Countless treasured memories were created in station wagons offered by the Big Three automakers in the 20th century, as they were the go-to haulers for millions of families. These leviathans could cart the kids and their loads of sports equipment to games, carry 4 x 8 sheets of plywood back from the local lumber yard, and still deliver the groceries as needed. Midsized and even compact versions were also popular for smaller families that didn’t require as much cargo area.
In the 1980s, the Big Three’s station wagons faced increasing competition not only from imports, but also from the emergence of the game-changing Chrysler minivans introduced for 1984, and the rise of the four-door SUV Jeep Cherokee XJ released that same model year.
Ford and Mercury entered the decade with the full-size, V-8, rear-wheel-drive Panther platform siblings. The former offered the LTD S, LTD, and Country Squire, and the latter the Marquis, with or without the Colony Park option.
At General Motors, Chevrolet had the Impala and the Caprice Classic, Pontiac the Catalina and Bonneville Safaris, Buick the Le Sabre and Electra Estates, and Oldsmobile the Custom Cruiser. All were based on GM’s B-body, and each division’s models mostly differed in frontal appearance, taillamps, interior and exterior trim, price point, and some equipment, powertrains, and options. Chrysler and its divisions were already out of the big wagon business by this time.
Midsize RWD station wagons for 1980 included Ford’s Fairmont and Fairmont Squire, and Mercury’s Zephyr, with or without the Villager option. GM also offered a full complement, with the Chevrolet Malibu and Malibu Classic, Pontiac Le Mans and Grand Le Mans Safaris, Buick Century and Century Estate or Sport, and the Oldsmobile Cutlass Cruiser or Brougham. Chrysler fielded the LeBaron and Town & Country, Dodge the Diplomat, Diplomat Salon, and the Aspen (with or without the Custom Package or Special Edition Package). Plymouth offered the Volare that could also add the Custom or Premiere packages.
During the decade, other midsize versions were unveiled. Ford’s “new-size” RWD LTD and Mercury Marquis joined the ranks for 1983 and lasted through 1986. GM’s new front-wheel-drive A-platform wagons—the Chevrolet Celebrity, Pontiac 6000, Buick Century, and Olds Cutlass Ciera—arrived for 1984, and Ford wowed the market with its space-age Taurus and Mercury Sable for 1986.
Though AMC isn’t one of the Big Three, its Eagle station wagon is notable for its four-wheel-drive capability. It was introduced in 1980, based on the Concord two-wheel-drive wagon (1978-’83) and was produced until 1988. An article on a 1984 Eagle appears elsewhere in this issue.
Smaller FWD station wagons also pervaded the 1980s. Chrysler’s K-car Plymouth Reliant and Dodge Aries were new for 1981, and the Ford Escort and Mercury Lynx replaced the RWD Pinto and Bobcat that same year. The Chrysler Town & Country K-car wagon followed for 1982. GM’s J-body Chevrolet Cavalier and Pontiac J2000 station wagons debuted early for 1982, and 1983 brought the Buick Skyhawk and Oldsmobile Firenza versions.
If you have the impression that the station wagon market was saturated in the 1980s, keep in mind that even more were offered by other competing automakers. With the success of the minivan, Chrysler dropped the K-car station wagons after 1988. However, several from GM and Ford still carried the torch to close out the decade and beyond.
We’re highlighting four station wagons of the 1980s that you may have owned, rode in regularly while growing up, or would like to relive your youth in now. By comparing their sizes, styling, powertrain layouts, suspension designs, equipment, and utility, the diversity of the wagon offerings of the 1980s will become apparent.
The full-size Fords and Chevrolets represent the old guard. They’re large, V-8-powered, RWD, have eight-passenger capacity when fitted with an extra-cost third seat, and can seemingly tow a small home when optioned appropriately. That same recipe had been successful for decades prior, so their throwback nature may even make them desirable to some who’ve experienced 1960s and ’70s examples. When considering 1980s cars, these have a following.
Chrysler’s K-car is regarded as the platform that saved the company from financial ruin, and the Town & Country Turbo reveals philosophical shifts during the 1980s. It was smaller than its RWD predecessor and more maneuverable. It employed FWD for improved traction and a transverse-mounted four-cylinder engine, which saved space and improved economy, yet it also offered a high-performance engine option. (Of course, the larger wagons could still fit and tow much more.) Though the luxurious Town & Country was modern, it also retained several traditional styling cues, so as not to scare off conservative customers. The turbo version isn’t as plentiful as the other wagons, but if you can find one that was well cared for, its size and power-to-weight ratio will ensure an entertaining driving experience.
