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Nevermind the Aesthetics, as Long as it Works

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.

VW Type 3 Variant: The high load height is not ideal for a practical vehicle.

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.

That’s how my father liked it. Full and free access to spaciousness. Nothing fancy to be found here.

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.

Cherokee Chief

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…


5 Responses

  1. Anders Bilidt

    Not that I own a small dairy shop or a record shop. I also don’t constantly have camping gear in the back of my classic and a dinghy strapped to the roof. In fact, you could easily argue that I really have no practical use of an estate whatsoever. So unlike Søren’s father, practicality doesn’t play a major part in my considerations…
    Yet, unexplainable as it may be, I thoroughly love classic estates! I have a real hankering to own one – pretty much any one. A Triumph 2.5PI mk.1 estate has always been high on my list. But a little Peugeot 204 Familiale would be neat too. Come to think of it, so would a Volvo Amazon Estate. Or pretty much any 60s or early 70s Yank wagon.
    Mmmmmm… must own classic estate!!

  2. Tony Wawryk

    Love the tailgate arrangement on the 71 Olds – clever and practical. I can only assume that it stopped being produced for either cost and/or reliability reasons – not useful to have it stick halfway! – but it leaves the loading bay beautifully accessible and clean-looking, as well as being a terrific party trick!

  3. YrHmblHst

    WOW! How in the world did that ‘cherokee’ nee 2 door Waggy ever find its way over there? Those things are about like hens teeth in the US, much less in Europe… Methinks your Dad would have liked an XJ ‘cherokee’ ; the rear gate is one piece hinged at the top with no fussy movable glass. The floor height may have been a bit tall for Dads liking, but the straight 6 woulda won him over. I sure like em…
    Dad is also right about practicality of a wagon, or a car based panel; low floor for ease of loading and nice flat area to pack stuff. Too bad dad never got an Olds Vista Cruiser – he could be practical and way stylish too boot, tho that little Opel that looks like a 62-5 Nova/Chevy II is pretty neat itself.
    Personally have always liked station wagons as we call them over here; my folks never had one due to NVH – my dad despised rattles and resonate hum, which wagons tend to have. But one of our best friends always had one as a ‘company car’ that changed every two years or so depending upon mileage , so I spent a lot of time in the back of one as a kid. The first one David had was a 62 Chevy followed by a Plymouth and then a succession of Olds Vista Cruisers until the 73 body style change; after that he had full size Olds – a couple with the tailgate shown – until the late 80s/early 90s when he switched to Chevrolet Suburbans. My favourite had to be the blue 68 that he ordered out as close to a 442 as was possible without a COPO. Neat car.
    ‘Longroofs’ are really becoming quite popular over here also, probably not only due to their practical nature and childhood memories, but because theyre different. Have ALWAYS had a ‘thing’ for 55-7 Nomads obviously, but even more so for 55 to 60 Chevrolet Panels. [like truck based panels also – make mine a 53-6 Ford f100 or a 67-8 Chevy please. Of course, I like vans too, so what do i know?] 68 to 72 Vista Cruiser Oldsmobiles are neat, as are 64-5 Chevelle 2 door wagons. You can give me a 64 to 67 Plymouth B body wagon any day – especially with a B motor or max wedge! Shoot, Ive always had a hankering for an Opel 1900 estate…and a Jensen Healey GT. And I still think that a P1800 wagon is the only car Volvo ever made until the newer C30.
    Yep, practicality CAN be cool.

  4. Dave Leadbetter

    Is that your 2 door XJ Cherokee YrHmblHst? I must say you look different than I imagined you.

    Of course it’s the Americans who really excelled at the Station Wagon and the Glide-Away tailgate is a work of genius. Those Custom Cruisers are a very rare sight over here but I did encounter one at a meeting last new year’s day. It wasn’t exactly parked in a parking space, so much as parked on it. Still, if you’re going to do it, do it properly. My automotive preferences were heavily influenced by the highly underrated Wagon Queen Family Truckster…

  5. YrHmblHst

    No Mr Leadbetter, that is actually [a less than flattering photo of ] the Jeeps owner, Wilson. I just drive it for him occasionally as being a 5 speed, he has a little trouble completely depressing the clutch due to his stature.

    [had to look up a wagon queen family truckster….i can see why its ”underrated”… :) ]


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