Certain cars with this body style have historically been called a shooting brake, a British term. A few models are referred to as a break, using the French term (which is sometimes given in full as break de chasse — literally "hunting break"). The German term for this type, Kombi or combi, is also sometimes used. Volkswagen's proprietary name for a Kombi is Variant, Opel sometimes uses the word Caravan, BMW uses Touring, and Audi's wagons are called Avant. Fiat often uses the term Weekend, while Alfa Romeo uses Sportwagon. Peugeot and Land Rover have sometimes used "station wagon" even in markets which use British English. Another term infrequently used by some American and Australian car makers is station sedan.
Most station wagons are modified sedan-type car bodies, having the main interior area extended to the near-vertical rear window over what would otherwise be the enclosed area of the sedan version. A hatchback car, although meeting a similar description, would not enjoy the full height of the passenger cabin all the way to the back; the rear glass of a hatchback being sloped further from vertical, and the hatch tending not to reach fully to the rear bumper, as it commonly would in a station wagon. Station wagons also have side windows over the cargo area, whereas some hatchbacks have thick "C" pillars and no cargo area windows. Two exceptions to this rule include Rambler station wagons (1952–62) on which the roof line subtly dipped down over the cargo area, and GM's Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser (1964–72) and Buick Sportwagon (1964–70) on which the rear roof section was slightly elevated and combined with four skylights; the "sportwagon" name has been popularised again in recent years by some manufacturers. Certain models of Land Rover have also been described by the manufacturer as station wagons (even in British usage); these had a tall wagon-like body with extra "alpine lights", or windows, above the cargo bay side windows.
A station wagon is distinguished from a minivan (multi-purpose vehicle) or sport utility vehicle by still being a car, sharing its forward bodywork with other cars in a manufacturer's range. The popularity of the minivan in the 1980s and early 1990s is credited with the decline of the traditional station wagon.
The first station wagons were a product of the age of train travel. They were originally called 'depot hacks' because they worked around train depots as hacks (short for hackney carriage, an old name for taxis). They also came to be known as 'carryalls' and 'suburbans'. The name 'station wagon' is a derivative of 'depot hack'; it was a wagon that carried people and luggage from the train station to various local destinations.
Prior to mid-1930s, hardwoods were used by most automotive makes in framing the passenger compartments of their passenger vehicles. In automobiles, the framing was sheathed in steel which was then covered in colored lacquers for protection. Eventually, all steel bodies were adopted because of their strength, cost and durability.
Early station wagons evolved from trucks and were viewed as commercials (along with vans and pickup trucks), not consumer automobiles. The framing of the early station wagons was left unsheathed because of the commercial nature of the vehicles. Early station wagons were fixed roof vehicles, but lacked the glass that would enclose the passenger compartment, and had only bench seats. In lieu of glass, side curtains of canvas could be unrolled. More rigid curtains could be snapped in place to protect passengers from the elements outside.
In 1922 Essex introduced the first affordable enclosed automobile (sedan), which shifted the auto industry away from open vehicles towards meeting consumer demand for enclosed automobiles. Station wagons too, began to be enclosed, especially in higher price categories from up market automobile companies. Windows in these early enclosed models were either retractable or sliding. It was only in 1924 the first closed wagon appeared.
Initially, manufacture of the wagon's passenger compartments was outsourced to custom body builders because of the slower nature of the production of the all wood bodies. Companies that were major producers of wood bodied station wagons included Mitchell Bentley, Hercules, USB&F and Cantrell and other custom builders. The roofs of woodie wagons were usual made of stretched canvas that was treated with a water proofing dressing.
As time went by the car companies themselves began building their own station wagons. Star (a division of Durant Motors) is usually credited as being the first car company to offer a factory-built station wagon, beginning in 1923, yet in 1919, Stoughton Wagon Company (Stoughton, Wisconsin) began putting custom wagon bodies on Model T chassis; by 1929 Ford was by far the biggest seller of station wagons. Since Ford owned its own hardwood forest and mills, it began supplying the components for a Model A wagon (although initially some final assembly would still take place away from the factory, by Briggs, in Detroit), with wood from the Mengel Company (Louisville). The same year, J. T. Cantrell put woodie bodies on Chrysler vehicles (persisting until 1931).
