Whatever Happened to the Station Wagon, and Could It Be Making a Comeback?
Posted by: Lydia on 17/07/2019
Today, the station wagon is a bit of a time capsule: immediately recognised, fondly recalled, but a rarer sight today on Aussie roads than in decades prior. While this is a little sad to those who love this type of vehicle, the auto industry is one of constant innovation and change. And due to multiple factors, the station wagon has largely been unable to compete.
But even if the station wagon isn’t as popular as it once was, it still has an important place in car history. The humble station wagon was the forebear of some of the biggest trends that have taken over the auto industry.
Here's a look at what happened to the station wagon, and whether it could one day make a comeback.
Demographic and household shifts
Many factors led to the shrinking popularity of the station wagon, and some of them resulted in the huge trends that totally reshaped our relationship with vehicles and how we use them.
The first and most important factor isn’t about cars at all, but about our homes and families.
Today, Aussie families are typically smaller than they were decades ago, and the stats bear this out: in 1911, the average number of people in an Australian household was 4.5, but by 2016, that number had fallen to 2.6.
On its surface, this might not seem like a big deal, but it’s had a huge impact on our car purchases – especially because recent years have seen many households shift from owning only one car to owning two, three, or even four or more. So in the past, with more family members and fewer cars in each household, a station wagon was seen as a very attractive offering, given its family-friendly size. But households have changed, and so too have consumer tastes.
Travel and recreation changes
Another major change has been the way in which we holiday. Once upon a time, when airfares were very expensive compared to an average weekly pay packet, many Aussies would opt for a road trip as opposed to an overseas journey.
While road trips are still popular, in the era of a hyper-competitive airline industry, ongoing discount flights, and an increase in the speed of air travel, many Aussies are looking to holiday in Japan or Thailand rather than the Gold Coast or the Great Ocean Road. In many cases, currency conversion means it can be more affordable to catch a plane and holiday overseas than pay for petrol and accommodations in Australia.
In addition, many families now opt for caravans when taking a road trip, as opposed to a less-versatile vehicle like a station wagon or SUV.
And while the station wagon definitely still has its fans among surfers and snowboarders, many of them engage in extreme sports tourism in other countries. With surfers travelling to Bali, and winter sports enthusiasts hopping across the ditch for a holiday among New Zealand’s snowy peaks, even those groups that traditionally owned station wagons find they have less need for one at home.
The evolution of SUVs and 4WDs
For many years, the station wagon was the go-to vehicle for anyone who liked the idea of a sedan but needed more space. For many station wagon owners, their vehicle offered the best of both worlds – it was able to deliver additional capacity without giving up the same user-friendly driving experience that a sedan offered.
After World War 2, the success of the jeep inspired a new category of vehicles: recreational 4WDs and SUVs. And as other changes swept through the country, many manufacturers identified a new audience in the average Aussie household. Aussies saw in 4WDs and SUVs vehicles that could offer all the storage benefits of a station wagon, while also enabling them to venture off the bitumen and hit the off-road trails with ease – while also looking a bit more modern.
At that point in time, many Aussies who would have once been in the station wagon’s key demographic switched to this other class of vehicle – and today, 4WDs and SUVs are among the best-selling vehicles in Australia.
Many other factors have also changed the Aussie landscape. The ease of online deliveries has done away with the need to lug bulky goods back from the store, and the rise of digital streaming services at home has seen a decline in (or the end of) the drive-in, where station wagons were the perfect vehicle of choice to catch a movie.
None of these factors alone saw the station wagon’s popularity decline, but all of them together posed an issue to the vehicle’s ongoing popularity and use.
Changing the station
Although station wagons may not be as common as they once were, they do still have a devoted following among some fans, especially those who love their retro throwback appeal.
But a station wagon is similar to a sedan in terms of its driving options – so while this isn't a bad thing if you want a station wagon principally for more storage, if you have your heart set on the extra modes a 4WD or SUV can offer, you may be disappointed.
Although the heyday of the station wagon has (for now) appeared to have come and gone, the history of cars shows us to ‘never say never’. Many cars once viewed as on the way out have rocketed back to popularity.
Ultimately, the vehicle remains a very versatile one. It's certainly still as family-friendly today as it was in years gone by, but it's also super useful for anyone who is lugging business supplies, university textbooks, or maybe even a big dog or two in the back. It may not be as popular as it once was, but here’s hoping this vehicle gets to enjoy a big comeback across the Great Southern Land in future.
What has your experience been like with station wagons? Let us know in the comments below: