Why You Should Buy a Classic Station Wagon

Most Americans over the age of 40 grew up waging hell in the backseat of a station wagon. Most of those station wagons were Buicks, Fords, Oldsmobiles, Chevys, and Mercurys. Some might have even been Pontiacs.  Here’s why they could turn into the next collector cars.  Those Americans who grew up turning the backseat into a war zone fondly remember them.  That same generation fondly remembers the Smokey and the Bandit Pontiac Firebirds (the one with the “screaming chicken” on the hood), so they buy them.  Station wagons from the 1970s and 1980s are now being bought more.  Prices are going up for these massive beasts.

The collector car market is going crazy right now.  People have more money to spend, and they want to enjoy an older car with their family.  They tend to buy cars that they remember fondly.  That’s why Chevy Blazers, “screaming chicken” Firebirds, and station wagons are starting to creep up in price.  Now is the time to buy them.

For all those people who say that station wagons are dorky and stupid, here’s a response:  station wagons have as much, if not more utility than most modern crossovers, and some SUVs, look better, and are far more fuel efficient.

Some station wagons are already highly sought-after collector cars.  They include the Chevrolet Nomad, antique woodies, and high-performance Pontiacs from the 1960s. However, there are still plenty of station wagons that can be enjoyed.  Here are some classic, and new wagons that you should consider buying.

  • 1991 Audi 200 20V Turbo Quattro Avant:  There is no point in going into the details of the 1986 60 Minutes debacle that came close to killing Audi.  There were some good cars that came out in the company’s darkest days, and one of them is the marvelous 1991 200 20V Turbo Quattro Avant.  This one-year-only package is incredibly rare.  Only 1,000 four-door sedans and about 200 station wagons got this package, and it was standard equipment on the two-door hatchback.  It’s a close cousin to the 1986 sedans that Audi used to dominate SCCA Trans-Am racing.  The twin-cam, 20-valve engine has five cylinders and goes through a five-speed manual to all four BBS wheels.  Maintenance is going to be a wee bit tricky, but enjoying this car won’t.
  • 1950-1991 Ford Country Squire:  This behemoth of a station wagon is what many Americans grew up in.  Early Country Squires are the expensive, sought-after woodies from the early 1950s.  Avoid them unless you have serious money and plans to upgrade just about everything on them.  However, starting in 1960, the Country Squire became the familiar family hauler.  They’ve covered millions of miles, millions of Americans remember them fondly, and they have starred in multiple movies.  They came with a Ford small-block V-8 (usually the 351 Windsor V-8 found in most Fords of the 1970s through the 1990s) and a mushy automatic transmission.  If you get a pre-1976 model in California, you can upgrade it to make the ultimate family hauler.  Just put in a modern Ford Coyote motor (the same engine as the Mustang), a Ford T-5 five-speed manual transmission, and some better suspension pieces and you’ll have the ultimate road trip/family hauler.  They are fairly reliable cars to begin with, and Ford made a lot of them, so finding one isn’t the challenge of the century like the Audi mentioned above.
  • Volvo V60 Polestar:  OK, who wouldn’t want a 345-horsepower station wagon that looks really cool?  Speak now or forever hold your peace.  While a mere 120 cars scheduled to come to the US over this summer isn’t a lot, it’s enough to make it a true collector car.  It’s a fast car, and Volvo has a rich history of deceptively fast station wagons.  It looks really cool with the big wheels, low-profile tires, blue paint, and it’s somewhat-bulbous styling.  Get one while you can, and enjoy it!  This is a car that’s meant to be driven, so drive the wheels off of it.
  • Saab 9-2X:  Why buy a re-badged Subaru WRX because GM said so?  Because it’s a more comfortable, tame early Subaru WRX.  For Saab faithful, it was too Subaru, even though it wasn’t nearly as blasphemous as the 9-7X “Trollbazer” which was just a Chevrolet Trailblazer with different wheels and badges.  For the rest of us automotive folks, it’s a more refined version of the spunky Subaru WRX.  Unlike the WRX, it doesn’t turn the wheels 90 degrees when you floor it.  Unlike other Saabs, you can get same-day service on it by simply going to a Subaru dealer.  It’s a far better car than the sales charts show.  Owners love it, and others snap them up.  They aren’t very big, and are more of a hatchback than a station wagon, but they are fun, reliable little cars that can really take a beating.  That’s something that most other Saabs can’t claim.
  • Morris Minor Traveller:  This cute little station wagon is based off of the popular Morris Minor.  Sir Alec Issigonis started his automotive success career with this car. The Morris Minor coupe and convertible debuted in 1948, and the Traveller station wagon followed suit in 1953.  It came to our shores through 1967. When other station wagons were ditching real wood for fiberglass and vinyl, the Traveller had real ash wood from the tailgate all the way to the B-pillars.  Not only does it look great, but it’s also the superstructure for the back half of the car.  That means you’ll have to sand and re-varnish periodically, but that’s going to be the extent of your automotive woes with this car.  Parts are cheap and easily sourced, and it’s an incredibly reliable car.  Not something you can say about most British cars.
  • Buick Roadmaster/Chevy Caprice:  Yes, they may have been the final gasp of GM’s RWD land barges, but who doesn’t want something that seats eight people, has a (slightly detuned) Corvette engine, and is gigantic?  These behemoths were the final iterations of the big American station wagons that so many Americans grew up in. They are still available and cheap for us to thrash around and haul kids around with.  You don’t need to do much to unlock the true potential of these engines – you just get the Corvette’s ECU, as the engines in these cars were the same as the Corvette’s LT1.
  • Cadillac CTS-V:  OK, most of us would LOVE to own a 556-horsepower station wagon that comes with a six-speed manual.  Look no further than the previous-generation Cadillac CTS-V wagon.  I know that this implies that there is another one coming, which we can only hope for, but this is probably the ultimate family burnout/drift/autocross/trackday/hoonmobile.  Period.  My friend Jonny Lieberman of Motor Trend had one as a long-term car for a year, and I’m still feeling the pangs of jealousy.  It has a detuned Corvette engine, but 556 horsepower is still plenty to rage through the quarter mile.  It would make the ultimate backup car for your local autocross/track day, and it would be a fun daily driver to boot.