While commercial in its origins, by the mid-1930s, wood bodied station wagons, also known as “Woodies”, began to take on a prestige aura. The vehicles were priced higher than regular cars, but were popular in affluent communities, especially among the Country Club social set. The vehicles gained in “snob appeal” when mating the utility of the hard wood bodies to better makes of automobiles such as Buick, Packard, Pierce-Arrow. By 1941, the Chrysler Town and Country was the most expensive car in the company's lineup.
Cachet aside, woodie wagons required constant maintenance; bodies were finished in varnishes that required recoating, bolts and screws required tightening as wood expanded and contracted throughout the seasons.
The first factory-built all-steel station wagon in North America was the 1946 Jeep Station Wagon, based upon the rugged Jeep produced by Willys-Overland during the war. The Willys was a two-door vehicle, and in premium trim had its passenger compartment exterior painted in a style that evoked the light framing/darker panel design of wagons from the woodie era. Since it was Jeep-based, some considered it more of a utility vehicle than a "real" car. Chevrolet introduced in 1935 the first Chevy Suburban, an all-steel station wagon body, but it was built on a truck (or commercial) chassis. During 1947, the small car manufacturer, Crosley introduced an all-steel car-based wagon.
In 1949, Plymouth introduced the first all-steel station wagon, the two-door Suburban, that was based on an automotive platform. In 1950 Plymouth discontinued the woody station wagon in its line and converted to all steel bodies; and because it was too coincidental to the Chevrolet Suburban. Buick was the last automobile manufacturer to produce a station wagon with a true wooden structure in 1953.
By 1955, only Ford and Mercury offered a woody-like model; however the look was accomplished with steel, plastics and various materials, such as DiNoc (a vinyl product) to simulate broad expanses of wood. Known as the Ford Country Squire, this heavily-trimmed full-size wagon was a staple of the Ford line from the 1940s to the 1990s.
Reintroduction of woody decorated station wagons by other makers in America began in 1966 when Dodge offered the look for the first time in fifteen years. By 1967, simulated "wood" decoration was used exclusively on top line models, with unadorned vehicles denoting lower price and status models.
In many suburban communities, owning a current year woody station wagon was a sign of affluence and good taste. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the idea of "fake wood" became archaic and manufacturers dropped the option. With the introduction of the retro-styled Chrysler PT Cruiser, aftermarket firms began selling faux woodie kits designed to evoke a sense of nostalgia.
Station wagons enjoyed their greatest popularity and highest production levels in the United States during from the 1950s through the 1970s. The late 1950s through the mid 1960s was also the period of greatest variation in body styles, with pillared two and four-door models marketed alongside hardtop (no B-pillar) four door models. As the sporty, airy, and open look of pillarless styling was catching on for regular passenger cars, the first to utilize it was American Motors in its Rambler Cross-Country wagons. Rambler offered a four-door of this body style in 1956, followed by Mercury, Oldsmobile, and Buick in 1957; Chrysler entered the market in 1960. Expensive to produce and buy, the hardtop wagon sold in limited numbers. The pillarless design added wind noise, as well as structural issues in trying to eliminate body twist. GM was the first to eliminate the hardtop wagon from its lineup in 1959, and AMC and Ford exited the field beginning with their 1960 and 1961 vehicles, leaving Chrysler and Dodge with the body style through the 1964 model year.
Traditionally, full-sized American station wagons were configured for 6 or 9 passengers. The basic arrangement for seating six was three passengers in the front and three passengers in the rear, all on bench-type seats; to accommodate nine, a third bench seat - often facing backward, but sometimes facing forward or sideways - was installed in the rear cargo area, over the rear axle. In Ford and Mercury wagons built after 1964, the configuration was changed to two seats facing each other, placed behind the rear axle. According to Ford, each seat would accommodate two people, raising the total seating capacity to ten passengers; however, these seats were quite narrow in later models and could only accommodate one passenger, limiting the total capacity to eight passengers.