Conversely, the Taurus threw convention out the window. Its jellybean shape put function ahead of form with smooth surfaces and gentle curves to cheat the wind and increase efficiency. It also employed a transverse-mounted engine and front-wheel drive. Until competitors caught on, no other domestic wagon looked like it, except the Mercury Sable, of course. Either would make an affordable, unique, and handy collectible.
FORD LTD AND COUNTRY SQUIRE
Ford’s 1980 full-size cars had received the new Panther platform the previous year, which had a lower cowl height, increased glass area, and modern sharp-edged appearance. Its wheelbase was 6.7 inches shorter at 114.3 than the platform it replaced, length was 11 inches less at 215, and the car’s curb weight was reduced by more than 900 pounds.
There was 89.7-cu.ft. of cargo volume with an additional 9.9-cu.ft. below the floor, and 2-cu.ft. in a lockable side storage compartment. A 4 x 8 sheet of plywood still fit flat on the floor with the tailgate down.
The 1980 LTD wagon offered single-or two-tone paint, while the upscale LTD Country Squire featured woodgrain vinyl body-side paneling, upgraded interior, and a hood ornament. A low-priced LTD S wagon was also offered.
An all-vinyl bench seat, one-hand latch on the fold-down rear seat, color-keyed load-floor carpet, and Luxury Sound Insulation Package were just a few standard items, as was Ford’s “3-Way Magic Doorgate” (with power window) that opened like a door with the window up or down, or like a tailgate to provide a loading platform.
A 130-hp variable-venturi carbureted 5.0-liter (302-cu.in.) engine and a three-speed SelectShift automatic were standard. Powertrain options included a 140-hp 5.8-liter (351-cu.in.) V-8 with a four-speed Automatic Overdrive transmission.
Featuring body-on-frame construction, the wagons sported a short upper/ long lower control-arm front suspension with anti-roll bar, a four-bar link rear setup, and coil springs and shocks all around. Recirculating-ball steering with power assist, 11.08-inch power front disc brakes with 11-inch rear drums, and 14 x 6.5-inch wheels with 215/75R14 steel-belted radials and deluxe wheel covers were standard.
Heavy-duty suspension, Traction-Lok axle, and the trailer towing package (with 6,000-pound rating) cost extra, as did a deluxe luggage rack that featured a “velocity-sensitive air deflector that changed its angle at high speed for less aerodynamic drag.” DuraWeave upholstery and others were also optional, as were two facing rear seats for eight-passenger capacity, myriad sound systems, CB radio, typical power assists, A/C, and more.
For 1981, the AOD transmission became standard and the front bumper no longer had air intakes. The 351 engine was dropped for 1982, and an optional Trip Minder computer was new. In 1983, Central Fuel Injection (CFI) was added, the grille was revised, and the base LTD became the LTD Crown Victoria; the Country Squire remained. For 1984, EEC-IV computer was used on the 5.0 and the engine also gained 10 hp. Sequential Electronic Fuel Injection (SEFI) was added to the 5.0-liter for 1986 and output rose to 150 hp. An upscale LX series arrived for the same year, and larger 15-inch wheels and radials (optional in previous years) became standard. A more aerodynamic front end debuted for 1988. With production steadily declining since the mid-1980s, the full-size wagons were discontinued during the 1991 model year.
CHEVROLET IMPALA AND CAPRICE CLASSIC
Chevrolet’s full-size wagon for the 1980s dated back to the 1977 downsizing of GM’s B-bodies, which were reimagined on a shorter 116-inch wheelbase that was reduced from 125 inches.
At 214.3 inches long, the ’77 wagons were more than 14 inches shorter, as well as more aerodynamically shaped than the previous year. Width was nearly the same at 79.3 inches, and the rear was squared-off for more efficient space utilization. The 1,000-pound lighter new station wagons were well received. (Chevrolet’s Caprice Classic sedan won the 1977 Motor Trend Car of the Year award.)
For 1980, the front-end styling was revised. As in the past, the Impala was affordable and the Caprice Classic more luxurious, adding full wheel covers in place of hubcaps, a hood ornament, exterior brightwork, emblems, Quiet Sound Group, dual horns, electric clock, and interior upgrades.
