Breaking Waves

A backwards glance at the current state of the estate.

Image: beverly hills lingual institute

Who amongst our serried ranks of global carmakers currently makes a genuine estate car? By this I mean a recognisably car-like utility-ish vehicle with a useful, practical fully enclosed load bay which can be enlarged by folding the rear passenger seats; one that isn’t an MPV, some kind of glorified-shooting brake with vaguely sporting pretentions or heaven help us all, a crossover or SUV.

Times and tastes change, and we must all move with them, so the estate car some of us once knew has largely evolved into something else entirely in order to retain relevance. But are they really estates any more, and if not, how would we define a station wagon now?

In today’s reissue, DTW author Sean Patrick explores the ever-shifting semantics of the estate (station wagon or break), and even if he doesn’t necessarily arrive at any definitive conclusions, he makes up for it by ensuring the journey is both an entertaining and informative one – even from the confines of the loadbay. Enjoy your Sunday reading.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

21 thoughts on “Breaking Waves”

  1. I think in North America the utilitarian wagon, and even the luxury wagon is all but done. I saw an interview with a Cadillac executive, and there was a viewer question about a wagon version of the final generation CTS. The exec replied that wagons were still popular only in Europe and Australia, so it wouldn’t happen.

    1. In South Africa, the estate car is a very rare thing to come by. Most people who purchase them seem to focus more of their attention on the Audi Avant range and the Volvo estates. Besides those two, it is almost like hunting down a unicorn. SUVs and Crossovers are slowly but surely dominating highways. The estate really is under siege.

    2. True, the estate car is dead in America.

      I have friends in the North East snow belt who have held onto their old VW Passat estate for years because they simply cannot find a suitable replacement. They like 4WD and space for the dog but detest SUVs.

  2. A company balled Binz did estate conversions many years ago, well before Mercedes even thought about them, so you could drive a Binz Benz.
    I also know of people who bought the estate over the hatchback or saloon variant as they preferred the looks of the estate version. A Mk3 Focus, an Astra and the eternal Volvo. All three didn’t need the space and probably used hardly half of that load bay.
    The Jaguar XF should’ve been a world beater but they only seem to have sold half a dozen of them in the world. The new Kia ceed’s station wagon initially looks tempting but everything is too plush, too posh, too “can’t be getting that dirty”
    I’ve never owned an estate, driven a few for work but can perfectly understand Sean’s desire for them. An enjoyable Sunday morning (into early afternoon) read, ta

    1. Binz mainly did hearses and ambulances based on the special chassis Mercedes provided of their older models like F115 and F124

  3. It’s notable how different cultures have different takes on the image an estate car portrays.

    My German friends regard something like a VW Golf estate as indicating that you go snowboarding / sailing at the weekends. The estate’s image in the UK has traditionally been less glamorous; Reginald Perrin’s awful day out at a safari park with the family took place in a Ford Cortina estate and I suspect that it was chosen to represent the height of urban mundanity.

    That said, the estate’s UK image has become more indicative of an active lifestyle as the cars themselves have become less utilitarian.

    I also recall that the USSR banned sales of estates to ordinary families, on the basis that they couldn’t need something so utilitarian – the State would provide builders and so forth.

    1. Much the same story in the DDR – the Combis, Tourists, and Camping Limousines were mainly for export. Vans and pick-ups were made in astonishingly small numbers. The remarkable Barkas forward control van was built at a rate of around 6-10,000 per year, almost entirely for state agencies. There was a Wartburg 353 pick-up, but all production was for export.

      The reason was a paranoid fear of small-scale private enterprise – smallholders and jobbing builders were seen as the enemy within.

  4. While estate cars from mainstream manufacturers had a decidedly utilitarian image in the UK back in the 70’s and 80’s, the Volvo 145/245 was instead a signifier of middle class respectability and modest affluence. It suggested fun days out attending the gymkana and leisurely weekends in the country, rather than fraught trips to the refuse tip, supermarket and DIY store.

    Margo and Jerry, the archetypal aspirational suburban couple in the BBC comedy “The Good Life” drove a yellow example (although in one episode Margo drove a metallic green Mk1 Golf, an equally perfect choice of car for her). The photo below from the comedy needs no explanation to anyone familiar with the plot:

    1. Question for those playing at home: from my last memories of seeing The Good Life, probably 20 years ago at this point, I have it imprinted on my prefrontal cortex that Jerry had an SD1, but Google turns up absolutely no such reference to such a thing, as far as I can tell. Am I completely imagining this? I’m sure I saw Paul Eddington rocking a Rover in something, although perhaps a different series? (And no, definitely not Yes Minister/YPM.)