Newer models are usually built on smaller platforms and accommodate five or six passengers (depending on whether bucket or bench seats are fitted in front). Full-size SUVs such as the Chevrolet Suburban and Ford Expedition have similar features to the aforementioned full-size station wagons; such as 9-passenger seating with bench seating in the front. Also, many people claim the SUVs to be a "station wagon" under the vehicle's registration title.
In 1951, the compact wheelbase Nash Rambler line included a two-door station wagon design whose production continued through 1955. After the merger of Nash and Hudson, the new company, American Motors (AMC) reintroduced the two-door wagon in the "new" Rambler American line in 1959 with only a few modifications from the original version. This was a popular design targeting buyers looking for economy and load space, as well as a business strategy of marketing an old design that has not been successfully duplicated to this day.
In 1955, 1956, and 1957, Chevrolet produced the Nomad, and Pontiac the sibling Safari, both of which were sporty two-door wagons. Limited demand for the style (in their home market, the U.S.) resulted in cancellation after three model years. For 1958, both model names were applied to pillared four-door wagon models. Chevrolet dropped the Nomad name at the end of the 1961 model year, while Pontiac continued to use the Safari name into the 1980s. Mercury, a division of the Ford Motor Company, produced a two-door hardtop wagon from 1957 to 1960. When Mercury lost its unique body designs in 1961, the marque lost its hardtop wagons and instead fielded pillared models.
The 1970s were something of a high point for two-door wagons in the U.S., as many manufacturers fielded an example in their subcompact car lines. Between 1972 and 1980, a two-door wagon version of the Ford Pinto and Mercury Bobcat was available. A two-door wagon version of the Chevrolet Vega was available between 1971 and 1977; the near-identical Pontiac Astre offered the same body style between 1973 and 1977 and the similar Chevrolet Monza wagon was sold in 1978 and 1979. American Motors also entered the market with a wagon version of the AMC Pacer, produced between 1977 and 1980. The last two-door wagon available in America, the Volkswagen Fox, was discontinued in 1990.
More utilitarian two-door wagons were known as "sedan delivery" cars, often with solid panels where the rear side windows would be. These were produced in the United States into the 1970s (with panel versions of the Vega and Pinto available).
In the United Kingdom, estate car versions of small and middle sized models were more common. Estate versions of the Morris 1000 ("Minor") and Mini, with external ash wood frames (structural on the 1000) were popular; they both had 2 vertically divided van-type rear doors in the style of older shooting brakes (see "Station wagons around the world", below). The Hillman Husky estate version of the Hillman Imp was unusual in being a rear-engined estate.
More unusual British two-door estates included the Lynx Eventer estate based on the Jaguar XJS, and reminiscent of the Reliant Scimitar, and a one-off Jaguar XK120-based wagon with Morris 1000 rear doors grafted to the body.
The ripple effect of the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo led to the demise of the station wagon where CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) legislation dethroned the rear wheel drive layout for efficient front wheel drive vehicles. Station wagons were the victims of Detroit's downsizing trend after 1976, and vehicle choice was limited to SUVs like the Chevrolet Suburban and van conversions (GMC Vandura) which filled the void of station wagon sales, but had much worse fuel efficiency. This, indeed, led to the station wagon's demise.
The emergence and popularity of SUVs which closely approximate the traditional wagon bodystyle was a further blow. After struggling sales, the last full-size wagons (the Chevrolet Caprice and the Buick Roadmaster) in American production were discontinued in 1996, but, in 2005 the Dodge Magnum was launched, although it is more similar in size to the Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable wagons than the larger Roadmaster and Caprice.
Since then, smaller wagons have been sold in the U.S. as less expensive alternatives to SUVs and minivans. Domestic wagons also remained in the Ford, Mercury, and Saturn lines until 2004 when the bodies began a phase-out, replaced by car-based crossover SUVs and minivans designed to look like station wagons.
The last subcompact station wagon produced in the United States and Canada was the 1992 Toyota Corolla. Compact station wagons have been declining since the 2000s although 2003 saw the introduction of the Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe. Ford dropped the Ford Focus wagon for 2007, and Subaru replaced the Impreza wagon with a 5-door hatchback model. However, the Volvo V50; a compact wagon, has seen success in the U.S. market.
