I’m generally not a big fan of station wagons. This may be familial in origin, since my family never owned one, so I have no warm, fuzzy memories of riding in one as a child. Nor do I recall any of our circle of friends and family having one or ever even riding in one; such is the impression this type of vehicle made on me.
Nevertheless, in recent years a few of them– starting with the Dodge Magnum — have made me take a second look. One that got my motor going (pun gleefully intended) was the Chevy Nomad, specifically the 1955-57 version. Not only is it an incredibly handsome piece of machinery, but it was generally, if not spectacularly, unsuccessful. Thus, combined with its relative anonymity these days, the Nomad is a fantastic example of a beautiful and gloriously dysfunctional automobile
The Nomad started life as a concept car in 1954 and was based, oddly, on the Corvette platform (see a photo of one here). It was introduced at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, giving rise to its nickname, the “Waldorf Nomad” (the Corvette had bowed at the Waldorf the year before). The concept of a 2-door sporty wagon proved so popular with GM executives that production was given the go-ahead — though not, as it turned out, using the Corvette platform.
The eventual production model was based on the Bel-Air chassis and shared many styling cues with that model–eyebrow headlights, a slanted B-pillar, huge egg-crate grill, fan-shaped instrument cluster, and wrap-around rear glass. The chrome-fluted tailgate that slanted forward completed the package which, to my eye, shows the ubiquitous fins off to good effect. Two engines were available in 1955, a base 235 inline six good for 123 horsepower with the manual or 136 horsepower with the Powerglide automatic, and a new-for-’55 265 V-8 that started at 162 horsepower and went up to 180 horsepower with the Power Pack options. By 1957 the new 283 Ramjet fuel-injected engine was available, cranking out 283 horsepower.
Gorgeous styling and lots of power options … what’s not to like? Plenty, unfortunately. The Nomad suffered two critical flaws that limited its sales and led ultimately to its demise. First, although it was marketed at young families, the Nomad was priced $200-$400 over comparable wagons. Second, the Nomad had practical limitations. Having only two doors limited access to the rear cargo area, made even more difficult by the slanted B-pillar. The slanted design of the rear door also tended to leak, though as current owners have informed me, this feature did not limit access to the rear. The same owners do verify, however, that despite being a station wagon, cargo room is limited.
Production numbers tell the tale: 8,530 for 1955, 8,103 for 1956, and only 6,534 for 1957. In 1958, Chevrolet reverted back to a standard 4-door wagon with the Nomad name and continued production through the 1961 model year, while its Pontiac cousin, the Safari, bravely soldiered on until 1980.
The Nomad wasn’t the first 2-door wagon, but it was arguably the first sport wagon (Nash produced one based on its Rambler platform a few years earlier, but it could hardly be called ‘sporty’). Even today just looking at it makes you want to throw some gear in the back and drive off into parts unknown just for the fun of it. Despite its lackluster sales, its exceptional good looks make it a classic of the genre.
Chris Hafner: Anthony might not get wagon fever, but I certainly do. I love the utility, but even more than that I love the look. The notchback sedan is just such a fussy shape–extend the roofline into a fastback, hatchback, or even a wagon back, and the shape just looks right. The Nomad is Exhibit A of this phenomenon. The Nomad is one of the earliest sporty-looking wagons, and its just-right proportions make it even more desirable to me than the classic and legendary Chevy Bel-Airs on which it was based.
The foundation of that appeal is the two-door wagon bodystyle, a curious configuration that taketh passenger convenience just as it giveth cargo space. This weird dichotomy is probably what killed off the two-door wagon in recent years, which is a shame–like another strange beast, the duck-billed platypus, the two-door wagon at least has the benefit of uniqueness.
Most didn’t share the Nomad’s purity of line; certainly the small two-door wagons like the Pinto and Vega/Monza wagons were cute in a gawky, awkward way like a newborn colt. Even the BMW M Coupe isn’t really a looker, to my eyes at least. The major exception was the Volvo P1800 wagon, which married quirkiness and stunning beauty in just the right combination.
Credits: Special thanks to the folks at the ChevyTalk forum for their help on tracking down information and providing invaluable insights on actually owning one of these critters.