I’m sure that many of my readers have some fun memories of being in station wagons as kids…let’s here them!

 

 

1991 Audi 200 Avant

 

1967 Ford Country SquireVolvo V60 PolestarSaab 9-2XMorris Minor Traveller1992 Buick Roadmaster WagonChevy Caprice WagonCadillac CTS-V Wagon Drifting

What to Look for in Collector Cars Part 1

Collector cars are often daily drivers for years that were driven into the ground – literally.  They were often parked for a reason (i.e. the transmission, engine, or something major went out and the owner never got around to fixing it) in a garage or barn, and then never restored to their former glory.  They are sometimes cars that somebody bought to fix up and enjoy, but never was.  Collector cars were once the pride and joy of somebody else, so when you go to buy the car, don’t make jokes about the car or tell stupid stories about a similar car that you once owned.  It’s just a bad idea.  Here’s a quick list of what to look for, should you decide to buy one.

  • Small Animals:  Small animals, remnants of them, or their excrement are not uncommon in collector cars.  Most of the time, the cars were parked in a barn or a garage and not touched for many years.  In barns, rats, mice, and the like often make nests in the engine bay, trunk, or interior.  This is a big, smelly pain to get rid of.  However, don’t be afraid to tackle getting rid of the poop.  All you need is protective eye and mouth wear, a good shop vacuum, and a good few hours or so.  These small critters will often have gnawed their way through the firewall, into the interior, eaten up the seat cushions, and made nests in their.  Don’t worry.  Most of these collector cars are going to need a new interior anyways.  I’ll talk about interiors later.
  • Rust:  Lots of classic cars rust.  It’s a sad fact, but it’s the unavoidable truth.  Even concours-worthy cars have had rust at some point in their life.  Really, don’t be daunted by rust.  There are so many NOS (not original stock), OEM (original equipment manufacturer), and reproduction parts around that you don’t need to look far for new body panels, floorboards, etc.  I’ll do another post on where to find reproduction body panels and parts soon – there are too many to list in a relatively short post like this!
  • Seized Engines:  Most collector cars that were daily drivers were often parked for a reason.  It could be that the engine went boom, the transmission went bang, or something else major.  With a seized engine, don’t worry.  If something, say a piston, went through the valve cover due to a blown crankshaft or connecting rod, you might want to look into getting a modern crate engine.  If the engine had something smaller, like a bad timing chain, any gearhead who has a good repair manual, a couple of friends, some beer, a full tool set, and a replacement part can do that fix in a couple of days.  Do something fun like invite your buddies over for a bratwurst party, or something else fun, and then go out to the garage/workshop/man cave and fix the car.  You’ve probably read a story or three about how a guy invited a couple of friends over to his house to replace a transmission and ended up restoring the car in his garage with his buddies.  Be one of those people.  It gives you creds in the car world, and it’s fun to hang out and work on something that was built to be enjoyed.
  • Failed Transmissions:  Sometimes transmissions fail.  It’s an albeit expensive part of life, but it happens.  Most of the time, it’s better to get a new transmission in a classic car unless it was a custom-built transmission for an old race car or something like that.  Gearstar transmissions (gearstar.net) offers overdrive-equipped transmissions that come in a crate ready to be bolted in.  If you want to add an overdrive to a stock transmission, check out Gear Vendors Overdrives (gearvendors.com).  These transmissions and transmission parts will last you a long time, increase the reliability and efficiency of your pride and joy, and make it more fun to drive.
