Station Wagon/Estate Car.

Dave Wilton has a Big List post about a kind of car whose US name is well known to me but whose etymology I didn’t know and whose UK name was unfamiliar:

A station wagon, as we know it today, is an automobile that in addition to two (or more) rows of passenger seating, has a large storage area in the back with a rear door for loading and unloading. The name comes from the idea that the car is well suited for transporting people and luggage to and from railway stations. The name is American in origin and predates the automobile, being first applied to horse-drawn carriages used for that purpose.

It’s one of those things that when you’re told it you slap your head and go “Of course!” But I had never connected station wagons with railway stations, and now I feel silly. (There’s much more about the sense development at the link.) The post ends:

In Britain, such cars are labeled as estate cars. That name dates to at least 1937, when it appears in an ad for Renault vehicles in the Daily Telegraph of 7 October […]

But there’s no explanation of the name (nor is there at the OED entry s.v. estate: “estate car n. a light saloon motor car spec. constructed or adapted to carry both passengers and goods”); I can only presume it was meant to carry posh folk to their estates.

The discussion page has much discussion of woodies (with wooden panels), and  Syntinen Laulu writes:

The estate car has features in common with the shooting brake. The horse-drawn brake was a four-wheeled cart adapted to carry both goods and people (a large country house would probably keep a brake with seats to fetch guests and their luggage from the railway station), and a horse-drawn shooting brake had seats for the sportsmen and a sort of box or cage underneath the seats for their gun-dogs. I suspect that both car types were named out of a desire to convey the idea that the roomy space at the back was for elite leisure equipment rather than working tools or groceries.

The shooting brake was entirely new to me; Jared Paul Stern has a discussion with lots of images and the following tidbit:

The term shooting brake derived from a type of horse-drawn carriage called a “brake” that was used by the likes of the Prince of Wales on shooting parties in the 1890s, which subsequently evolved into a motorized vehicle. Originally it was distinguished from the station wagon or “estate” car by having only two doors, a much more rakish profile.


  1. Right now the internet has for sale a 1949 Bentley shooting brake, with a lo-lo asking price of only $149,900.

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    Well, if you own a grouse moor, I imagine that $149,900 is basically pocket change.

  3. The late, lamented AJP Crown mentioned a “shooting brake” in 2020, making it clear that he did not know precisely what distinguished it from similar vehicles.

  4. Some tangentially related terminology at Separated by a Common Language:

    trucks and lorries (the BrE category of “lorry” is narrower than the AmE “truck”) with some discussion in comments about estate cars, shooting brakes, and station wagons.

    bags, dibs, shotgun with some discussion about names for spaces within the car: shotgun (seat) or front seat, wayback, footwell.

  5. The late, lamented AJP Crown mentioned a “shooting brake” in 2020, making it clear that he did not know precisely what distinguished it from similar vehicles.

    Towards the end of the Big List discussion on Dave Wilton’s site there are a couple of posts that address the differences between shooting brakes and similar vehicles. With a few exceptions, shooting brakes are two door vehicles. Station wagons are usually four door cars. The brakes typically have no rear seat, with the back open for storage of hunting or other gear. Most estate cars or station wagons have two or more rows of seats. Finally, more recent shooting brakes look more like cars, with sloping hindquarters, while station wagons/estate cars are boxy.

  6. Kári Tulinius says

    I’m curious to know which Renault vehicle was being advertised. Unfortunately I don’t have access to the Telegraph’s archive, but my guess is that the car being advertised was the Nervastella, which is station wagonish, and was intended for an upscale clientele. Though it would be interesting if it was a different car. Incidentally, in French a station wagon is known as “un break”.

  7. Stu Clayton says

    … and a sort of box or cage underneath the seats for their gun-dogs.

    I have not seen such a thing in any of the horsedrawn brake photos linked above, nor any others I found in the ‘net. In drawings showing a carriage as well as dogs, the dogs are running alongside.

    I find it hard to believe that hunters would coop their dogs up in a boneshaking carriage, even for a short trip. Dogs don’t wear bustles. They want action not prison.

  8. I’m curious to know which Renault vehicle was being advertised.

    Well, the ad quoted in the post just calls it “the Renault Estate car.” Which is odd if there wasn’t a car by that name — you’d think they would have used the actual name (and I agree the Nervastella is a good bet). For reference, here’s the List of Renault vehicles at Wikipedia.

