Home » How I Would Design An Electric Version Of A Classic American Wagon: A Car Designer Sketches Your Ideas

How I Would Design An Electric Version Of A Classic American Wagon: A Car Designer Sketches Your Ideas


After many long nights in a dark, smoky dust-filled back room here at Autopian Towers, we’ve come to a decision. Torchinsky shone a bright light into my eyes, grabbed another neon-colored soda from the Aztek cooler, pounded it on the table like a man possessed and started hissing something incoherent about taillights—what I think he meant was our car should have some, preferably a pair. I agreed with him while backing away slowly. It seemed safer that way.

Of all the brilliant suggestions we plucked from the comments of our introductory “Ask A Designer” story using a spectacularly non-scientific decision-making process that sadly didn’t involve bribery or blackmail, the one that we chose was a modern EV version of the traditional All-American Station Wagon. Yes, we decided that I’d try my hand at designing an actual EV wagon— not an SUV or ‘soft roader’ pretensions.

Will we ever see the market return to this type of car? Their size makes them ideal for swallowing batteries, and being lower to the ground helps with handling and aero efficiency. If we can capture a little of the look of those old aircraft carrier wagons of yore and update it sympathetically without ruining its soul, we might tap into some that sweet heritage appeal that helps sell Broncos, Wranglers and Challengers.

Ev wagon board 1


One of legendary GM designer Harley Earl’s edicts was always “longer, lower, wider,” and boy does this ever apply to wagons. The fundamental shape simply screams great proportions before the pen even touches the paper.

Here I’ve sketched out two front three-quarter views. Along with the rear three quarter view, these are the most common for a designer to use to show their ideas. This is because they show you two sides at the same time– important because a car’s design should work as you look around it and take in the whole thing.

Since we’re going for a slightly more traditional look, we don’t have the headlights wrapping around into the fender, or corners that are pulled in tight (this is more important for FWD vehicles, as it allows the designer to hide the front overhang).

On the second sketch I’ve added some wood paneling, but rather than slapping it down the side of the wagon I’ve used it as C pillar trim that wraps up into the roof. Why? If you were going to add wood to a new vehicle, you couldn’t just screw onto the bodyside like they used to. You would need it to be flush fitting – which would necessitate two different bodyside stampings–one for paneling, one without (so customers have the option).

This would be economically unfeasible, so one way around this would be to have a trim piece in a place that could either be wood or something else. Here, it could be wood, it could be body colored, or it could be black to blend in with the glazing.Ev wagon board 2


For the ones above I’ve done a slightly more dramatic front-on view. The lack of detail on the side of the car is deliberate– sketch three is all about the front graphic. I quite like this but it feels a bit Cadillac which may not be entirely appropriate.

The second sketch (number four) shows another front three-quarter with a more conservative front graphic and a different approach to the wood paneling. The beauty of sketching digitally is that once you’ve got your eye in and nailed the volumes, you can reuse and alter the same sketch over and over.

Chief designers love saying “I like that, give me ten more versions of it”–and you have to quickly churn out a load of variants. I don’t feel sketch four is as successful as the previous two; something about it doesn’t quite flow the way I would like, and I don’t think the front is modern enough.

Ev wagon board 3


See what I mean? Sketch five is a redo of sketch three. I like this front graphic but it feels a bit like something you would see on a muscle car – not necessarily a bad thing, as muscle cars were often based on the two door version of a family of cars that included a wagon. But it might be a little aggressive for our wagon.

Sketch 6 shows another potential C pillar/wood paneling treatment, this time wrapping around the tailgate. I like the step up in the window line and the way it’s mirrored in the roof–it’s clean and modern. This is a higher rear three quarter view — these sorts of views are not used often as they are tricky to get right. They might be used if you have a particular roof or hood detail you want to show. In this case the designer may quickly knock up a digital 3D ‘scratch model’ or use an underlay to sketch over (as I did in this case).

