The evolution of the wooden station wagon has its beginnings directly linked to the early railroad depot hacks of the early 1900's. As the railroads spread across the nation, linking city to city and state to state, it became the main mode of transportation for people who had to travel any measurable distance. Hotels and resorts soon found the need to provide transportation for their customers. The "depot hack" was created to carry passengers and their baggage to and from the railway depots.
The very first depot hacks were nothing more than horse-drawn wagons, with multiple seats or benches for the passengers to sit on, and a canvas covering to help protect them from the elements. As the Automobile Age developed, the horse was soon replaced by gasoline, steam and even electric powered vehicles. These early mechanically propelled vehicles were merely horse drawn wagons converted to mechanical power. The need for a lighter wagon design soon became apparent as the “horse” powered wagons still had an advantage over the new "mechanical" monsters in pulling power.
One of the earliest motorized depot hacks on record is the 1899 Rapid, which featured three padded seats set one behind the other on a low buckboard type chassis with a fringed top. The driver sat exposed except for the fringe roof covering, similar to the horse-drawn Surrey.
Wagon and coach builders began producing many variations of the “Depot Hack” wagon using a myriad of chassis available at the time. Among the chassis used were; Autocar, Buick, Columbia, Duryea, Ford, Logan, Maxwell, Oldsmobile, Pierce Arrow and White. These new body designs were referred to by many names including; Depot Wagon, Wagonette, Express Wagon as well as Depot Hack.
Most of the wagons featured multiple seats arranged in front of one another, but some body manufacturers converted cargo Express Delivery wagons by placing bench seats opposite each other in the rear. These opposed seating depot hacks were referred to as “Jitneys”.
During this early period passenger comfort was minimal, however, fixed roofs were being added with roll-down canvas coverings to help protect the passengers. A few enclosed passenger compartment bodies were made at this time built on chassis by Autocar, Buick, Logan and Maxwell. These fully enclosed bodies were much more expensive to produce and were built as special orders only. The open bodied depot hack style was still the most popular and easiest to produce. With the introduction of Ford’s mass-produced Model T in 1908, the availability of a low cost chassis was realized.
By 1910, a new depot hack body style had emerged, featuring thin cross-ribbing members over thin horizontal body panels. Buick depot hack models of 1910 and 1911 featured this new style as well as Champion Electric of 1911. By the mid-Teens this body style would become more prevalent throughout the industry.
Production of depot hack bodies was still being done by independent wagon and wood body coach builders as well as furniture manufacturers. Major automobile manufacturers were not producing their own depot hacks and delivery wagons at this time, instead, they contracted with the independent body builders. Buick, however, is probably the first manufacturer to offer either type of vehicle in their product catalog. In 1912, Buick offered a Standard Express delivery wagon with open rear cargo area and a Wagonette with Jitney style seats and roll-up side curtains.
As the first decade of the 1900’s drew to a close, the automobile industry blossomed. The whole nation was expanding and every facet of industry along with it. Small towns soon became large cities and Railroad depots became Railway Stations. The earliest reference to a “Station Wagon” depot hack can be traced to the 1911 Pierce Arrow. This model wagon was merely a metal touring body with a wooden box attached to the rear section. Jitney type opposing bench seats were used in the rear and a canvas top with roll-down side curtains was featured. The styling of the Pierce-Arrow was a little more advanced than the other auto manufacturers offered at this time though.
By the late Teens, several wood body manufacturers became prominent. Among these were; J.T. Cantrell & Brother, Columbia Body Corp., Hercules Manufacturing Co., Hoover Body Co., Martin Truck & Body Co., Mifflinburg Body Co., J.H.Mount Co., Parry Manufacturing Co., Seaman Body Co., and York Body Corp. The venerable Ford Model T was the prevalent chassis to which depot hacks were assembled, but other makes such as Buick, Chevrolet, Hudson, Studebaker, White and others were used.
By the early 1920’s the station wagon had grown in popularity, due in part, by the increased demand for such a utilitarian vehicle, but also because the body manufacturers had refined the station wagon into a more stylish mode of transportation. There were now quite a number of manufacturers solely committed to station wagon and depot hack production. Many auto manufacturers offered these wagons as special order, and contracted with independent body builders to manufacture the assemblies. Some bodies were manufactured in a knockdown form to be assembled at the auto dealer, while others were assembled by the body builder on chassis supplied by the auto dealer.
As more body manufacturers entered the market the quality and craftsmanship of the wagons improved. Names such as Cotton, Hatfields, Hercules-Campbell, Post, Stoughton, Waterloo and Wildanger were added to the growing list of Wagon body builders. It should be noted here that the Hercules-Campbell Body Corp. was an association between Hercules Mfg. Co. of Evansville, IN and Robert Campbell's Tarrytown, NY assembly plant. Commercial truck bodies were shipped knocked-down in crates and the suburban wagon bodies were shipped complete in rail cars to the Tarrytown facilities by Hercules. The styling of all these station wagon builders was very similar. The narrow cross-ribbing over thin horizontal panels continued to be the norm. Heavier uprights supported the roof and door openings. Local hardwoods were used for the body construction, usually ash, maple or oak for the main framework with basswood, birch, cherry and mahogany used for the panels and trim.
The exception to this style of body building was the station wagons being produced by the Jos. Wildanger Company of Red Bank, New Jersey. Wildanger bodies featured sheetmetal covered plywood paneling with structural wood confined to the outside edges of the doors and quarter panels. The sheetmetal covered panels were then painted to match the rest of the vehicles sheetmetal color, presumably to create a more durable exterior. Quite a contrast to the styling of most other body builders. Joseph Wildanger opened his own shop in 1922 after working as a shop foreman for the J.H. Mount Co., building special order carriages and wagons. As with most other body builders, Wildanger wagons were made to order and custom built on large sedan chassis.
New names were coined in an attempt to separate the new wagons from their commercial truck counterparts. Country Club and Suburban were new names used to promote the new line of station wagons being offered. Buick, Chevrolet, Dodge, Essex, Ford, Franklin and Studebaker were the main chassis used by the various body manufacturers. The major auto manufacturers were too busy trying to compete with Ford in supplying the increasing demand for cars, to worry about manufacturing their own wagons. Also, the wagons were more expensive to build due to their custom configurations, and so fewer units were sold.
Although Chevrolet offered a Light Delivery/Depot Hack model in their commercial catalog in 1920-21, it wasn’t until 1923 that the first noncommercial station wagon was advertised and produced by an auto manufacturer. The Durant Motor Company purchased the Star Motor Company and produced their own Station Wagon model. Based on the Star chassis, Durant contracted with the Stoughton Wagon Company of Stoughton, WI and later with Martin-Parry to supply finished bodies. These bodies were then assembled onto the chassis at the Star manufacturing plant.
Buick also contracted with Martin-Parry as well as with Cantrell to build their wagons and offered three different models later that same year. The Buick models differed from the Star model by featuring higher profile doors and quarter panels as well as heavier upright posts. Despite these offerings, the Depot Hack/ Station Wagon was still considered a commercial vehicle and didn’t command the sales of other automobile models. Bigger, more luxurious sedans were what the public wanted.
-Excerpt from Woodies & Wagons by Richard Bloechl