While often overlooked in the classic car scene, the estate car reached its peak during the mid 1970s. They were practical and reflected the trend that the family should be able to use the car for all possible things in their spare time.
I belong to those who grew up in the backseat of an estate. Not because my parents were outdoor people with any great urge to spend their leisure time on country roads. Admittedly, they did have a caravan, but that had nothing to do with the reason for them both to drive estate cars. That simply came down to them owning a dairy shop, as it was often called at that time, with customers from the local community. These customers were used to getting their ordered goods delivered, so cars with a decent load compartment were indispensable. So our estate cars were not the subject of lovely holiday memories from idyllic trips with camping gear in the back and a rubber dinghy on the roof. On the contrary, I remember that the luggage compartment always smelled horribly of dairy products in all types – right from buttermilk to cheese with caraway seeds.
When one relies on cars for transport of goods, practicality comes before aesthetics. My father valued the practicality of his vans and did not care much about the aesthetics. He was really fond of spaciousness and found it an absolute necessity with a low load height. In an attempt to achieve some kind of van nirvana, he equipped the cargo floor of all his cars with the same type of brown plywood – the type which is probably used in DIY for casting cement. It was always mounted with the smooth side upwards, so the boxes that were to be carried could slide easily on the floor, and could be easily lifted in and out. Obviously, the slippery surface required the boxes to be packed, stacked and tied properly, as they would otherwise slide from one side to the other during transportation thereby supplying the customers with milkshake.
The key to a good estate was – in my father’s eyes – a good tailgate. “A poorly designed rear hatch could totally ruin the experience of amble spaciousness” he said. And the car factories seemingly tried several solutions to please my father: one large side-hinged door, vertically split double doors with side hinges, horizontally split doors with both top and bottom hinges, and not least what appeared to be the winner: one large top-hinged door that opened high leaving absolutely free access to the cargo area. The most boring solution, but without doubt the most practical.
The time of course came when I need to get my own estate car. At this point, I was the proud owner of a record store and needed to transport loads of vinyl records every day. So, as young people often do, I promptly turned down my father’s old advice in order to make my own personal experiences. Life was simply too short for practicality and such trivialities, and I therefore bought a Jeep Cherokee Chief Wagon. The argument being that it was exciting, and not least the beautiful burble which was emitted from the big bore exhaust. It was cheap and it was spacious too, if something practical had to be said about it. I presented the wonder to my father. He couldn’t help but be a little impressed with the 7.8-litre petrol engine and the sound it produced from the huge exhaust pipe. But on the flipside, he was significantly less impressed by the tailgate. The device was designed to slide the glass down into the lower door before it could be opened to access the cargo compartment. It is important to note; the glass moved by means of an electric motor and thus NOT by hand. The thing was, that on my car, this electric motor only worked intermittently, and when it did, it would push the glass askew within the frame of the lower door. The result being, that it was not always possible to access to the cargo compartment through the back of the car, and the goods instead had to enter via the front seats, without the intended grace and ease. My father found himself unable to praise my exciting car.
Despite multiple attempts at repairing the malfunctioning tailgate, I never had much luck with it. The car ended its days when a friend managed to destroy the Cherokee on a motorway north of Copenhagen thereby concluded an era. Instead I bought a small Land Rover 88 with a side-hinged rear door. Not exciting, but the goods could be loaded without issue and business proceeded.
Especially the Americans went a long way in producing exciting tailgate solutions – always utilising something spectacular with electric motors. The most impressive of them all surely must be General Motors’ construction known as the Clamshell or the Glide-Away tailgate, which was introduced on their B body models from 1971 and used until the end of 1976.
The top half consisting of the glass slipped elegantly up under the roof, while the lower part disappeared down below boot floor. As long as it worked, it was amazing and one can easily imagine the whole family standing in awe as they admire the spectacle take place. Prepare to be blown away and watch the video below…