A short piece on A K Haart’s blog about a SAAB 96 estate car gave enough food for thought for me to reply.
It set me thinking. I had some time ago mentioned in another piece about the Citroen DS that I had spent some time in a Safari version of that car, and which led me on to think (I will have to ration all this thinking, not good for me) how those great estate cars of yesteryear have largely disappeared and been replaced by either estate cars that are so well upholstered that they will never have a wet dog in the back, or the modern equivalent - the MPV or SPV or any other V that can take on board more than five people and luggage.
The Americans had capacious ‘station wagons’ long before we had this side of the pond. Many had ingenious items like rear doors that could open in various directions so giving flexible load areas and even providing a floor extension.
For me, the Citroen DS Safari is still the best of the European estates. It never sold in the quantities of its opposite number at Volvo the 240GL as there was an inbuilt fear (totally unwarranted) about the complicated suspension: it wasn’t it was just different, and it became the reason that the DS was the only estate car you could load up at the time while the car remained level and retained its superb ride.
The Volvo for good reason resembled a hearse and was the favoured vehicle of antique collectors. The Citroen also came in many altered states from ambulances various and camper conversions, all taking advantage again of the suspension.
During the same period Peugeot had another then utilitarian load carrier, the 404: this also had a long travel suspension that was as tough as old boots and many versions survived the treatment meted out to them in Africa and survived way past their sell by date. Simple to maintain and reliable, that is what is wanted in countries and continents like Africa in all things mechanical.
And of course the famous ambulance known as the Break !
And now the little estate that started this piece off. I had a family link to one of these: my brother owned one and at the time he was friendly with the late Brian Glover, famous for his part in the film 'Kes' among other roles. He was fascinated with the rear facing seat and would sit in the back facing the traffic on his own as though filming the traffic behind him. The car originally came came with a two stroke engine and the saloon version had a stellar rally career with Erik Carlson who was married to another rather good driver and horse woman Pat Moss, sister of Stirling.
My brother's car had the Ford V4 engine that suited the little estate, though not the greatest of engines.
The one above is a Plymouth Westchester Suburban of ‘38 vintage.
Later 50s and sixties station wagons from over the pond were large, some very large, and had all the trappings of the saloons of the times plus cavernous rear space for cargo or extra seats.
This one shows the space the seats and the multi opening rear door. The one below was rather a rare beast, a Studebaker Wagonaire from ‘65 that managed all the above plus an opening rear roof that turned it into a truck if you so wished. It never sold in big numbers as Studebaker never really solved the leaking roof.
I personally only owned one estate that fitted into this category, a Citroen CX. This was the successor to the DS, another cavernous estate car with the Citroen hydraulic suspension, wonderful for long drives but hard work in town being a manual and having a brute of a clutch. I travelled the length and breadth of the country in mine attending dog shows, not the breed variety but for trained dogs.
It had an added advantage of entertaining children in other cars if you were stuck in traffic jams as you could raise and lower the suspension, always to great amazement from those looking. A downside to the car was that the suspension hydraulics were pumped up by the engine when running, so every morning or when starting the whole car would raise up. If you had a breakdown with engine failure of any sort the car remained on the floor, so the RAC had a special trailer for this as the car could not be winched onto a normal trailer because of lack of ground clearance.
Again, the Citroen had many variants. Here's the Loadrunner...
That period was probably the last for what could be termed real estate cars/station wagons. The upmarket versions put out after that by the likes of Mercedes and copied by others were complete with leather-lined rear areas and plush carpeting; to fit in a wet dog, a liner was required, where in a real estate car that would not be necessary. The designs changed as well: a sleek profile was now de rigeur rather than having headroom and space. It was the end of the estate car and the SUV /Range Rover lookalikes killed it off.
Will they return? Most things in life go full circle, perhaps people will get tired of the sameness of the SUV - and having to climb into Range Rovers: you get a good driving view with them but getting in the seat is like climbing into a lorry. Perhaps drivers will return to the more normal estate car, who knows ?