    2. At the risk of appearing to have a disturbingly encyclopaedic knowledge of British sit-coms, I can report that Paul Eddington, in the character of Jim Hacker in “Yes, Minister”, was stopped for drink-driving in a Mk2 Ford Granada. That this was a subject for comedy does rather date an otherwise excellent comedy series. I cannot, however recall him driving a Rover SD1 in a TV role.

      Regarding the SD1, Patrick McNee drove a mustard coloured one briefly in the first episode of “The New Avengers” before he was given a car more appropriate to his raffish and suave character, John Steed:

      Mr Steed clearly didn’t appreciate the SD1. In the one scene it appeared, he bumped it over a kerb before parking it diagonally in a parking space!

  5. A long time ago I had the chance to get a Citroen XM estate. I drove to somewhere in Essex to inspect it and was put off by the broken interior trim (one item) and the fear of the 24 valve V6 under the bonnet. On balance, the engine was the biggest reason to avoid the car – the body is fine and I´d probably happily have one if the opportunity arose. Yet the moment one entertains the idea of an estate one has to think about the all-time greats, the Volvo 240 and 740 and probably 940. And the Opel Omega “B”, naturally. None of Mercedes´ very fine equivalents come near these cars and, apart from the last Chevrolet Caprice estate, there is nothing bigger or more useful out there. Why don´t I mention the CX? It looks lovely – alas the rear bench is simply too utilitarian. Just because the car has to haul rubbish and luggage from time time does not meant the rear passengers should be without a centre arm-rest and head-restraints.
    None of these cars is in production – so I might direct estate deprived buyers to the lovely Ford S-Max (any generation) and possibly Renault´s Espace. Either are jolly lovely cars – only one´s personal taste would determine the pick. It is a tricky choice because both cars have a strong character – it´s like being asked to choose between a nice suit and a well-paired ensemble of separates. I adore the Espace´s French elegance (it is so much more stylish than an E-class or 5) and I really like the technical/comfort combination Ford´s space cruiser.

    1. The CX Break’s rear bench became much better over the years, I think. My dad had three of those, and they were perfect for accommodating three kids in their child’s seats, being completely flat and wide. Pretty much no other car could do this until the advent of the Espaces and Voyagers. And while they never had centre armrests, at least the later two of course came with three back headrests.
      For carrying around two adults in more encompassing seats – yes, there are much better options than the CX break.

    2. The last CX Breaks had seats like these:

      You pull on the large black handle to rotate the seat base by 180 degrees with the cushion facing the floor. Then a massive steel plate is found that normally is under the seat and can be flipped up to create a barrier to prevent objects from the load bay crashing into the front seats. That’s truly ingenious thinking combined with ruthless practicality French style.

      Not to be confused with the CX Familiale with three rows of seats of which only the last one could be folded away.

    3. The seats in the upper picture belong to a first series Break. The later ones we had had the same setup in principle (still with the 180° flip), but were divided to fold down in 1/3 and 2/3. And I don’t know if I remember correctly, I think the big handle was also a bit less rustic, covered in soft plastic.

      The advantage of this system was that it provided a flat surface all the way to the very front of the cargo bay, without the usual upright seat cushion behind the front seats. The drawback was that this was only possible with rather short seats and a low backrest, otherwise it wouldn’t have fitted into the available space.

  6. On the subject of Volvo estates, I think both the 850 / V70 (1st and 2nd gen) deserve a mention.
    They were still proper estates, with almost vertical tailgates and lots of practical features to keep cargo in place, including a very sturdy metal net to protect your head.

  7. A whole article about estates and no mention of Peugeots 504 and 505, what’s happened to DTW?

    1. Barry, I might otherwise suggest you take this up with the author, but given that Sean’s whereabouts has become something of a mystery to us all, you are unlikely to obtain a satisfactory answer from that direction. Might I dare to suggest that their presence is implied? Certainly, there is enough Peugeot action for even the most devoted Sochaux aficionado in both lead photographs to lend credence to that approach.

    2. Hi Barry, if you follow the link to Sean’s original piece, Peugeot is properly covered explored including the 504 and 505 models you mention.

  8. The Estate is still here, it just took a different form. I’d say every single one of all the CUVs and SUVs are station wagons, just hilted up to look like something else. But is it really any difference between a Nissan Qashqai and a Peugeot 305 Estate? Besides the first one being situated a little higher up? It is still the same kind of grocery shopper for the same kind of family with needs to pack a pram and a week’s worth of groceries. And is it really any difference between a Cadillac Escalade and an Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser? It’s the same kind of land yacht sold to the same kind of upper middle class American suburbia. The estate isn’t dead, it’s practically the only car available right now. At the same time the longer lower wider mantra only counts for so called life style automobiles, which can be had in any form as long as it’s silver and comes from Germany.

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