The garage of misfit cars

The inspiration for this post came from Curbside Classics‘ “The Short and Odd Life of the Two-Door Station Wagon,” which begins by asking:

Whose idea was that? Along with the business coupe and the Ranchero/El Camino utility pickups, large two door station wagon ranks right up there in the Pantheon of American car oddities. One can even make a pretty good argument that it towers above them, given its questionable heritage and utility. The business coupe’s origins go back to the earliest coupes, like the Model T, when roadsters and two-passenger coupes were common. And the utilities were just an update on those same coupes and roadsters with little beds grafted onto them, the pickup’s precursor. But for about a dozen years or so, Detroit graced Americans with something they had no idea they needed: the two door wagon.

Well, Detroit has a deserved reputation for producing answers in search of questions. (Two words: Pontiac Aztek.) Station wagon aficionados recall GM’s ’70s alternatives to everyone else’s tailgate that swung down or to the right. The Chevrolet Vega and Pontiac Astre wagons had hatchbacks. So did the midsize Chevy Malibu, Pontiac LeMans, Oldsmobile Cutlass and Buick Century wagons. (Until their 1978 downsizing, when they went to tailgate glass that swung upward and tailgates that swung downward.) The Chevy Impala/Caprice, Pontiac Catalina/Bonneville/Grand Ville, Olds Custom Cruiser and Buick Estate Wagon took Rube Goldbergian complexity a step farther with tailgates whose window glass swung upward into the roof while the rest of the tailgate swung into the floor. (The latter worked better than the former, from what a former owner tells me.)

1939 Plymouth Business Coupe

The business coupe was originally designed for, as you’d think from the title, businessmen, specifically on-the-road salesmen who needed trunk space more than they needed passenger space. You can see from the photo that the ’30s business coupes were designed this way; the coupes with back seats and the sedans were more square:

I don’t know if my grandfather the salesman ever had a business coupe; by the time I knew him, he had a succession of station wagons with everything behind the front seats stuffed with farm implement literature. Even by the standards of the day, business coupes were stripper cars, because apparently their customers weren’t interested in creature comforts going from sales call to sales call.

The next step, I suppose, from business coupes were what are called “coupe utilities” by some, but are more often known by their model names — essentially a car from the B-pillar forward, but with a pickup box behind the B-pillar, all usually mounted on station wagon chassis. They’re called “utes” in their country of origin, Australia, where a farm wife asked Ford to build “a vehicle to go to church in on a Sunday and which can carry our pigs to market on Mondays.”

The first U.S. coupe utility was the 1937–39 Studebaker Coupe Express:

Since the Big Three carmakers built one size of car in the 1950s — large (except for specialty projects like the Corvette) — the first coupe utilities were that one size, the 1957 Ford Ranchero …

… and the 1959 Chevrolet El Camino:

These were popular because pickup trucks had no creature comforts at all, not even power steering or brakes. My grandmother owned a second-hand store next door to my grandparents’ house, and they bought a ’59 El Camino for the store. After they closed their store, my stepgrandfather drove it to work until his retirement a year before his death in 1984.

Ford and Chevy then diverged before meeting again. Ford switched the Ranchero to its compact Falcon chassis in 1960 …

1962 Ford Falcon Ranchero

… then to its midsized Fairlane chassis in 1966 …

… before canceling the Ranchero in 1979 …

… while Chevy terminated the El Camino in 1960, but brought it back onto its midsized Chevelle chassis in 1964 …

… where it stayed until its last model year in 1987:

One of the more famous El Camino owners was Bill Clinton, who once told GM workers in Shreveport, La.: “When I was a younger man and had a life, I owned an El Camino pickup in the ’70s. It was a real sort of Southern deal. I had Astroturf in the back. You don’t want to know why, but I did.” Clinton obviously covered the box with Astroturf to protect it from the elements. Or to practice putting.

