Draggin’ wagons from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s

Draggin’ wagons from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s

By John Gunnell

“Draggin’ wagons” is a term coined to describe the modified station wagons that tore down dragstrips in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Wagons were popular as the basis for drag racing machines because of their weight distribution characteristics. With the right combination of a wagon body and a chassis set up for going fast in the quarter mile, a race car builder could create a real winner.

This story is not about station wagons that ran the quarter mile; it’s about high-performance station wagons that competed in the “Stoplight Grand Prix” of the streets of North America or raced down the super highways built in the postwar era. Some of these wagons were mighty good looking, muscular underneath and pretty rare as well.

The evolution of the station wagon between the first Ford Model A wagon in the late-‘20s and ‘50s and ‘60s “sport wagons” was a striking reflection of the postwar urge to own fine vehicles and suburban homes. Early “depot hacks” were boxy utility vehicles, but by the ‘30s, a richly varnished “woodie” wagon was an icon of stately suburban living. 

Immediately after World War II, car buyers–especially young, middle-class married couples who were raising families and purchasing suburban homes–-turned to the station wagon as an all-purpose vehicle that could serve their every need. Production of station wagons rose rapidly from the early 1950s on, even doubling every three years up to 1957. The sale of these cars–-by now made entirely of metal (but sometimes using simulated wood trim)–was stimulated by North Americas’ new suburban lifestyle. By the late-‘50s, the station wagon had evolved to a model selling nearly a million cars a year.


Model Year Total Wagon Production Market Penetration %

1951 174,500 3.3 (*)

1952 168,500 3.9

1953 303,000 4.9

1954 310,000 6.5 (*)

1955 580,000 8.2

1956 707,200 11.3

1957 843,500 13.6 (*)

1958 647,000 15.2

1959 937,000 16.9

1960 923,700 15.4

1961 866,800 16.0

1962 924,900 13.8

1963 963,500 13.1

1964 936,969 11.9

1965 968,771 11.0

1966 912,433 10.6

1967 760,094   9.9

1968 860,596 10.3

1969 869,684 10.2


(*) Note doubling in 3-year intervals up to 1957.


The station wagon went through revolutionary changes in the ’50s, after the wood-bodied depot hack was replaced by the all-steel carry-all. Before long, the steel crate-on-wheels became a “sport wagon” identified by catchy model names like Nomad, Safari, Caballero, Country Squire and Fiesta.  There was also a proliferation of station wagons. Ford-–the acknowledged “wagonmaster”–offered two wagons in 1949. They  were identical except for the choice of an inline six-cylinder engine or a flathead V8 with 100 hp. By 1959, Ford had a lineup of 12 wagons including plain, mid-range and fancy styles with two- or four-doors. You could still get a six, but many wagons had the biggest V8s.

There was an impression that a station wagon, due to its utilitarian style and heavier weight, needed a big engine to pull it around, and car salesmen sold this idea to many buyers so that they could add another pricey option. Many station wagons of the 1950s were available with all engines an automaker offered—at least on a special-order basis. So, a buyer could get a tri-power or even a fuel-injected V8 in a station wagon. Those interested in drag racing often bought the cheapest wagon (which was lightest in weight of course) with the most massive engine that could be added at extra cost.

In model-year 1960, a total of 923,323 station wagons were produced in the United States. Of these, most were four-door models and only 113,375 were sporty two doors. The station wagon represented 15.6 percent of all 1960 cars built in the U.S. Ford had the biggest footprint in the wagon field and it was Ford at the top of the heap with 292,304 made. Chevy’s total was 287,705. AMC was third with 174,542 station wagons. 

The rarest ‘60 station wagon was the two-door style that accounted for 113,375 total assemblies (14,663 GM, 59,803 Ford, 5,123 Chrysler, 28,813 AMC and 4,973 Studebaker-Packard models). Next rarest was the four-door three-seat wagon, of which 157,059 were made (54,516 GM, 50,888 Ford, 34,087 Chrysler, 17,568 AMC and no Studebaker-Packard models). The bulk of production (652,889) was of four-door wagons with two seats. Of these, 218,256 were GM, 181,613 were Ford, 106,394 were Chrysler brands, 128,161 were from AMC and 18,199 were Studebaker-Packard models.

