Monday, March 16, 2009

Stations of Loss

How much of everywhere will look like this in 2029?

HISTORY IF YOU CARE. Funny how things work, how trains of thought get started and lead to other destinations. Over the weekend I glimpsed some Top Gear promo featuring what the Brits call a 'shooting brake' or an 'estate wagon.' It got me wondering about the obsolete American term for the same kind of vehicle: 'station wagon.' I realized I didn't have the slightest idea where it came from. So this morning I did a Google search and was rewarded with the following from

Friday, February 20, 2009

Station Wagon, origin of the phrase

I was thinking about Station Wagons after posting about the Desoto and the Dodge a post or so down the page... and I realized that the phrase must orignate from the horse drawn wagons that went from station to station... or stages, hence Stage Coach... ergo station wagon.

Well, it made sense to me until I looked on the web for confirmation.

I was wrong.

The very first station wagons were called 'depot hacks' - they worked primarily around train depots as hacks (taxicabs). The modified back ends that made them depot hacks were necessary to carry large amounts of luggage - everyone traveled by train then, remember, and you needed a car that could comfortably carry people and large amounts of luggage from the train station to home. They were also called 'carryall's' and 'suburbans' (a name Plymouth used on their wagons until the late 1970's). 'Station wagon' was just another derivative of 'depot hack'; they were vehicles that were used as wagons (to carry passengers and cargo) from (railroad) stations.

He got it from a dedicated station wagon website, where there is also an excellent photographic gallery of this dead staple of American vehicular design.

The thing is, I miss station wagons. I've always had a soft spot for them because in my most serious car days a generation back I had a friend who loved both speed and bigness. His dad owned a Type 27 Bugatti, whose eponymous founder famously derided W. O. Bentley for making "fast trucks." But my friend preferred Bentley's vision of the roadgoing locomotive (cowcatcher optional) to the continental European ideal of the quicksilver scuttlebug too elusive to step on. He didn't disdain sports cars. But he preferred the big Jags -- the XK 120s and 140s -- to the Alfas, Fiats, Matras, Elvas, and Lotuses that made smallness a cardinal sporting virtue in the fifties and sixties.

Elva Courier. Cute, huh? Very Euro.

His personal ideal was American to the core, police cars and, yes, station wagons outfitted with tires, suspension, braking, engine, and audio components that would make them fast and agile enough to run down the scuttlebugs without any loss of big-car utility and comfort. As a big man and a multi-tasking one, he wanted plenty of leg and seat room, 100-Watt Stones belting from the stereo, a wide Detroit ashtray for his cigars, amusing passengers, and a few hundred pounds of tools and parts slamming around in back while he executed four-wheel drifts that would make today's fast-and-furious Hondas an endangered species if they'd interfered with his cornering arcs. Below is a picture that's close to what he'd have wanted, though he'd have switched out the alloy wheels for drilled stainless steel hubcaps, mounted the white-lettered tires with the inside blackwalls out, and he'd have fabricated his own dual exhausts, blueprinted the 440 V-8, and added fore and aft super-het radar detectors, headers, a manifold with two four-barrel Holley carbs, Koni shock absorbers, and calculated a custom camber and tow-in alignment that would have snapped the numb Chrysler steering into amazing responsiveness.

He'd also have installed metallic brakes and repainted in primer or matte.
The idea was not to look fast, but to
be fast and look nondescript to cops.

Sorry about all the retro tech jargon, but the point here is that unlike today's minivans, the station wagons of old had the capacity to be utilitarian, sexy, godawful fast and, if not nimble, tenaciously athletic at handling. There was nothing inherently feminine about them, nothing suggestive of the bulbous wombs on wheels you see mooing blissfully down the highways of a morning, so content in the primacy of their cargo that the mother behind the wheel can't even be bothered to compensate for her abundant blindspots by checking the rearview mirror. She has no power in merging maneuvers, she veers from lane to lane as if guided by the wind-heeled spinnaker of a sailboat that knows it always has the right of way, and she has more faith in the belts and trusses of her childseats than she has knowledge of the physics that make underpowered high-center-of-gravity vehicles so incredibly vulnerable.

I'm not tring to be mean. Honestly. But surely our wives and children would be safer in transportation appliances more like the old station wagons -- lower, less tippy, with more visibility all round, lower, more solid automobile handling characteristics, lower. To the ground. Yet station wagons are a thing of the past. Why?

I know it's crazy, but I also happened this morning on a beautiful but depressing photographic essay on the ruin of the City of Detroit, which you can see here. The first image was of the pathetic remains of Detroit's great train station, and I thought, "Hmmmm." Even if I don't know where the term 'station wagon' comes from, maybe the soul of the Detroit automotive manufacturing triumvirate does. Obviously, not every American city has lost its links with its railroad legacy, but Detroit definitely has, and that's the city that governs the American understanding of what contemporary transportation requirements are. Maybe their current vision of safe travel for women and children has taken on a tank-like quality because their headquarters city bears so much resemblance to a war zone.

Tell me this pic of the Packard plant doesn't remind you of Enemy at the Gates.

I realize I'm not making a defensible economic, historical, or rational argument. It's just a sensory reaction. But what are the odds that I'd light on the Detroit nomenclature 'station wagon' and then stumble on a photo of the tragic state of the Detroit train station?

Now think about the kind of corrupt, tax-heavy government that has run the City of Detroit into the ground pretending that government can make up for the loss of private sector revenue. It can't. It isn't that business is the exploiter. It's that government is the parasite. Always the parasite, feeding itself on the weaknesses of the people.

All you mommies: Is that what you really want?

If government succeeds in killing the engines of capitalism and private enterprise, the portrait of Detroit you see above could be all of us in twenty years time. Think about that, why don't you?

We are the change ghosts we've been hoping for.

P.S. A final plink of serendipity. The Michigan Central Station was finished in 1913, the year the income tax was legalized in the United States. Metaphors involving cancer come to mind. More irrational poetic guff. Right?

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