The Knotty History of the Woody Wagon

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jul 14, 2018

Let’s face it, woodie (or woody, opinions differ) station wagons are cool looking. When they’re custom made and attached to the imposing, full-sized bodies of the 1930s and 40s, they’re just about the last word in suburban sophistication. It’s hard to imagine these gleaming concours art statements in supermarket parking lots (or down at the beach with a surfboard strapped to the roof) but they were once everyday transportation.

This sweet ride, a 1949 Ford, cruises in Hawaii. (Steve Corey/Flickr)

No carmaker has made a real woody since the demise of the Morris Minor Traveler in 1971. They’re a pain in the ass to build—some requiring more than 150 pieces of wood—and customers complained of all the maintenance necessary to keep the wood from warping or rotting. They were heavy, too, adding about 200 to 300 pounds to a standard sedan. But so what, they had a long and mostly happy history.

 

 

This 1940 Chevrolet Master Deluxe wagon has a structural wood body. 

Early cars were mostly made of wood, since stamped steel was expensive back then. Wood was the standard material for carriage makers, and before 1910 automobiles were mainly motorized carriages. The first mass-produced car—before Ford’s Model T—was the curved-dash Oldsmobile, and it was proudly wood-bodied.

 

 

A 1929 Ford Model A work truck was for go, not show. 

As shaping steel became an art form, wood (particularly ash) was used to frame bodies—a practice that continued in England far longer than it should have, even making it into the post-war era. And it caught on for special wooden station wagon bodies, also called estate wagons, depot hacks and shooting brakes (because they were hunting cars in Europe).

Look at the gorgeous lines on this 1949 Packard, a senior woody if there ever was one. (Wikipedia photo)

The Ford Model A of 1929 was the first mass-produced woody, and the body style flourished for the next 25 years. Henry Ford, who liked vertical integration, was so confident that wood was here to stay that he bought more than 400,000 of woodlands in Michigan’s Iron Mountain region.

That's a '37 Ford woody wagon. Did the wood come from Iron Mountain? (Wikipedia photo)

Often, coachbuilders built the actual bodies for the automakers, and it became a real art. Full woodies have wooden frameworks for their rear bodywork (windshield back) and instead of headliners had lovely polished wooden ribs and slats that looked to be sourced from a boat. Many could seat seven, and were used by rustic resorts to ferry passengers from the station.

After 1951, full woodies mostly gave way to a more modest use of non-structural wood, for doors and tailgates. Ford gave up on wood in late 1950, and started using D-Noc plastic vinyl sheet instead.

The 1953 Buick Roadmaster woody is a tribute to the coachbuilder's art. That's a Roadmaster woody in the film Julie and Julia. (Rex Grey/Flickr)

Chevrolet, Buick, Oldsmobile, Ford, Nash, Rolls-Royce, Packard (birch was standard, with mahogany at extra cost), Plymouth, Chrysler, British Motor Corporation, they all offered woodies, many built by the Hercules Body Company of Evansville, Indiana or Ionia Manufacturing in Michigan. The Germans and Japanese never did much with wood bodies, though the latter was responsible for some truly awful fake wood appliqués later on. See below.

In the U.S., the woodie era was pretty much over by the mid-50s. Built in small quantities, they were never a profit center. We had to wave goodbye to such magnificent creations as Buick’s Roadmaster wagons, Chrysler’s Town and Country sedans and convertibles (which matched the woodpanels to plaid upholstery), and the ’49 and ’50 Fords.

A classic Ford Falcon Squire of 1965. The "wood" looked sensational, but it was fake. (Ford photo)

People loved the woodie look, but hated the maintenance. This is the same reason they switched to fiberglass boats. So enterprising automakers came up with sheet vinyl appliqués that offered “the look of real wood,” to quote the Firesign Theater. These are the wagons I remember being around for beach duty when I was a kid, relatively tasteful entries such as the full-sized Ford Country Squire and its compact Falcon little brother.   

That's not exactly a woody, is it?

Around this same time, surfers started buying up real woodies, because (given the maintenance headaches) they were cheap, and accommodating to boards. Oddly enough, the vehicle the Beach Boys are using to get to the beach on the cover of Surfin’ Safari is not a woody, but a truck, which some say is a ’30 Chevrolet:

Early in the morning we’ll be startin’ out/Some honeys will be coming along/We’re loading up our woody/With our boards inside/And headin’ out singing our song.

Of course, only Dennis Wilson ever surfed, and Jan and Dean of “Surf City” fame never had a ’34 woodie wagon:

I got a ’34 wagon and I call it a woodie/Surf City here we come/You know it’s not very cherry, it’s an oldie but a goodie/Surf City here we come/Well it ain’t got a back seat or a rear window/But it still gets me where I want to go.

According to Los Angeles magazine:

Nomadic surfers realized the old woodies, rotting in yards and garages all over America, were perfect for longboards, shortboards and entourages of thrill-seeking buddies. Many grabbed them cheap off owners who just wanted to free up some space, and rode them into a new era of reclaimed purpose.

After the surfers were done, the restoration bug bit, classic car types reinstalled the rear windows and the backseats, and polished up the acres of wood. Restored woodies are worth $30,000 and up these days. Since these garage queens never go out in the rain, the wood stays nice.

Meanwhile, automakers were still flirting with wood, using it (real and fake) for interior “accents,” as well as side trim. Some ghastly woodies of recent vintage, are the Chevette Estate Coupe (“a sad reminder of how far woodies fell,” says Popular Mechanics), the ’78-’79 Dodge Colt wagon, the AMC Eagle and a George Barris-styled Smart Fortwo.  

All this suggests to me that some enterprising company (a wooden boat maker?) could make a mint building real wooden bodies for modern wagons. If it was done with the kind of craftsmanship exhibited by Hercules and Ionia, the results would be truly gorgeous. Bring back the woody!  

And though you didn't ask for it, here's a video of Jan and Dean's "Surf City":


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