By Steve Magnante – Photography by the Author
If you grew up in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, or ’80s you remember how common station wagons were in everyday traffic. At every intersection, there they were. For the most part, there wasn’t much to get excited about except for the occasional 396, 427, or 454 front fender emblem. Or, when viewed from the rear, the presence of dual exhaust tips caught the eye of performance-oriented spectators–like us.
Unfortunately, most wagons share front sheetmetal with two-door and convertible models. So, when values of those models took off, wagons often lost their noses then went to the junkyard–despite having solid bodies from the cowl back. But since more efficient box-like minivans took over the chore of hauling the family beginning in 1984, within a decade the great American station wagon was about over.
This month, let’s take a look at some longroof Chevrolets discovered in junkyards from Texas to Massachusetts. The fact that these junkyards contained plenty of wagons speaks to the type’s widespread appeal–then as now.
As the prices of ’62 Chevy bubbletops soar out of reach for many of us, station wagons make a great alternative. This Bel Air wears crossed flags on the front fenders indicating factory 283 power. The top offering for trailer towing was the 348 W-motor, all of which came with either a single four-barrel or (in rare cases) triple two-barrel induction. The 348 (and 409) stand as Chevy’s only V-8 family never offered with ho-hum single two-barrel induction. As for the “so fine” 409, 15,019 were installed in fullsize Chevys in 1962, and yes, a handful were put into new station wagons.
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Riding on Chevy’s totally new, all coil spring, X-frame chassis, this four-door ’58 Chevy is a Yeoman station wagon. Yo, man, what’s a yeoman? Good question. According to the dictionary, a yeoman is an attendant or officer in a royal or noble household. According to Chevrolet product managers, Yeoman was the base-level station wagon, positioned below the mid-level Brookwood and top-dog Nomad. But get this, for 1958 the Nomad lost its slick two-door body style and was a four-door only offering–as was the Brookwood.
Clearly this Yeoman is a four-door, though two doors were popular when new. Available power included the base 235ci Blue Flame six, 283s with two- and four-barrel induction, and the aforementioned 348 W-motor big-block. Also offered–but incredibly rare–was the Rochester fuel-injected Ram Jet 283 straight out of the sleek Corvette. This unit packed a 283 and Powerglide automatic transmission.
Speaking of the redesigned four-door-only Nomad for 1958, this ultra-crusty example offers a peek at the novel X-frame. A radical departure from the traditional perimeter-type frame used in 1957, the resulting design lowered the floorpan, which allowed body designers to conjure lower body mounting points for the all-important “lower, longer, wider” style of the fabulous ’50s.
Clearly a four-door wagon, note the chrome Nomad script at the end of the quarter-panel. The Nomad was no longer a “GM Motorama dream car–brought to life.” All major body stampings were shared with Yeoman and Brookwood wagons. The only difference was elevated trim and interior details. Though missing, the rear coil spring suspension was all new the year this car was built. No more buggy springs for Chevy—until the Nova arrived in 1962 (excluding the pre-’63 Corvette).
There’s no dignity in the junkyard. When new, the ’58 Chevrolet brought the style and safety of quad headlamps to the masses. Replacing the ’58 7-inch diameter all-in-one low beam/high beam lamps with four 5-inch units, the low/high beam duties were separated and nighttime illumination was much improved. This also gave stylists new freedom to accentuate width and create even more unique “personalities” for their designs.
The ’58 X-frame finally eliminated the rear leaf springs used by Chevrolet since the beginning. Up front, this ’58 shows the coil springs adopted by Chevrolet in the mid-’30s. Notice the puffy rubber boots covering the ball joints at the ends of the upper and lower control arms. First used on the revolutionary ’55 Chevy passenger cars to replace the King Pin–style spindles used in 1954, Chevrolet advertising couldn’t use the term “ball joint” because Lincoln (1952) and Ford (1954) used the term for their ads. Instead, Chevy ads touted the “antidive” braking characteristics inherent with ball joint–type suspension.
Cars like this ’65 Impala wagon make the most of the width-enhancing aspect of quad headlamps. The chrome front fender emblems read 327 so we know the original buyer paid $95 for the 250hp L30 327 with a single two-barrel or $138 for the four-barrel–equipped L74 327 with 300 hp. That said, 1965 was a weird crossover year where the top dog 409 W-motor gave way to the 396 big-block in mid-season. Interestingly, Chevy charged the same $242.10 for the 340hp L33 409 four-barrel and the 325hp L35 396 four-barrel.
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Also offered as a hatchback and coupe, the sub-compact Vega station wagon was marketed as the Kammback, a reference to the work of German aerodynamicist Wunibald Kamm in the ’30s. This well-preserved pair is similar–but different. Notice the difference in rear bumpers, license plate location, side marker lights, and nameplate position. The “big bumper” design (close to camera) arrived in 1974 and replaced the cleaner configuration that debuted in 1971.
Vega is one of the few ’70s Chevrolets that didn’t suffer too badly as bumper laws grew tighter. That said, to most eyes the ’71-73 “baby Camaro” design (on right) is nearly perfect. The ’74 redesign (left) was done to obey 5-mph front bumper laws. Federal testing involved swinging a suspended pendulum ram—equal in weight to the vehicle—into the bumper surface without damaging the safety-related components … six times! This pair of Vega Kammbacks would have made great V-8 conversions but have likely been crushed by now.
This isn’t All Pontiac Performance magazine, but we present this ’55 Pontiac Chieftain four-door station wagon to illustrate the fact GM’s strategy of sharing the same body shell between divisions isn’t a new thing. Note how this Pontiac’s doorskins, tailgate, window shapes, fuel filler door, taillight receptacle, and even rear bumper look to be identical to a same-year Chevrolet 210 or Bel Air four-door wagon. These Chevrolet-based items were only shared with the low-price Chieftain series wagons. The more costly Star Chief and Safari series used specific parts with distinctly Pontiac shapes.