The Shooting Brake. You may not know what it is, but you’ve probably seen one without knowing it. It’s not quite a coupe- not quite a wagon either. The shooting brake is same parts underused automotive oddity and aerodynamic awesomeness. Let’s explore the history of this unusually-named car design and it’s recent resurgence.
The Ferrari FF supercar and the nimble Volvo C30 are two notable shooting brakes currently on sale, but there are a plethora of these niche vehicles throughout history. Many have been variants of popular sports cars, others are standalone two door wagons. Either way, there are usually strange enough that you can’t help but stop and look.
The term “Shooting Brake” is currently used to describe any combination of coupe and wagon body elements to create a three-or-five-door car that has a taller rear hatch area than usual, making the space behind the front seats more usable. Five door wagons also qualify, but the a majority of the applications of the body style throughout the second half of the twentieth century have been modified two-door sports cars.
Put a modern interpretation of a Shooting Brake side-by-side with an original, and you would be hard-pressed to understand the connection. It all comes down to wealthy-as-hell British lords and their affection for hunting. In late 19th century England, a Brake was any wagon or carriage used to brake in young, restless horses. Such Brakes were used to transport hunting parties, earning the term “Shooting Brake.” See how that works?
Early automobiles in Europe and England were only available to the wealthiest customers. Those just so happened to be the same groups that went on hunting parties. The first automotive shooting brakes were large wagons with space for passengers, guns, supplies, food, and probably a healthy stockpile of brandy.
Some of the best examples of this one-percenter’s-pleasure-wagon are the Rolls-Royce Shooting brakes. From the wood-paneled models from the 30’s to the beautifully-fendered iterations from the late 50’s, they represent the early automotive definition of the term.
In 1960, Sunbeam introduced a wagon version of its Alpine coupe and labeled it a shooting brake. It was advertised as being both fun to drive and functional, with plenty of cargo space. That car ushered in the modern era of the shooting brake, and was followed by vehicles like the MGB GT and Volvo P1800ES. In the late 60’s, coachbuilder Harold Radford constructed shooting brake variants of the Aston Martin DB5, DB6, and DBS.
This may seem counterintuitive, but shooting brakes offer certain aerodynamic properties superior to the coupe shape. Depending on the model and angle of the hatch, many shooting brakes feature a kammback design. Developed by German aerodynamicist Wunibald Kamm, it calls for an abrupt cut off of the body of the car, which actually reduces drag. One of the most notable uses of this feature in racing was the Ferrari 250 GT Drogo, also known as the “Breadvan”. At the 1962 24 Hours of Le Mans, it was able to achieve a 7 km/h higher top speed than the newer 250 GTO. So while they may look like a slower wagon version of a sports car, looks can be deceiving.
Coachbuilders were the primary builder of shooting brakes in the later 20th century, but as of late, the automakers are coming around to the concept and many are developing their own shooting brakes in-house. Mercedes-Benz used a shooting brake application to showcase the second generation CLS-Class. When the actual production 2013 CLS was only a four door coupe (a whole other niche segment we can delve into), many thought that was the end of the CLS shooting brake. However, spy photos have surfaced showing a camouflaged four-door CLS shooting brake testing in the real world. Audi also used a shooting brake to preview their latest generation TT. Sadly, that was merely a concept, and never saw production.
Still, other brakes are seeing the light of day, such as the Jaguar Sport, Fisker Surf, and as stated before, the Ferrari FF. That last one is the most significant sign that the brake is back, as Ferrari is perhaps the most abhorrently conservative when it comes to stepping out of the traditional sports car market. Suggest an SUV with a prancing horse on the fender around Ferrari engineers, and you might have one of those wonderful V12 velocity stacks from the 250 Breadvan shoved down your gullet. So without a doubt, the shooting brake is back, and for enthusiasts, hopefully it’s here to stay.