A three-speed automatic was included, as was Chevrolet’s “Three-way Door-Gate” with power window, which replaced the previous year’s “Glide-Away” version that disappeared into the floor when opened. A vinyl bench seat interior (50/50 bench seat and cloth were optional), power steering and brakes, fold-down second seat with button release, vinyl-coated textured metal in the cargo area, and a built-in engine diagnostic connector, were also standard in 1980.
A 120-hp 4.4-liter (267-cu.in.) two-barrel Chevrolet V-8 was the base engine, and the 155-hp 5.0-liter (305-cu.in.) four-barrel Chevrolet gasoline engine (required in California) and 105-hp 5.7-liter (350-cu.in.) fuel-injected Oldsmobile diesel were optional for 1980.
The body was bolted to a perimeter-frame through rubber bushings, as before. Coil springs and shocks adorned the short upper/long lower control-arm front and four-link rear suspension systems. (The 1976 model had used rear leaf springs.) An anti-roll bar was bolted on up front, as was recirculating-ball steering, and 12-inch disc brakes, with 11-inch rear drums, hid behind 15 x 7-inch wheels with P225/75R15 steel-belted radials.
Down from 106.4-cu.ft. for 1976, there was now 87.9-cu.ft. of cargo area, but don’t worry, the all-important 4 x 8 sheets of plywood still laid flat even with the Door-Gate closed, as long as the front seat was fully forward. An additional 8-cu.ft. of lockable storage area was under the load floor (two-seat models) and 2-cu.ft. were in the left trim panel. Built-in utility trays topped both panels.
Options included a rear-facing third seat, Estate equipment with simulated woodgrain on the body sides and door-gate (for Caprice Classic), two-tone paint, roof carrier (rack) with integral air deflector, heavy-duty suspension, rear air shocks, limited-slip differential, heavy-duty radiator, deluxe load-floor carpeting, gauges (no tach), a variety of sound systems, an integrated CB radio, and much more. The wagons offered up to 5,500 pounds of towing capacity.
Computer Command Control was new for 1981 gasoline engines. It monitored engine functions and made adjustments to reduce emissions and maintenance, and increase fuel economy. A four-speed automatic overdrive transmission became optional for the 150-hp 5.0-liter engine in 1981, and the 4.4-liter was downrated to 115 hp. For 1982, the 5.0 was rated at 145 hp, and the overdrive was optional with all engines. The Impala station wagon and the 4.4-liter engine were dropped for 1983, and the 5.0-liter (now 150 hp) and overdrive became standard.
For 1985, the 5.0 was uprated to 165 hp. Front-end styling was mildly modernized for 1986, the troublesome diesel engine was dropped, and the standard Chevrolet 5.0-liter (305-cu.in.) four-barrel engine was replaced early in the model year with an Oldsmobile 5.0-liter (307-cu.in.) four-barrel V-8 rated at 140 hp. Composite headlamps were new for 1987, and the Oldsmobile engine continued in the wagon for the remainder of the decade.
LeBARON TOWN & COUNTRY TURBO
Passenger comfort weighed heavily in the design of Chrysler’s original K-cars. The 1982 mid-model-year arrival of the new FWD Town & Country station wagon went even further. Referred to as a “Super-K,” it was plusher, quieter inside, slightly longer, and had chassis revisions for a better ride. The wagon received a performance boost for 1985 when the 146-hp OHC 2.2-liter multi-point-EFI turbo engine became an option. It produced 47 percent more power than the naturally aspirated version. Hood vents (1985-’86) and Turbo badges on the fenders announced it.
Augmenting the engine was the TorqueFlite three-speed automatic transaxle. Additional standard features included simulated woodgrain side paneling, power brakes, AM radio, tonneau cover for cargo, and a cloth and vinyl split-back bench seat or all-vinyl bucket seats. A revised seat, and leather and vinyl upholstery were in the optional Mark Cross package.
The wagon employed unitized construction and power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering, front suspension with dual-path Iso-Struts, coil springs, and an anti-roll bar; the rear suspension consisted of a beam axle, trailing arms, coil springs, and shocks. A set of P185/70R14 steel-belted radials were mounted on 14 x 5.5-inch wheels, and luxury wheel covers were added. Power brakes with 10.09-inch discs in front and 7.87-inch rear drums were standard.
The Town & Country wagon was little more than 179 inches long and about 68 inches wide. It rode on a 100.3-inch wheelbase, weighed about 2,744 pounds, yet still seated six people. Cargo volume was 69.6-cu.ft. with the rear seat down. Typical comfort and convenience options were available, as were Sport suspension and aluminum wheels.