So there you have it. Discuss and dissect in the comments below, feel free to sketch over the images, let me know what you like and don’t like, and I’ll take all your suggestions onboard and come up with the final wagon design next week.

[Ed Note: We decided not to use a poll here to decide because Adrian really likes seeing the thought processes and discussion in the comments! So, please, argue and talk and have fun!–JT]

All Sketches by Adrian Clarke
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92 Responses

  1. well, I like #6 and the front of #2, so could you blend those? And I say you should have wood all the way around. Or , like, It starts at the C-pillar on 6 and wraps around the #2 style front end?

  2. #2 front end, with a flat roof line, some wood trim wrap around like #6, and possibly some two-tone paint.

    I sometimes wish my Flex were two-tone. And I almost always wish it weren’t black (for keeping it clean). In the used car market, you sometimes have to make some compromises.

  3. Love the roofline of #1, the “bubble” on the rest starts to get too tall for me to really appreciate it. Feels almost like I should see Richard Hammond looking out at the world from within it.

    For the wood wraparound stuff, why not replace with a newer, more modern material? Carbon Fiber?

  4. All of these seem loosely based on RWD proportions, which makes sense given they’re referencing the old body on frame wagons of yore. With EVs comes greater flexibility in those proportions if you’re working with a skateboard chassis, but I haven’t seen any EVs with this same general body shape before. Porsche’s Taycan might be the closest but it has a very swept tail. I think these retro EV wagons are very successful in their details, but I’m not sure it would be possible to have these proportions on a modern unibody electric car.

    Great job, by the way! I love the stepped roof design and think applying a wood grain detail to it is a fun twist on the old woody wagons.

  5. #1. My biggest takeaway here is that I like the flat roof line. Raising the roof, regardless of where it is feels like it’s breaking the smooth body line which is a bit jarring and makes the car feel tall, which works against “lower, longer, wider”. The face of #1 is very Dodge Challenger-esque, which could make it a bit generic, but I really like it and think it works well with the rest of the car. I like the rear wheel “hump” vs. a straight line at the bottom of the windows.

    I like the face of #4, but it gives the impression that it’s 1985, but new, which isn’t great. The tall roof works best on this one, but I’d like to see it with a flat top roof, while keeping the raised lower window line (where the wood grain is).

    #3 feels very Cadillac concept car, which look odd on paper, but come out stunning in realty.

  6. Just looking over these sketches, I feel like some key DNA of the iconic family wagon is missing. I don’t think the schnoz is long enough on any of these designs. They all look like a recognizably contemporary greenhouse-to-nose proportion. That hood should be a mile long – think of all the frunk space! I also wouldn’t mind a swooping character line somewhere – that side acreage seems a bit empty, if you’re evoking that classic American wagon look.

  7. Agree that the 60’s /70’s retro look is cool; why not use round headlights also?
    Great to hear about the design process!
    Am curious, how soon in the process would you get to worrying about rear visibility / blind spots?

  8. I like #1, for no other reason that it’s the one that feels right to me.

    I would say that staying away from the “wood” trim is the way to go. Here we have the wagon of the future, so tying it to a time when fake wood was considered a feature doesn’t work for me (maybe because I am old an remember those cars when they were new.

    That said, MORE WAGONS!!! MOAR!!!!

  9. Be careful with the angle on the D pillar. I love the look, but it cuts into utility. That is my biggest peeve with modern wagons. I loved the look of the TourX, but could not bring myself to buy one due to the lack of USABLE cargo space behind the rear seats. My wife wouldn’t go for a minivan, either, so we ended up with our ho-hum Highlander..

  10. I love #1. I’d love it even more if it was a little less chonky.

    For a future design article idea. I think minivans would sell better if they didn’t have a slab side. My idea would be to emboss a racey profile onto the side. Merge a racecar with a minivan. I can see it in my head but have no talent for sketching.

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