  • Body Damage:  Don’t worry about body damage.   You can easily find a new replacement body part online (again, I will do a blog post on where to find new body parts) or at a swap meet.  If it’s something simple like a ding, it might be worth it to take it to a body shop and let them fix it for a couple of days.  Or, you can find out how to do it online.  The internet is a great place to go for advice.  Just don’t rely on it for everything.
  • Brakes:  Braking systems wear out over time.  It’s scary and bad when brakes go bad.  Don’t fret.  Classic cars often come with drum brakes, which don’t really stop a car that well.  Most classic cars have manual brakes.  If you want more comfort and driveability in your car, consider going with power brakes.  Master cylinders should be rebuilt, replaced, or fixed if needed.  If a car has been sitting for a long time, think about cleaning out the master cylinder and testing it before you drive the car.  It is worth it to buy a brake bleeder kit.  Should you decide to go for bigger, better brakes in a restomod or pro-touring car, or just want better performance, Wilwood Brakes (wilwood.com) is one of the best in the business.
  • Suspension:  Lots of old cars aren’t exactly known for their handling.  If you have an old muscle car and live in an area where there are a lot of curves, think about getting Koni adjustable shocks (koni-na.com) or Hotchkis Suspension (hotchkis.net).  These suspension systems will greatly improve your car’s performance and driveability, and will make it even more enjoyable for you to drive.  With the Koni shocks, you can adjust the shocks to your liking with a screwdriver!
  • Exhaust:  The exhaust system in a car can fail quite easily.  It can get holes in it, the muffler could have gotten dented beyond repair, and the exhaust pipes could have a leak.  Exhaust leaks can be deadly.  Exhaust from cars contains large amounts of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and many other bad gasses.  Don’t ever hesitate to replace them!  If you have something that needs to be smogged, consider going for a Flowmaster Muffler (flowmastermufflers.com).  It gives a great sound while helping keep your baby on the road.  If you do need to smog it, always tune up the engine before taking it in.  It will be much less of a headache.  If you don’t know what Flowmasters sound like, look them up on YouTube.  They sound far better than stock while looking stock.
  • Wheels:  Wheels take a lot of abuse.  Most of you have probably accidentally scraped the curb with them or gotten them scratched somehow.  Don’t worry – I have too!  There are so many aftermarket wheel manufacturers that they are a 3-piece blog post – at least!  Go for a reputable name!  Cragar Wheels (cragarwheel.com) is a leading manufacturer in wheels.  They are well-known, look great on old muscle cars, and you can find really cool old ones for sale too!
  • Tires:  Think about it.  The only thing keeping your car attached to the road is about four square inches at four corners of the car.  That’s not a lot.  Get good tires.  Don’t get bias-ply tires unless your car is a trailer queen that is only driven to it’s place at the lawn on Pebble Beach.  Coker Tires (cokertire.com) offers vintage-looking radial tires for not too much money, and last a long time.  If your car is built for the drag strip, Firestone makes vintage-looking “cheater slicks,” as well as Mickey Thompson and Goodyear.  All of these tires are good drag slicks, and most are street-legal!  Get good tires that won’t go bald quickly!

I think that’s enough for you to digest right now, so I’ll leave the rest for another time.