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28 Mar

The Curious Case of the Shooting Brake

If you ask a kid to draw a picture of a car, it would most likely be something like this.

Cars come in various shapes and sizes, with the sedan (pictured above) being the most popular representation. As fate would have it, all of that is slowly changing. As automakers sought to pare costs and drivers wanted “one car to do it all,” a new type of vehicle emerged: the SUV.

If you live in India, it's hard not to see the impact of the SUV in the local car market. Everybody wants an SUV, so much so that entirely new categories of cars are being created to satiate the needs of different brackets of customers (what the heck is a subcompact crossover?).

But before the arrival of the SUV, there was a body style that has been all but forgotten today: the station wagon. Other names include estate, Avant, and (you guessed it) shooting brake.

For the uninitiated, a station wagon is essentially a normal four-door sedan, with an elongated tail section. It looks like this:

It's quick, it's safe, it's practical and quite economical to run. In markets like India where ferrying the entire family is a priority, one would think that they would be immensely popular. Yet, they didn’t take off. Why?

Before we look at that, let's look at how the station wagon came to be.

A brief history of the station wagon

Europe may have been the cradle of the automobile, but it was the Americans who pioneered the concept of mass-producing automobiles. Like most things relating to the automobile, this story starts with the Ford Model T.

You see, back then customers who wanted to use the Model T for more 'practical' purposes were given the option of purchasing the chassis, which would then be taken to an independent coachbuilder who would fit it with a custom body.

These cars came to be known as 'depot hacks' as they were mostly used for depot runs and since they greatly resembled horse-drawn cars (known as hackneys), the name 'depot hack' stuck. Depot hacks proved to be an immensely popular choice and were soon a staple across the U.S.A.

As for how depot hacks came to be known as station wagons? Well, depots were also known as stations and the bodies resembled wagons, so they eventually came to be known as 'station wagons’.

The post-World War II era brought with it an economic and population boom, and the station wagon turned out to be the perfect car for the average American family that wanted the comfort of a sedan with extra space for those long road trips.

Despite having been born in the U.S.A, the station wagon eventually petered out in favour of the modern SUV, whose dominance over the American market has been near absolute since its introduction in the 90s.

Luckily, it found a new home, back where it all began.

Journeying across the pond

Across the Atlantic, countries in Northern and Western Europe took an immediate liking to the station wagon. Better known as an  'estate', these cars were regarded as the perfect union between form and function.

The numbers speak for themselves.

Anders Gustaffson, Head of Volvo Cars USA says:

“In Sweden, our home country, close to 50% of our volume is related to wagons. You have the best residual values, you have the most loyal customers, also that is how we live in Sweden. Nature is very important, we do a lot of football, a lot of sports, associated with our kids, so we need space. So the legacy of wagons is really in our DNA. Also, you see them all over the place in Sweden, and in Europe.”

As for why they were such a hit amongst Europeans, this YouTube comment lays it out neatly:

Now, they had a good stint in America, and are a favourite in Europe. What about Asia? Well, the Asian automotive market is excessively wide in its scope. For West Asia, fuel hasn't been a concern for much of the past 50 years (as reflected by gas guzzling SUVs being the car of choice), for the Far East (think Japan and Korea), heavy urbanisation and a lack of space meant smaller cars were more popular.

But why weren't they popular in India? After all, Indians have large families, are always up for long-interstate trips, and love frugal vehicles. The station wagon should have been a natural fit.

The reason, as always, can be found in the place that the car has in the socio-cultural fabric of India.

Incremental changes? Nah.

At the end of the day, a station wagon is nothing more than an incremental improvement over a sedan. It only solves for a lack of boot space, nothing more. In the lore of the Indian automotive market, a car is less of a commodity and more of a luxury.

The only way to climb up the automotive pecking order is to have more of everything. More power, more space, more height, i.e. everything has to increase, not just the cargo carrying capacity.

This, coupled with pothole-laden roads and mercurial weather conditions meant that station wagons couldn't even hold a candle to their beefy cousins, the SUVs. This may seem obvious in hindsight, but it wasn't until the late aughts that manufacturers actually caught on to this.

Tata's first attempt at the passenger car was not the Indica, but a station wagon that was simply known as the 'Tata Estate'. Introduced in 1991, it was in production for 8 years. Not content with their first attempt, Tata pressed on with a follow-up, named the Indigo Marina, which was eventually pulled out of the market in 2010.

Even the famed Maruti Suzuki, lauded for their intimate understanding of the Indian market, sold a station wagon from 1999 all the way till 2007 when they decided to end production.

What can we learn from all this?

For starters, any ‘feature’ should always be evaluated in the context of the target market and not in the context of what it was originally built for. According to popular online auto classifieds platform CarTrade:

“Experts are of the view that the station wagons available in the country do not have enough space in the third row as the roof of the car is lower in comparison to SUVs; thus people are not at ease when sitting there.”

In western markets, additional space is often used for luggage. In the Indian market, luggage plays second fiddle to people. In that regard, station wagons proved to be inferior to the SUV.

Another blunder that almost all manufacturers committed was to price it out of its target market. Despite costing only 10% more to make they were priced almost 30% - 40% higher than the sedans they were based on.

Plus, the Indian automotive market at this point operated on a fairly rigid taxonomy of cars: sedans, hatchbacks, SUVs, and minivans (like that Maruti Eeco we so often see on the road). Station wagons were amorphous within this hierarchy as they weren’t as elegant as a sedan, not as rugged as an SUV or as practical as a minivan. Consequently, they were almost always passed over.

Status can never be one-dimensional.

The one big thing that stands out to me is that status, especially with tangible goods, is not a uni-dimensional concept. For something to be accorded higher status in the material realm, everything needs to expand, not just one thing.

For computers, it's not enough to simply have a better chipset, everything right from the display technology to the trackpad needs to move up a notch.

For phones, battery life, storage capacity, display technology, and screen size should collectively increase along with the price. This explains why the iPhone mini was eventually axed.

Even if the customer logically only needs one thing to be better, they will almost always choose to spend higher on something that provides what they need and much more (even if they will never use it).

Of course, this only applies to hardware. Software is a different beast altogether, something that is best discussed in a different edition.

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