Since the mid-’60s and later El Caminos and Rancheros were based on Chevy’s and Ford’s mid-size cars, when muscle cars — mid-sized cars with engines out of full-size cars — were created, their coupe utility brethren could be equipped with most of the same go-fast parts as the Malibu and Fairlane two-doors. The zenith probably was the 1970 El Camino SS, which could be ordered with a 450-horsepower V-8.

Chrysler Corp. was late to the coupe utility game in the U.S., turning its Plymouth Horizon and Dodge Omni into the Plymouth Scamp and Dodge Rampage in the early ’80s:

AMC never built one, although it did build a prototype, the Cowboy, from its Hornet:

The U.S. death of the coupe utility was from several causes. (GM’s Holden and Ford still sell utes in Australia.) Full-size pickups started to become better equipped. GM and Ford introduced the Chevy S-10 and Ford Ranger compact pickups  around the time they redesigned their mid-sized cars, and neither apparently felt El Camino and Ranchero sales warranted adding them to their new mid-sized lines.

Being a Subaru owner, I do have to point out Subaru’s two coupe utilities, the BRAT (which stood for Bi-drive Recreational Auto Transport, and yes, those are seats in the box), imported from 1978 to 1987 in time for, of all people, Ronald Reagan to own one …

… and the 2003–06 Baja:

The original inspiration of this post was the two-door station wagon, known as a “shooting brake” in Europe. Curbside Classics notes that station wagons were generally commercial vehicles until World War II. Two-door wagons started as the wagon equivalent of business coupes at least in use, including the rear-window-delete panel deliveries.

But then came the 1955 Chevy Nomad, which was an expansion of a Corvette station wagon concept car.

The Nomad and the Bel Air convertible led the Chevy line in 1955, with Chevy’s new V-8 engine. Even though the two-door Nomad lasted just three years, it’s an iconic ’50s car, combining the coolness factor of coupes with the utility of wagons. Because imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the Nomad was followed quickly by the Pontiac Safari …

… the Ford Parklane …

… and the Mercury Commuter hardtop (note the lack of B-pillar), which included the option of, believe it or don’t, two or four headlights:

It should be obvious by now that two-door wagons were the brief triumph of style over utility. People didn’t buy two-door wagons because they couldn’t afford the extra $100 for the extra two doors. I can see fathers agreeing to buy the two-door wagon because at least it was a wagon, but not quite a station wagon. (Similar to the animus today against minivans.) And the driver could always tell objecting passengers that the alternative to going over the front seat into the back seat was to walk.

The last two-door wagon bigger than a Chevy Vega was the 1964–65 Chevelle:

Proving that American ingenuity knows few bounds, the end of Detroit production of two-door wagons does not mean the end of the two-door wagon. As you know from last week, I’m a fan of big Cadillacs, in addition to land yachts and station wagons. Put them together, and you have a 1974 Cadillac Eldorado wagon conversion.

Someone created a Buick two-door station wagon that includes the Vista Roof also found on the Olds Vista Cruiser:

What’s that? You prefer Ford products? How about a 1978 Lincoln Continental Mark V wagon conversion?

Most, if not all, of these cars demonstrate the biggest reality of carmaking today — cars are more capable than ever before, but less interesting than they used to be. I read in Automobile Magazine back in the 1990s a comment about the Big Three carmakers’ standardizing their chassis and drivetrains, with the added suggestion that maybe the Big Three could therefore offer more variety in body styles. That unfortunately has not happened — for the most part, you can have a sedan and, to a much smaller extent, a coupe or wagon.

