When the Dodge Magnum made its debut, I was quite pleased. When its popularity translated into sales, I had an ear-to-ear grin. With the announcement production would be discontinued I lamented. The mini van, as versatile and practical as it was, was a poor substitute for the classic station wagon.
With the introduction of the Magnum, for a brief moment it would seem the station wagon, like the mythical Phoenix, was about to rise from the ashes of obscurity. As an added bonus the station wagon is now well on the way to gaining long overdue attention from the collector car crowd.
I am sure this is for good reason. Vintage wagons are different and, as when new, are quite practical. As another advantage, more than a few were outfitted with special packages that provided the necessary power (a muscle car sleeper if there ever was one)for towing or extreme economy.
Even in the waning years of their popularity, this was the case. In 1994, 1995 and 1996 the Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon was available with a 260 horsepower V8 engine with 335 ft. lbs. of torque!
If you would prefer something a little more economical perhaps a 1956 Rambler hardtop wagon might be the answer. When equipped with the optional overdrive these truly unique vehicles consistently tested at more than 25 miles per gallon.
The Olds Vista Cruiser wagon with the unforgetable raised roof trimmed in glass panels, introduced in 1964, came to epitomize the American station wagon and today leads the explosion of interest in vintage wagons. However, a lesser-known companion model, the Buick Skylark Sport Wagon is relatively obscure.
The ultimate station wagon has to be the Checker built Aerobus. Many associate this “stretch” station wagon with the last years of the company when in actuality the Aerobus story began in 1935 with the introduction of the Lycoming eight cylinder powered Y8 series and special order for the Parmelee Transportation extended wheel base models in six-door configuration. There is evidence an eight door version was also produced.
The next chapter in the history of the Aerobus begins in December of 1954 with the introduction of the A-8 series. On special order, standard model A-8’s were shipped to Armbruster-Stageway of Fort Smith, Arkansas and stretched to accommodate eight doors with comparable seating.
As the mechanical components were not modified from the stock 226 c.i.d., six-cylinder Continental engine coupled to a three speed transmission the additional weight made the vehicles performance worse than anemic. In the United States where highway improvements were resulting in higher speeds this was a detriment but in other countries the almost truck like attributes of these stretched Checker’s was ideal. As a result, the majority of this generation Aerobus was shipped to Middle Eastern countries, most notably Turkey.
The association with Armbruster-Stageway would continue through 1961. With the addition of more powerful engines, the Aerobus steadily increased in popularity so as a result in that year the decision was made to improve profitability of these vehicles by building them entirely in house. The Kalamazoo Gazette for June 21, 1961 noted, “…a completely new line of vehicles – the Checker Aerobus. Produced in both six-door, 9 passenger and eight door, 12 passenger models…”
For 1963, a larger Continental six-cylinder engine rated at 141 horsepower became an option in the basic Checker sedans and station wagons and standard in the Aerobus. For most companies an order for seventy-two units would have been laughable, for Checker an order for that number of Aerobus by the United States government that year was seen as confirmation that targeting niche markets was still the companies’ strong point.
Though the sales of the Aerobus in the United States were increasing, the cars primarily served to spearhead the companies’ penetration into foreign markets. A few importers took a page from the Checker playbook and began modifying these vehicles to local niche markets.
Perhaps one of the most notable entrepreneurs who staked their fortune on such markets was Patrick Seton who opened the first Checker dealership in Sweden during the mid 1950’s. The first endeavor involved the modification of a six door, 152.5 inch wheel base Aerobus into a prisoner transport vehicle for the Swedish prison system. His second was to replace the seats in a similar car with smaller ones and then selling the cars to school systems in Sweden as school busses.
In 1966, de Giorgi, a Swiss coachbuilder began modifying the Aerobus into several different configurations including ambulances. Though the idea was a sound one, only three were built; two were sold in Switzerland and one in France.
For 1968, Checker greatly expanded the list of engine options to include a Chevrolet built 230-c.i.d., 140 horsepower six cylinder, 200 horsepower 307-c.i.d. V8 and a 275 horsepower 327 c.i.d. V8. In the late summer of that year a Perkins diesel, the first diesel engine available in an American passenger car, also became available. In spite of these overdue improvements, overall sales at Checker stumbled with Aerobus leading the decline.
As a result, in 1970 the Aerobus became available by special order only. A redefined version of the Aerobus with standard sedan trunk rear rather than station wagon made its debut to a tepid response in 1976. After the production of only 107 units, the Aerobus was unceremoniously dropped with almost no notice from the press or the motoring public. Six years later, all production ceased and one of the most unique chapters in American automotive history drew to a close.
For those who march to a different drummer the Checker, more than twenty years after the cessation of production, still presents an irresistible draw. Though the Aerobus has yet to show similar popularity, with the resurgence of interest in station wagons how long can it be before they too are resurrected for the ultimate bring the crowd along vintage cruiser?
The last ride – again the station wagon theme prevails. This photo is of a rare Oldsmobile hearse conversion.