-58” styling with “Fashion-Aire Dynastar Grille.” Buick quietly put its hardtop wagons to rest for 1959.
“Dream Car Design” came to Mercury in 1957, “designed and built as a separate fleet of cars, not as pieced together models on a passenger-car shell.” All Mercury wagons, from Commuter and Voyager to Colony Park, featured hardtop styling, with the former two available as both two- and four-doors. “Quadri-Beam” quad headlights became optional mid-year, which was a rarity for 1957. A heavy facelift for 1958 was accompanied by the highest horsepower engine option in the industry: the 400-hp Super Marauder 430. For 1959, Mercury wagons were marketed as “Country Cruisers,” though top horsepower fell to 345. A 1960 redesign brought more similarity to Ford but the hardtop style remained a Mercury exclusive, now available as Commuter and Colony Park four-doors. For 1961, the Mercury hardtop wagon was discontinued.
Oldsmobile wouldn’t let Buick have all the fun in 1957. The Rocket Division offered both the entry-level “Golden Rocket” 88 Fiesta and mid-range Super 88 Fiesta with the same hardtop roofline as Buick but with distinctive Oldsmobile styling and engineering. Both 88s were powered by a 277-horse 371 “Rocket T-400,” with 300 horsepower (via 3×2 carburetion) as close as checking the J-2 option. In 1958, Oldsmobiles featured a bloated, one-year-only design, with the starter 88 becoming the Dynamic 88 with 265 hp, and the Super 88 with 305 hp; both were available with the J-2 option, now with 312 horses. And, like the Buick, the Fiesta hardtop wagon was put to rest for 1959.
For Chrysler’s first year of “Unibody” construction in 1960, Windsor and New Yorker Town & Country wagons featured four-door hardtop styling with soaring fins, a wide trapezoidal grille, and 413-cubic-inch V-8 with 305 and 350 horsepower, respectively. A facelift featuring canted headlights arrived for 1961, with the new Newport (powered by a 265-horse 361) taking over the lower end of the wagon series in place of the Windsor. The fins were plucked for 1962, then a complete redesign courtesy of Elwood Engel delivered a “crisp, new custom look” for 1963. Both the Newport and New Yorker Town & Country hardtops featured similar mechanical specifications from before and, with mild trim tweaks, continued into 1964. With the advent of the all-new C-body in 1965, Chrysler’s hardtop wagon was no more.
Like Chrysler, Dodge also introduced a hardtop wagon in 1960. Both the low-priced Dart series and Matador weren’t afforded that luxury, but the premium Polara was, including a standard 325-horsepower “Ram Fire” 383, with D-500 Ram Induction being an option. The restyled 1961 Polara wagon returned with its hardtop roofline, but power was downgraded to a 265-hp 361, though the 383 and D-500 were offered. When Dodge moved to the B-body platform for 1962, there was no hardtop wagon to be found but, when Dodge introduced the Chrysler-based Custom 880 series mid-year, a hardtop wagon was present. After a handsome 1963 restyle, the Custom 880 hardtop wagon would continue into 1964 and then be dropped.