What Is a Shooting Brake?

Us nerds have salivated over these for decades.

byPeter Nelson| PUBLISHED Aug 18, 2022 8:00 AM
What Is a Shooting Brake?

Popular car designs come and go (see: sedans). But some live on for decades as a high watermark of beauty. One that vocal car fans and internet commenters love to cite as a great look throughout the ages is the "shooting brake," which could briefly be described as "a sports car but also a tiny station wagon." But to lock down an actual definition, we've done a little research.

Part of a print ad for the Nissan Pulsar NX Sportbak (late 1980s). This was a weird car, but qualifies as a shooting brake with this wagon-roof fitted. Nissan

The term shooting brake is rooted in hunting during the late 19th century in England. Originally, a shooting brake was a horse-drawn wagon used to transport hunters and their gear. The brake part, according to Leslie Kendall, Chief Historian at the Petersen Automotive Museum, refers to a wagon chassis that was used to break in horses.

"What's generally accepted is that it's an updated version of the kind of horse-drawn carriage that gentlemen would take on hunting parties to carry their rifles and other hunting accouterment,'' Kendall said during a phone call. "The reason they call it a brake is because it was a small enough vehicle that they used it to break in new horses."

The Aston Martin Vanquish Zagato Shooting Brake from 2017 was and always will be one of the wildest cars made in this style. Aston Martin

The spelling "shooting break" still occasionally pops up due to the original nature of these vehicles, but spelling it "brake" like the car part is the more common and preferred version in current times. Anyway, there you have it—shooting brake cars are not so named because they kind of look like a brake caliper on its side.

In the equestrian world, a shooting brake was a long, slender, uncovered wagon featuring a front area for the driver/horse attendant. In automotive design, the basic design elements are similar to a station wagon mixed with a coupe, with two doors to accommodate the driver and one passenger and a long, slender body.

"A shooting brake sets an otherwise ordinary workaday vehicle apart," Kendall said. "It's built for a specialized gentil use, it's not built for hauling cement or your latest purchases at Ikea. It's associated with leisure time."

Promo image from a true golden era for the Bavarian automaker (early 2000s). BMW

You could say the shooting brake is kind of an aristocratic take on "business in the front, party in the back." Except, it'd probably have to be flipped to "party in the front" (especially if you got one with an eager engine) and "business in the back" (assuming you're carrying briefcases full of cash and fancy overnight bags). Think of a white collar, monocle factory tycoon loading up a one-of-one coachbuilt Aston Martin with shotguns and various random items covered in tweed, and then heading out for a bird hunt with fellow ascot-wearing friends.

The epitome of fancy British fare: the Aston Martin DB5, customized by Harold Radford Ltd.

In fact, some of the most widely admired and acknowledged shooting brakes have had Aston Martin emblems. It was David Brown, chairman of Aston Martin in the 1960s, who hired the popular British luxury customization firm Harold Radford Ltd. to turn a DB5 into a shooting brake in 1964 to help accommodate his charmed lifestyle. Radford was no stranger to this kind of worker order, as the company had outfitted Bentleys nearly 20 years prior for the same duty.

Moving up in decades, another iconic example is the 1972 Volvo 1800ES, which features a very neat rear hatch and expanded utility for those who didn't want to buy a van to go ice fishing if it's from Sweden, I assume.

Victoria Scott

Saying goodbye to the '70s, this decade features some examples that aren't as high-dollar, like the 1981 AMC Eagle Kammback, which is fun to call a shooting brake as nobody has or will ever think of AMC as a gentil brand. We mustn't also forget the incredibly rare/badass Honda Accord AeroDeckThe Drive's very own Victoria Scott owns a cherry example.

Heading into the '90s, the 1997 E36/8 BMW Z3 M Coupe is the best shooting brake example of its era. More recently, the modern successor to the 1800ES is the 2006 Volvo C30, which has a timeless cool factor to it. It even took part in touring car racing—The Drive contributor Robb Holland competed in one. Then, there's the 2011 Ferrari FF and 2016 GTC4Lusso, as well as the ultra-rare 2017 Aston Martin Vanquish Zagato. Plus, who could forget the C7 Chevy Corvette Callaway AeroWagen.

According to Frank Stephenson, a renowned automobile designer responsible for such iconic, modern cars as the first-gen BMW X5, Maserati MC12, Ferrari F430 and FXX, McLaren MP4-12C, and 570S (among other personal favorites of mine), there are some set rules to determining what a shooting brake truly is.

"A Shooting Brake is certainly my preference of vehicle over an Estate but not over a Coupé. Why? Because, ultimately, it’s a compromise, not the best of either world. Having a very fluid definition in today’s market of this designation of cars, my opinion is that the term Shooting Brake truly should only be used for an already sporty two-door vehicle where a restricted amount of additional load space has been sassily blended into the body. This results often in a quirkily sporty aesthetic with a minimal amount of practicality thrown into the mix. And this, in my opinion, can end up as acceptable and full of character (Ferrari GTC4Lusso) or dramatically cartoonish (BMW Z3M Coupé). If I was to be caught dead in a Shooting Brake, it would have to be visually arresting in a very desirable way—nothing less than the Ferrari 250 GT SWB Breadvan."

On the other hand, the fluidity of the design's definition can be a good thing, as it shows various designers' interpretations that have been rooted in doing something different and enthusiast-minded, as well as paying homage to this classic look.

From bespoke coachbuilders whose work dates back to the 1940s to a cool aftermarket kit by Callaway, it's a mark of true pride in automotive design when you see shooting brake design penciled in on its bodywork. It's wild that a term that originates from a small open-top carriage could lead to some of the neatest cars ever created. I hope designs of the future continue to integrate the shooting brake design in some capacity on any coupe or sports car. Who knows, if the new car market ever becomes sick of crossover SUVs that have less cargo space than actual hatchbacks, a new demand for hatchbacks could ignite some fresh new interpretations of this immensely cool design feature.

Cars Considered Shooting Brakes, a Non-Exhaustive List:

  • AMC Eagle Kammback
  • Aston Martin Vanquish Zagato Shooting Brake
  • Aston Martin Virage
  • BMW Z3/M Coupe
  • Callaway AeroWagen (Modded C7 Corvette)
  • Chevy Vega Kammback Wagon
  • Ferrari FF
  • Ferrari GTC4Lusso
  • Ferrari 250 GT SWB Breadvan (coincidentally, as its original design intention was for motorsports aerodynamics)
  • Ford Pinto Wagon
  • Harold Radford Ltd.-modded Aston Martin DB5
  • Honda Accord AeroDeck
  • Jensen Interceptor
  • Lancia Beta HPE
  • Lotus Elite
  • Lynx Eventer (Modded Jaguar XJS)
  • Mercury Bobcat Wagon
  • Nissan Pulsar NX (when fitted with Sportbak roof)
  • Reliant Scimitar
  • Volvo 1800ES
  • Volvo 480ES
  • Volvo C30
  • VW Fox GL Wagon