When you think of family road trips of yesteryear, it probably conjures up images of families packed like sardines, peering out the windows of their over-packed station wagons.

Generally loathed by teens but appreciated by parents, station wagons were once extremely popular with families who often took vacations by road. They had a huge amount of storage space, and large, comfortable seats with plenty of legroom — and of course, a wagon was the unheralded star of the movie Vacation, giving Clark Griswold and family an unforgettable ride across the country to Walley World.

But how did station wagons come about? And do they have a future on American roads?

Starting in 1910 …

Though they have evolved over time, station wagons are a great example of the influence that American society has over the automobile industry and the cars they manufacture.

The first station wagons were custom-built starting around 1910 with custom wooden bodies that fit over the Ford Model T chassis. They actually looked more like trucks than the wagons we know today, as they had no doors. This is because they were originally built as “depot hacks” — vehicles used for carrying passengers, their luggage, and additional cargo from the train station to wherever they were headed.

Picture courtesy Guy Kawasaki via Pexel

It wasn’t until 1922 that the first enclosed “station wagons” (as they were now called) were produced, still using the popular wood-based design. The 1930 Ford Model A Woody Wagon (made famous in the popular Jan and Dean song Surf City) and the 1941 Buick Estate are great examples of station wagons that came out of this era.

The Family Wagon

Though the first all-steel station wagon ever built was the 1935 Chevrolet Suburban, it wasn’t until after World War II that steel replaced wood as the major material used to manufacture the wagon, thanks mostly to advances in automobile-making technology. The year 1949 saw the introduction of the first passenger-car station wagon in the Plymouth Suburban. Soon after, the golden age of the family station wagon was ushered in, and it would last well into the 1970s.

1967 Mercury Voyager magazine ad

During this time, the station wagon was the perfect vehicle for large families who wanted to see the country. And families had a lot of styles to choose from. Indeed, as the golden age of wagons coincided with the golden age of family road trips, the American public saw the greatest variation in wagon body styles and sizes.

There were compact, mid-sized, and full-sized options available along with two-way, three-way, side-by-side or tailgate options. What’s more, Buick and Oldsmobile added even more ways to see the outside world with glass rooftop panels and glass sunroofs.

Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser with glass rooftop panels to see the world outside pass by at 55 m.p.h.

The 1956 Rambler Cross Country offered fully reclining “airliner” front seats. Some wagons came with bench seats facing each other in the back that folded down and could be used to let the kids nap (hopefully) until you reached the next destination. Still other wagons featured a third passenger seat that faced backwards and offered excellent views of where you had been instead of where you were going. (You can have “shotgun” all you want. We’re sitting in the way back!)

The Golden Era Tarnishes

As great as station wagons were for family road trips, they were also gas guzzlers. The gas crisis of the 1970s — and cheaper airline travel — caused wagons’ popularity to plummet. By the turn of the century, station wagons in America nearly became obsolete.

YouTube capture from 1950’s safety film showing the cars of the 21st century – station wagons included!

However, both automobile manufacturers and enthusiasts say that the station wagon might not have seen its last days. First, they get better mileage than an SUV, and thus are more economical — but they still satisfy the need for a vehicle that can haul both passengers and cargo.

Stop and Say Hi

Speaking of resurgence, Stuckey’s is another one of those legendary road-trip icons that’s making a comeback to the American road. So whether you’re out there seeing our great country in a classic woody, a family wagon, or a minivan, be sure to stop by the nearest Stuckey’s for all of your road trip needs — including our mouthwatering road trip snacks and all of those fun, kitschy souvenirs you remember.

Can’t make it to a Stuckey’s near you? Visit stuckeys.com and have some of our pecan-y goodness sent right to your home, along with other Stuckey’s merchandise.

Stuckey’s – We’re Making Road Trips Fun Again!