In Europe, Australia and New Zealand, these vehicles remain popular and in volume production, although minivans (known in Europe as MPVs — multi-purpose vehicles) and the like have had some impact. As in North America, early station wagons were aftermarket conversions and had their new bodywork built with a wooden frame, sometimes with wooden panels, sometimes steel. Station wagons were the originators of fold down seats to accommodate passengers or cargo.
In the United Kingdom, station wagons are generally called estate cars or usually just estates. A very specific type, rare these days, is known as a shooting brake. These are usually modified luxury coupés with an estate car-like back fitted. They generally retain two side doors. The purpose of them, historically, is obvious from the name; they were vehicles for the well-off shooter and hunter, giving space to carry shotguns and other equipment. They have rarely been made by the factory and are generally aftermarket conversions; some are still made. Until the early 1960s many of them were built with structural wooden rear frames, making them some of the most exclusive and luxurious "woodies" ever built. A smaller Estate car was the very popular Morris Minor Traveller Estate which copied the wooden side panel frames of larger designs. Most small cars produced in the UK from the 1950s until the 1980s had Estate versions,some of which were also used as small delivery vans minus the rear windows.
In the 1950s, the British companies Rover and Austin produced 4x4 vehicles (the Land Rover and the Gypsy respectively). Apart from the standard canvas-topped utility vehicles, both these 4x4s were available in estate car bodystyles that were sold as "Station Wagons". These bodystyles incorporated more comfortable seating and trim when compared with the standard editions (which were typically aimed at agricultural and military buyers) and together with options such as heaters these changes made the Station Wagon vehicles more attractive to private buyers. The name was alien in the UK, but was probably chosen because of the high number of these vehicles that went to export markets such as Africa and Australia, where the name was understood. Land Rover still calls the passenger-carrying variations of its Defender model 'Station Wagons'.
In France almost all station wagon models are called the Break (note the different spelling from the English shooting brake). French breaks from Peugeot and Citroën in particular were available in seven- or eight-seater "family" versions long before MPVs became known in Europe.
European manufacturers often built two-door station wagons in the post-war period for the compact class, and not four-door models, a practice that continued at Ford (amongst others) with its Escort Mk III, for example, well into the 1980s. Usually, by that time, manufacturers created four-door models.
The German Volkswagen Polo crossed type divisions by offering a two-door estate shape as the main model in its range in some markets in the 1980s. The Czech VW subsidiary, Škoda Auto, produces Estate/Kombi versions of the Felicia,Fabia and Octavia.
Japanese manufacturers did not value station wagons highly until very recently. For many years, models sold as well-appointed station wagons in export markets were sold as utilitarian "van" models in the home market. This explains why station wagons were not updated for consecutive generations in a model's life in Japan: for instance, while a sedan might have a model life of four years, the wagon was expected to serve eight — the 1979 Toyota Corolla (built until 1987), and the 1987 Mazda Capella (built until 1996) are examples of this. The Nissan Avenir is an example of a model that began its life as a utility vehicle, and became a well equipped passenger car in the 1990s.
In Australia and New Zealand, the most popular station wagons are the large Ford Falcon and Holden Commodore models. These are usually built on a longer wheelbase compared to their sedan counterparts, though they share the same door skins, leading to a slightly unusual appearance with the rear door not reaching all the way to the rear wheel arch. Mitsubishi's Australian subsidiary designed wagon versions of its Magna and Verada for the local market, although it no longer offers a large wagon. Similarly, Toyota no longer offers a wagon version of the Camry.
Smaller wagons have declined in popularity, in comparison with Europe, although they have traditionally been more popular in New Zealand than in Australia. For example, the Ford Telstar was offered as a wagon in New Zealand, but not Australia, even though the mechanically identical Mazda 626 was sold in both countries.
The vast majority of modern station wagons have an upward-swinging, full-width, full-height rear door supported on gas struts, and a few also have a rear window that can be swung upward independently to load small items without opening the whole liftgate. Historically, however, many different designs have been used for access to the rear of car; the following summary concentrates on American models.