In model-year 1961, the number of station wagons built in the U.S. fell 6.3 percent to 865,356 vehicles. Of these, 483,449 were six-cylinder-powered and 381,907 used a V8 engine, a trend that would soon change because many of the larger, heavy station wagons ultimately got a V8 as their standard engine. The production total included 65,738 two-door models, 661,142 four-door two-seat models and 138,476 with four doors and three seats. The rarer two-door wagons were still offered by Plymouth (2,381 made), Ford (12,042), Falcon (32,045), Comet (4,199), Studebaker (2,239) and AMC (12,832). 

After a short-lived recession early in 1961, the automobile business bounced back and was rolling along at full steam by ‘62. Station wagon output increased to 924,894 cars. This included 30,978 with two doors, 739,435 with four doors and two seats, 115,226 with four doors and three seats and 39,355 with five or six doors. The latter group included Corvair and Falcon Econoline passenger vans and some AMC wagons. As a whole, station wagons accounted for 13.8 percent of all cars built in the U.S. in model-year ‘62.

Mickey Thompson and other famous race car builders had a field day stuffing super car engines into the smaller wagons. A number of race teams built tiny 1961-‘62 Tempest Safari wagons with powerful Super-Duty 421 Pontiac V8s lurking under their hood scoops. (As an aside, Pontiac used to buy the Super-Duty hood scoops from Ford!)

Bill Osterhoudt, a friend of the author’s who went to military school with Grumpy Jenkins, had a full-size ’62 Pontiac wagon—a Catalina Safari–when he was in the Air Force in Wichita, Kan. His station wagon had originally been ordered with a 421-cid V8 and a four-speed manual gear box. Bill outfitted the dash of the Pontiac with gauges from an airplane that had crashed and turned it into a really amazing car.

 Station wagons as a percentage of total 1963 model-year production of U.S. cars did not set a record, notching 13.1 percent of all cars built. That compared to 16.9 percent in 1959, the all-time record year for wagon output. However, in terms of the actual number of wagons made, the ’63 total of 963,500 was the highest ever realized. Of that amount, 536,429 had V8s, 420,481 had a six and 6,551 were four-cylinder Chevy IIs or Tempests. Chevrolet was the leading maker of full-size V8 station wagons, but Ford made the most V8 wagons overall if Fairlane and Falcon V8 models were counted.

In addition to the trend towards more V8-powered station wagons, 1963 also continued a five-year decline in the number of two-door station wagons built:


Model Year Production of Two-Door U.S. Station Wagons 1959-1963


1959 – 149,896

1960 – 113,375

1961 – 65,738

1962 – 30,978

1963 – 19,002


Another trend in wagon sales noted at this time was a levelling of demand in terms of market penetration. While total model-year production was at an all-time record high, the percentage of total industry sales going to wagons was actually tapering off.

Industry trends in the station wagon market niche continued unabated in 1964. The station wagon’s share of total U.S. car sales fell to 11.9 percent, the lowest since 1956. Dropping even further in popularity, the two-door station wagon accounted for only 8,744 total assemblies in model-year 1964. Of those, 2,710 were GM products and the rest were FoMoCo models. As far as four-door wagons went, the two-seat variety was built 726,345 times as opposed to 170,061 for three-seat types. In the five- and six-door wagon class were 8,147 GM products, 16,665 FoMoCos, 2,600 Mopars and 4,407 AMC models. That added up to 936,969 total vehicles for the model year, a 2.75-percent decline. Part of the reason for the swing away from wagons was the rising popularity of the so-called “compact van,” especially among younger Americans.

There have long been rumours that Pontiac Motor Div.—which became known as GM’s high-performance division in the ‘60s—actually built a couple of prototype or pilot Pontiac GTO station wagons. Over the years, enthusiasts have built their own versions by combining GTO parts with Tempest Safari station wagon bodies. 

Auto sales in America boomed in 1965, so it should come as no surprise that station wagon production hit a record 968,771 vehicles. However, the station wagon continued to represent a smaller share of the total market with an 11.0 percent penetration level. The two-door wagon counted 16,050 assemblies, the four-door wagon had 912,761 (including 207,212 with a factory-installed third seat) and the five- and six-door wagons had 39,960. In the fall of 1965, Ford introduced an innovative dual-action tailgate for its ’66 station wagon. It could be opened like a door or lowered like a tailgate.

