A recent study shows that the generation gap has dramatically narrowed. Parents and kids are now each others’ best friends, or something like that. But they weren’t always so chummy, especially in the sixties and early seventies. I have a theory for that: it was the heyday of the rear-facing third-seat station wagon. Nothing like the generations traveling while facing in opposite directions to cultivate oppositional disorder. And just to add a little more dissonance, how about we examine the two most polar opposite examples of the genre.
Rear-facing third-seat station wagons (“RFTSSW”) had a fairly short life-span. Since I’m writing this while deep in the woods, I’m going to have to trust my memory, which tells me that Big Three RFTSSWs appeared in 1957 (Chrysler) and 1958 (GM). Since the original woody station wagons of the teens, wagons had forward facing third seats. High floors and tall rooflines accommodated a unified outlook on travel, values and wars. That even goes for the seemingly unusual combination of two-door wagons with third seats, like the Fords of the late forties and early fifties. But there weren’t any seat belts or kiddie seats to fuss with, so working your way back from the front door to the third seat was just another mini jungle-gym session. For adults: not so much so, but then this was well before the obesity crisis.
But the “Suddenly It’s 1960” 1957 Mopars and GMs of 1958 were so low-slung the RFTSSW needed to be invented. And those eight and nine year-olds facing away from their parents in 1958 would be marching in the streets or occupying the University President’s office ten years later. I know this from experience.
It was a quantum shift in our family dynamics when a 1965 Dodge Coronet RFTSSW replaced our 1962 Fairlane sedan. Now, instead of having to deal with body contact, parents and younger brothers, my older brother and I cultivated and acted out our anti-social defiance in un-observed and unrestrained freedom, fueled by stacks of MAD magazines. The parents were probably equally glad that we were out of sight and out of mind.
There is something unique about the relationship of the driver (and front seat passenger) of the car behind you when you’re in the rear-facing third seat. From the safety of your car, and the assumption you’ll never see them again, the few remaining tendrils of inhibition and social conscience are blown away. Whether it’s all sorts of face-making, the feigned intimacy (with the other car’s occupants; NOT with your brother!) of blown kisses which inevitably escalated to lewd gestures, a (not so) pretend fight to the death with your seat-mate including a dramatic suffocation or strangling, or even going “nuclear” with a full-blown mooning.
It’s a universal law still in effect, although much rarer today: pull up behind some young kids in a rear-facing wagon seat or sitting in a pickup truck bed at a light, and the usual social conventions disappear inevitably and instantly. I make a point to try to outdo them, or, since old habits die slowly, initiate it.
Perhaps it’s away to deal with the inevitable frustration of riding in the rolling dog house. Watching the scenery ever-so-slowly recede into the horizon is the antithesis of how humans evolved to travel: eyes forward, ready to take in every new sight as it first appears. Instead, our formative years were spent watching the world re-fold itself backwards. No wonder we were itching for a revolution!
Having tumbled to the profound insight that what was good for the country was good for GM, it decided that RFTSSWs were too much of a threat to its long-term profits. Its 1971 full-size wagons received the same treatment that the prophetic mid-sized Buick Sport Wagon and Olds Vista Wagon introduced in 1964: an extended wheelbase to allow a modicum of leg room in front of the rear axle for a forward facing third seat. But it was in vain; a generation of future Japanese car buyers formed their subversive impressions in the back of millions of GM’s RFTSSWs.
Ford never succumbed to the dangers of the RFTSSW on its full size wagons, as this 1958 ad clearly shows. Does that explain the soft spot today’s older boomers still have for Ford? But beginning in 1965, Ford went a different route: tiny twin seats that faced each other in the way back. Kids hated it: who wanted to face your sibling for hours? And still not face forwards like a human, or at least face the rear like a sub-human, but with its compensations?
But Chrysler, ever the outsider, stayed true to the generation-busting RFTSSW formula like this 1972 Fury until it destroyed the genre permanently with its format-busting mini vans in 1985. My parents bought a 1973 mid-size Coronet wagon that was a 9/10ths scale copy of this Fury to replace the ’65. But by then the generation gap was a thousand miles wide: I was long gone, having hitchhiked off into the sunset (a blizzard, actually) a few days after my 18th birthday.
Enough of the generation gap; let’s look at the air gap under the rear-end overhang of this Fury. Station wagons of this era sure as hell weren’t shy about their big butts. And the Mopar “fuselage body” siblings take the badonkadonk prize. Yes, the GM wagons were a bit longer overall, but they rode on an extended wheelbase. The Fury just lets it all hang out behind its wheels.
No badges to give away what’s under this giant hood, but whatever it was, it will look lost in that deep, long cavern. Given what great shape this wagon is in, it was probably owned by a modest, thrifty soul, although the under-dash eight track player brings that into question. Most likely it’s got a 318, which was down to a 150 (net) horsepower by then. Sounds a bit underpowered, no? But the unibody Mopars weren’t as heavy as they look; this wagon clocks in at 4335lbs, exactly ten pounds more than a “compact CUV” 2009 Saturn Vue.
I’ve got a soft spot for these old Mopars, especially after my dash across the heartland in a similar ’69 Plymouth Fury sedan. Well, that one did have a big block, and wasn’t emasculated by low compression and smog controls. And the ass ends on those sedans were only trumped by the Chrysler Coupes of this vintage. All time big booty winner. I once saw one of these converted into a four-passenger “El Camino”. The bed was at least as large as the real thing. Wish I’d had my camera then.
Europeans generally avoided RFTSSWs. The French had their long-wheelbase Peugeot and Citroen “Familale” wagons with forward-facing third seats. Italians generally just jammed the whole family into whatever they had, but the Fiat 600 Multipla was the brilliant solution to the limitations of the rhythm method. Germans could always fall back on the VW bus. The English knew better (than to have large families). And poorer Europeans walked or took the train. But the Swedes bit, which is surprising, given their child-oriented society.
But their options were limited, and they didn’t generally have very far to drive. Surprisingly, the Volvo Duett, a 544-based wagon that was more like a mini-Suburban, didn’t have a third seat. The Saab 95 is quite likely the smallest RFTSSW ever mass-produced. That seems improbable too, given the Saab’s Beetle-like dimensions. But the miracle of FWD and a simple low beam axle suspended on leaf springs made room for a half-way decent fold-up third seat. Here’s an old tv ad for one: (link). And the Saab 96 CC is here. Let’s just say that that it was a lot more space efficient and economical than the Fury.
Chrysler’s mini-vans and the upsurge of Suburbans and their like brought and end to an era, if you exclude the occasional Volvo and Mercedes wagon. But nobody actually puts kids there long enough for them to foment serious mischief, and the seat belts ended the moonings for good. And according to the studies, inter-generational peace and harmony have been on the upswing since ever since.