Living & Entertainment

Drop the tailgate: Iconic American family wagons on display at LeMay museum

Just in time for summer: An exhibit of the quintessential family transport, the station wagon, has opened at LeMay — America’s Car Museum in Tacoma.

The show is part of the museum’s Route 66 exhibit that highlights the ephemera and the experiences of the road.

Vintage American station wagons built in 1949-1983 make up the show on view through the summer.

“That’s what these evoke in peoples’ minds — these great memories of road trips and family vacations,” curator Scot Keller said. From backseat squabbles to teepee motels, nearly every American family has road trip memories, he said.

Though Keller’s family didn’t have a station wagon, he traveled about three-fourths of Route 66 in the back of the family sedan when he was a child.

“And yes, I did bicker with my sister,” Keller said.

While the show begins with a 1949 Buick Super Estate Wagon, the story of the station wagon goes back to the days of Henry Ford.

In the museum’s collection is a 1915 Ford Model T Depot Hack. The vehicle, which doesn’t look all that far removed from a horse-drawn wagon, would pick up passengers from train stations and deliver them to hotels, museum collection manager Renee Crist said. Thus, the “station” wagon.

Despite its early roots, the station wagon came into its own in post-World War II America, Keller said. Women began to drive more; families moved to the suburbs; and the interstate highway system was being created.

All but the youngest visitors will find familiar rides in this show, from a 1950 Oldsmobile Futuramic 88 station wagon to a 1983 Mercury Colony Park Series Wagon. The latter, perhaps because of its more recent vintage, has been a big hit so far with visitors, Crist said.

“It’s the everyman car. These were cars that were used for a purpose,” Crist said.

The cars in the show are a combination of those owned by the museum and others on loan from local collectors.

The evolution of tailgates, seating arrangements and wood side panels can be seen in the exhibit. The 1949 Buick has genuine wood panels, but the 1950 Olds has hand-painted faux wood. By the time the 1983 Mercury came along, mass-produced printed wood grain on metal panels were the norm.

There are some eye-popping details on the cars. A 1954 Pontiac Chieftain Deluxe 8 Station Wagon has a large metallic and acrylic hood ornament that lights up. A 1956 Ford Country Squire Station Wagon owned by Glenn Mounger is a festive coral pink and has enough fake wood to frustrate a woodpecker.

Station wagons are not gone — manufacturers from Audi to Volvo still make them. But America’s favorite family workhorses are now minivans and SUVs.