As long as we’re talking about automotive nonsequiturs …

… this also belongs in the oddball category — the original Pontiac Grand Am, a midsized car sold from 1973 to 1975.  According to How Stuff Works:

The 1973 Pontiac Grand Am started out in the development stages as a GTO. But the muscle era was drawing to a close and, very much aware of that, Pontiac decided to change the car’s character. Instead of continuing to make the GTO a stoplight drag star, the next iteration was to be more European — more along the lines of a luxury sport sedan. With that in mind, Pontiac designers and engineers examined MercedesBMW, Audi, and Volvo as likely targets. …

Pontiac’s product planners, under assistant chief engineer William T. (Bill) Collins, got behind the ’73 Grand Am because they knew something different was needed to replace the GTO. By 1973, the GTO was breathing its last breath; dying by cubic inches, it had been done in by low compression and GM’s need to meet fuel and smog mandates. Any politically correct car could no longer run around delivering eight miles per gallon between stoplights. And yet Pontiac had no intention of giving up its “excitement” image.

So the Grand Am offered a new opportunity. This was a car that Pontiac saw as the division’s entree into the European sport-luxury-sedan field. Pontiac chassis engineers, under John Seaton, would de-emphasize straight-line performance in favor of crisp handling and overall responsiveness. Seaton based the Grand Am’s readability on the division’s trade-marked Radial Tuned Suspension, which in turn was based on new GM-spec steel-belted radial tires. Ten-inch front disc brakes gave the car wonderful stopability, and Saginaw Division set up the power steering with a quicker ratio and plenty of positive feedback. …

Inside, the Grand Am driver and the front passenger settled into supportive bucket seats equipped with recliners and lumbar adjustments. All doors had pull straps, not molded-in plastic grab handles, while the fully instrumented gauge panel and console presented touches of real African crossfire mahogany laminated onto a plastic substrate. …

Unfortunately, Pontiac launched the Grand Am at exactly the wrong time. The first energy crisis shook the world in October 1973, and Americans bailed out of large Detroit cars into smaller imports, especially Japanese models. Even intermediates like GM’s A-cars languished on dealer lots. By 1975, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, a Grand Am with the 400 V-8 could return only 11 mpg in the city and 18 mpg on the highway. (The 455 was the same.) Prices went the other way, thanks to a new round of inflation, and at just a smidge under $5000 to start, the ’75 Grand Am was not exactly cheap.

So while Pontiac did well to move 43,136 Grand Ams for 1973, sales slipped to 17,083 for ’74, then to a disappointing 10,679 for ’75. With that, the Grand Am became expendable and would not be continued. Another reason was that rectangular headlights were coming in, which would have meant retooling the model’s unique hood and front fascia. With sales low and not likely to recover, Pontiac felt it wasn’t worth the expense.

A friend of mine and the brother of a friend of mine had two of those 70,898 Grand Ams. I’ve never driven one, but it was certainly a cool-looking car. (A wagon version was proposed, but not built.) And it was cool looking even before you ask yourself how a car bigger than almost every European car with a much larger engine than almost every European car could be considered European-like. It should also make you shake your head to think that GM’s idea of innovation in the early 1970s was radial tires, which had been used on French cars since the late 1940s.

Do a photo search on your favorite search engine and you’ll find that many of these misfit cars are still owned and driven today, some in their original form, others (particularly business coupes) modified for more modern touches such as wider radial tires. Maybe the business coupe, the coupe utility and the two-door wagon were answers in search of questions, but I have a hard time imagining that the 2042 Iola Old Car Show will feature lovingly maintained or modified Toyota Camrys.

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12 thoughts on “The garage of misfit cars

  1. My parents bought ONLY 2dr wagaons…so we kids couldn’t accidentally open a back door and fall out. Adults didn’t need to worry about climbing into the back seat.

  2. Mercury Commuter hardtop (note the lack of B-pillar), which included the option of, believe it or don’t, two or four headlights……because in 1958 not all states allowed quad headlamps!

  3. Toyota’s are anti cars. They represent cars that were for people who see the Utilitarian position only. Those that would not even drive unless they had too. Toyota & Nissan for the most part shouldn’t be listed in any recognition or enthusiast car forums. In fact I would point out that Toyota’s bought by Americans instead of a Pontiac, Saturn & even Oldsmobile caused their demise and had those choices replaced by hyundais /Kia , etc

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