For 1986, the front end was revised for a smoother appearance, and an automatic rear load leveler was standard. That same year, the new 2.5-liter Chrysler four with EFI and balance shafts replaced the Mitsubishi 2.6-liter MCA-Jet silent-shaft four-cylinder as the standard engine. The 2.2-liter Turbo option remained until 1988.
“Taurus, for us!” was the TV ad’s tagline, and there was truth in advertising, as the new model represented a new attitude at Ford. Many norms of how it conceived, designed, engineered, built, and marketed a car were set aside. Potential customers were consulted to determine what they valued in a car and their responses guided major decision-making. Competing cars were disassembled to identify beneficial engineering practices and desirable features. All departments involved in the development of the FWD transverse powertrain Taurus operated as a cohesive team. And with its huge $3.5-billion budget, failure was not an option if the corporation was to remain solvent.
For the December 1985 debut of the 1986 models, Ford presented a base Taurus L, middle-of-the-road GL, and a lavishly equipped LX. The sporty MT5 was available to the public a few months later. A wind-tunnel-bred aerodynamic shape, integrated polycarbonate bumpers, and flush glass all contributed to a low .34 coefficient of drag for the wagon for improved economy and reduced wind noise, and resulted in unique styling. The 106-inch-wheelbase station wagon was 70.7 inches wide and 191.9 inches long, with 81-cu.ft. of cargo volume with the second seat folded down, and there was additional storage under the carpeted load floor. In L trim, the Taurus weighed 3,184 pounds.
Unitized construction with a separate front sub-frame was employed, as was four-wheel independent suspension. Gas pressurized MacPherson struts fitted with coil springs, an anti-roll bar, tension struts, and lower control arms comprised the front suspension, and the station-wagon-specific rear layout had short upper/long lower control-arms, variable-rate coil springs, stamped tension struts, two-piece spindles, gas shocks, and an anti-roll bar.
Power rack-and-pinion steering was standard, as were power-assisted 10.1-inch disc brakes up front and 9.8-inch rear drums, and 14-inch steel-belted radials on 14 x 5.5-inch wheels— 15-inch wheels and tires were optional.
Interior ergonomics were enhanced with the placement and tactile design of the controls that enabled the driver to operate them without having to look away from the road. Front door curb lights, rear seat heat ducts, 60/40 split fold-down second seat, a high-strength plastic luggage rack, and a two-way liftgate containing a lift-open window were among the standard features. The Taurus L wagon was equipped with a 140-hp, 60-degree, 3.0-liter, multiple-port-fuel-injected V-6 mated to an AXOD four-speed automatic transaxle with lockup converter; a cloth front split-bench seat with driver recliner and fold-down armrest, or buckets with driver’s-side recliner, and an AM radio were also on the list.
The GL was fitted with the L equipment plus an electronic search AM/FM stereo, dual electric remote-control mirrors, luxury steering wheel, digital clock, front seatback map pockets, secondary sun visor (driver), interval wipers, tinted glass, rocker panel moldings, and an elasticized cargo net to secure small loads.
Along with the GL features and powertrain, the LX added lower bodyside cladding, a plusher interior, power front-seat lumbar, tilt wheel, A/C, power windows and locks, passenger secondary visor, cornering lamps, light group, luxury wheel covers, cargo compartment convenience kit, and more.
An 88-hp 2.5-liter throttle-body-injected four-cylinder mated to a five-speed-manual transaxle powered the MT5, and it was equipped with bucket seats, console, tach, trip odometer, and upshift light. The MT5 also retained many GL features.
Most of the LX equipment was extra-cost on other models. Additional interesting options included rear facing third seat, a foldout picnic table, Insta-clear electrically heated windshield, electronic instrument cluster (not available with the five-speed manual), aluminum wheels, extended range 18.6-gallon fuel tank, and leather upholstery (for the LX).
The Taurus/Sable siblings were a major sales success. They advanced some industry trends and earned critical acclaim. The Taurus was Motor Trend Car of the Year for 1986, and it was one of Car and Driver’s 10 Best. It would become the best-selling car in America in the early 1990s.
With 90 hp, the 2.5-liter MT5 station wagon saw its last year of production in 1987. A 140-hp 3.8-liter 90-degree V-6 engine option was added in 1988, and some visual updates came for 1992, before a major redesign for 1996.