  9. Kári Tulinius says

    I found an earlier use of the term, from an architectural supplement of Country Life magazine in 1914, which is available at the Internet Archive (May 30th, p. 56*, or page 954 in the pdf-file). The article, all about “estate motors” mentions a vehicle called the “Norfolk Convertible Country House and Estate Car” released by the Commercial Car Company, which is better known as Commer, and indeed there is a picture of a “Commer Wagonette”, which I assume is the vehicle mentioned in the text. It is about as similar to a station wagon as a car from the early years of the last century can look like, so I’m guessing that’s the origin of the term.

    ETA: There’s also a picture of a “shooting break” on the same page, so these two types of vehicles are clearly connected.

  10. The Morris Minor Traveller (third photo here, description 2nd para under ‘Minor Series II’) was an Estate Car for those whose estate was semi-detached. There were also 4-door versions.

    The ash framing was dead posh (and actually surprisingly strong).

  11. I’ve seen the term “ranch wagon” somewhere. I assumed it was something like a station wagon.

    The thing is, it neatly lines up with US vs Australian usage:

    A “ranch” is a large pastoral property, therefore the Americans call it a “ranch wagon”.
    A “station” is a large pastoral property, therefore the Australians call it a “station wagon”.

    All complete nonsense, of course, but it shows how easily a superficial acquaintance with language could mislead.

  12. Andrew Dunbar says

    I see nobody has yet mentioned “station sedan”. Holden, Australia’s branch of General Motors, added a wagon to their line of passenger cars in 1956, and used that term until 1969, when they shifted to “station wagon”. I believe Ford used “wagon” on their Australian models from the very beginning in 1960.

    I always wondered where “station sedan” came from. Apparently it was used by Jeep in at least 1948 and 1949, but they contrasted the term with “station wagon”. Here’s the two quotes from Wiktionary:

    1948, American Machinist, Volume 92, Issues 1-5, page 72,
    July 11, 1946, the first station wagon went into production. It has the familiar Jeep “front-end look” with radiator grid, bonnet, front fenders, cowl, dash, windshield assembly and door assemblies identical with those in panel delivery, 2- and 4-wheel drive trucks and the new station sedan.

    1949 April 18, Advertisement, Life, page 120,
    The ‘Jeep’ Station Sedan combines the luxurious riding ease of a sedan with the spaciousness of a station-wagon.

    This gives me two questions: 1) Did GMH get “station sedan” directly from Jeep, or did some of GM’s marques also us the term. 2) What was the difference between a “station wagon” and a “station sedan”? If I’m reading correctly it seems that Jeep introduced their first station wagon in 1946 and their first station sedan in 1948.

    I’ve seen the term “ranch wagon” somewhere. I assumed it was something like a station wagon.

    In Australia we called the full-sized 1959 Fords sold here in station wagon form “ranch wagons”. I’m not sure if this was also their official Ford naming. That model was sold for a couple of years in Australia, with maybe a grille change. We did the same for the 1955/1956 full-sized Fords and the full-sized American 1957 and 1958 Fords were not sold in Australia. Presumably they didn’t always make right-hand-drive versions for export.

  13. Andrew Dunbar says

    I’ve seen the term “ranch wagon” somewhere. I assumed it was something like a station wagon.

    I did some research, and “Ranch Wagon” was Ford’s name for the economy trim level of full-sized Ford wagons. The “Country Sedan” was the mid-range model and the “Country Squire” was the top trim level, with the fake wood on the sides.

  14. I’ve updated my entry to include the antedating that Kári Tulinius found, and to cite Kári and this page as one of the sources. The entry also now includes a discussion of “shooting brake.” Thanks!

  15. Is a hearse a type of shooting brake?

  16. David Eddyshaw says

    I suppose that from a pheasant’s point of view, a shooting brake is a kind of hearse.

  17. Kári Tulinius says

    Thank you, Dave!

  18. Doubtless this is the right place to mention that as a child I pronounced hearse with the START vowel, perhaps by analogy with heart. Eventually my mother noticed it and corrected me.

  19. @John Cowan: I wonder if it might have been interference from a similar-sounded word you had heard in German.

  20. David Marjanović says

    What could that be, Hase?

  21. I can rule that out, because my mother (and a fortiori I) were/are rhotic in German.

  22. David Marjanović says

    Fully rhotic in German, and yet not from within shouting distance of Switzerland?

    The vaguely defined Rhineland is rhotic after short vowels only (and that’s what the Wikipedia transcriptions are based on), the rest of the area not at all, except for stage pronunciation.

  23. John Cowan says

    We are talking about 100 years ago. I haven’t been able to find information on when different parts of Germany became non-rhotic, but the process began around 1800 and ended around 1900. In my mother’s case, however, she spoke only the standard language (I presume she could understand the local dialect, but her family considered it a peasant dialect), so the use of an artificial highly conservative pronunciation closely related to the stage pronunciation would be unsurprising.

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