Until the advent of the people carrier, estate cars were the automotive equivalent of waving a white flag at life. Their wordless message of family, carpet samples and trips to the tip said practicality and ordinariness had won the war with youthful dash and verve.
Estate car owners of yesteryear tended to underline this by speccing their Cortinas, Cavaliers and Montegos in a multitude of autumnal hues. And mostly they opted for the hair shirt end of the trim and engine spectrum, perhaps spiced by the occasional special edition such as a Calypso or Countryman.
It took budding entrepreneurs in back streets to push the manila-coloured boundaries of the estate car envelope. The Ford Cortina Savage was the brainchild of a Ford works driver and it was a simple one: shoehorn a 3 litre V6 under the capacious bonnet and nail a growly badge to the boot. But this was a rare exception in a world of 1.6 Ls.
Some time in the late 1980s, the automotive marketing men decided that this wasn’t good enough. Having lots of kids or lugging photocopiers for a living shouldn’t have to mean saying ‘Hari kari’ to excitement.
And so, with Ford and Audi in the vanguard, they started offering their high performance specs in estate car versions too. The Audi 200 Avant Quattro brought the company’s rally technology to a wider market. With over 200 bhp it was the sober-suited and sure-footed. But expensive.
Ford spotted a good idea and popularised it. The Sierra 4×4 Ghia gave gentleman farmers an Audi-bating estate with a bigger engine and more luxury. Like the Audi the Sierra was geared towards luxury rather that sport, suggesting that the marketing men were still unsure how uber-conservative estate car man would react to spoilers and sports seats.
While Audi and Ford nibbled around the edges of the performance estate car market, it took Volvo to make the bold step forŵard and offer the world a fast estate.
Volvo had previous when it came to sporting estates and it meant the world wasn’t exactly holding its breath.
In the 1980s, in a bid to eke out the life of its elderly 240 range, Volvo created the 240 GLT, an erstwhile sporting estate that in reality had the athletic prowess of a bowl of porridge with a go-faster stripe.
This time, however, things were very different. In 1993 the erstwhile grey man of motoring introduced the Tarmac-burning 850 T5 estate. It was a 240 bhp, be-spoilered hoon-mobile that put fast estates firmly on the map. Porsche had even had a hand in its development. Few T5s were sold but Volvo milked the car’s halo-effect. T5 estates ran in the British Touring Car Championship and bright yellow was a popular colour option.
Perhaps sensing they’d been out-manouvred, Audi quickly put in its own call to Porsche. The result was the iconic RS2 Avant, which was actually built alongside the 911. Its paltry 2.2 litre engine pumped out over 300 bhp and set the new estate car benchmark.
The RS2 showed that estate cars could be truly fast. Where the Volvo T5 retained a faint whiff of antique dealers and country pursuits, the Audi had rally pedigree and Porsche construction. Here was proof that you could have your cake and eat it – power, performance, fun. And space for the dogs and kids.
The RS2 really is the car that gave us the fast estate. From here it was a quick hop, skip and a jump to high performance versions of big estate cars – the Audi RS6, E55 Mercedes and BMW M5 all took power to well over 400 bhp, delivering performance similar to contemporary supercars. Soon enough James Bond – well, nearly – was driving one in Layer Cake.
By the late noughties car makers were really getting carried away with the fast estate theme. Audi’s RS6 and BMW’s M5 were both churning out nearly 600 bhp and posting sub-4 second 0-60 times. These top models were becoming almost too fast and too powerful.
Today most premium car makers still offer uber-quick estate cars, but the body style is on the wane. The ubiquitous SUV in all its endless incarnations has put paid to the humble load lugger.
Fast estate cars are, to my eyes, way cooler than their saloon car cousins. The incongruous combination of dog-friendly load space and Lamborghini-bating performance will always be proof that car makers have a sense of humour. But in today’s height-obsessed motoring world they seem to be a dying breed.
Estate cars are now viewed much as they were when we started this journey. Compared to Q5s, Tiguans, Edges and even Qashqais, the humble load lugger is too straight, too functional and, well, too low.
If the estate car can continue to plug quietly away up and down the motorways of Britain, perhaps we’ll see it rise from the ashes again. I certainly hope so.
Sadly no estate cars have made it onto the Great Escape Cars fleet. Yet. But you can drive a range of classic coupes, convertibles and saloons from just £95. Or try several on one of our road trips. Find out more at www.greatescapecars.co.uk.