By 1966, the two-door station wagon was gone – at least for a while. Other body style trends continued in mostly the same direction as before. Production of wagons with a factory-installed third seat saw a modest increase. This was a reflection of buyer interest in fancier and sportier cars in this era. While the station wagon was declining in overall popularity, those who still wanted one were willing to upgrade to fancier, full-featured models. Some wagons of this vintage were virtually luxury cars. Production of five- and six-door wagons – most of which were actually passenger buses – also went up again.

Late in 1966, the Italian auto body builder Intermeccanica built a Mustang station wagon for advertiser Barney Clark and car designer Robert Cumberford. This good-looking wagon was painted dark green and appeared on the cover of the October 1966 issue of Car and Driver magazine. It was also written up in Car Life. A number of years ago, the author was going to the vintage races at Road America, in Elkhart Lake, Wis. He needed a hotel room and heard of one that was not going to be used because it was rented for a Minnesota Congressman who had been called to Washington for a vote. One of the Congressman’s friends had just purchased the Mustang wagon the week before. 

Production of all conventional wagons dropped in 1967, while the five- and six-door versions saw a very modest gain in popularity. Also catching on with younger buyers were wagons with big engines, bucket seats, mag wheels and even four-on-the-floor. These were small enough to look good and large enough to carry stuff. 

Station wagon business turned around a bit in 1968 with total market penetration rising back into the double digits at 10.3 percent. Only the five- and six-door category lost – and not a lot. Three-seat wagon sales hit a record 284,519. This was indeed the age of the prestige car and the prestige wagon with wood panelling, a roof rack and even a vinyl-clad top made an “anti-environmental impact statement.” There were even a couple of Cadillac Eldorado wagon conversions and things like that. Pontiac again toyed with the idea of marketing a GTO wagon and some say a handful were made.

For wagon lovers, ’69 was a lot like ’68. The total number of wagons made went up a peg and market penetration went down a peg. Production of fancy four-door three-seat wagons increased by nearly 50,000 units. The number of five- and six-door wagons made increased 47 percent.

By the early 1970s, most station wagons were getting larger (and therefore slower). However, there was one 1970 Oldsmobile wagon that broke the mould. It was built and owned by Joe Mondello, who set benchmarks in the performance industry in every decade since the ‘50s. By 1970, Mondello had been directly involved with the automotive aftermarket for over half a century as a manufacturer, engine builder, racer and educator.

Mondello cylinder heads were used by Dean Moon, Ak Miller, Craig Breedlove, Big Daddy Don Garlits and the legendary Mickey Thompson. Mondello was Car Craft magazine’s “Engine Builder of The Year” in 1969 and drag raced as a factory-backed driver for Oldsmobile, setting two NHRA records. Joe’s Mondello Technical School provided research, development and extensive testing of GM engines and heads.

Mondello’s wagon is one of two 1970 Olds Cutlass W30 7-passenger station wagons ever built. It features a functional Ram Air hood and air cleaner assembly.  Underneath is the 455-cube 390-hp W30 V8 hooked to a THM400 transmission and 3.08 positraction rear axle. It also has the 4-4-2 heavy-duty suspension with oversize sway bars, a heavy-duty cooling system and a tow bar hitch and wiring harness. 

The wagon, which still exists, has a body that is part original and part restored. It rides on 15-in. SS II wheels with full wheel covers and is equipped with factory air. The interior features leather upholstery and power windows, including the window on the dual-hinged tailgate. Although the speedometer reads 102,166 miles, only about 2,500 miles have been put on the Mondello high-performance engine since it was last rebuilt. This is a one-of-a-kind car with a one-in-a-million owner. You won’t find another one like it.

Two other very interesting “muscle” wagons from the 1970s are a Hurst Olds station wagon built for the Medical Director of Indianapolis Motor Speedway when a Hurst Olds convertible paced the 56th Indy 500 on May 27, 1972, and the world’s only 1973 Pontiac Grand Am prototype station wagon. Both of these station wagons still exist in the hands of collectors. The Grand Am is owned by a famous Pontiac engineer named Tom Goad who is well-known for his Trans-Am work. It was factory-built and has a 455 Ram Air V8, bucket seats, radial tires, dual exhausts, a moon roof and other special features. 

Categories: Muscle Car Plus