Surf's Up with the Woodie: One of America's Most Iconic Cars
What is a Woodie:
There is some confusion as to what a "Woodie" is. Some people think it refers to wagons, other people think its a certain make and model, but really a Woodie is a car body style with rear bodywork constructed of wood framework with infill wood panels. Originally, wood framework augmented the car’s structure, with the passenger compartment of the car actually made out of wood, where later models featured applied wood and wood-like elements. This style became quickly iconic and recognized in American culture - European, German and Asian Automakers rarely offered it as an option.
History of a Woody:
Just into the 20th century, furniture makers began making “Woodies” as a sideline to their businesses. They would purchase an automobile without a body, and build a body from wood. These custom vehicles were often set up like small buses and were commonly used by resorts to transport guest to and from railroad depots. They weren’t called Woodies back then. They were known as “depot hacks”. In the horse-drawn days, a “hack” was typically a wooden wagon.
In the beginning, Woodies were considered commercial vehicles; part of the truck line. They were advertised with pickups, delivery vehicles and other commercial workhorses. While families might occasionally end up owning station wagons, you’d be more likely to see the local handyman driving one. Despite the obvious advantage for transporting kids, or surfboards, the use of station wagons for mainstream family transportation was still years away.
With the passenger compartment being made completely of wood (including the roof which was covered with a waterproofed fabric), there were plenty of drawbacks. The cars tended to squeak as the wood joints aged and the wood needed constant refinishing much like a piece of furniture left outside. You could imagine that termites may even be a problem. Despite constant care and attention, the wood was prone to moisture damage, discoloration and rot. And while no one ever performed any safety studies on woodies, one woudl imagine that after a serious crash, the passenger compartment would splinter and break apart into firewood.
Woodies were never a profitable item for car makers. They were extremely labor intensive to produce; literally hand assembled. To save time on parts and labor and for reasons of strength and durability, the steel bodies eventually overtook the wooden compartments. In 1950, Plymouth discontinued their woodie station wagon. Buick’s 1953 Super Estate Wagon and 1953 Roadmaster Estate Wagon were the last production American station wagons to retain real wood construction. After that point, manufacturers were pushing the advantages of “all steel” construction by the public but still offering a “woodie” look. The wood was replaced with a “wood-grain” material made of steel, aluminum, vinyl or even plastic. Even wood-like decals were used on cars to create the appearance.
The 1949 Chevrolet, Pontiac and Oldsmobile wagons featured just a strip of wood running lengthwise down the side, along with a wooden tailgate. By mid year, the wood was gone, replaced by a wood grain decal.
The 1949-51 Ford and Mercury wagons featured real wood but in the form of inserted panels. The wood was no longer structural. It was cosmetic. When the new 1952 Ford wagon arrived, the wood was gone and in its place was a simulated wood-look material. The last major maker to offer a full production wagon with real wood on the exterior was Buick in 1953.
While the popularity of Woodies was dying, the popularity of station wagons began to soar. Families finally discovered their usefulness in every day family life and production went through the roof. Wagons would remain the undisputed family car until... can you guess? Yep. Mini Vans. Mini Vans arrived in the 80’s. With their increased head and leg room, seating, comfort, cargo space and remarkably convienent siding side door and hatches, by the late 50’s, all the original old Woodies were fast disappearing from American streets, ending up in junkyards or for sale at extremely low prices.
For this reason, a new era in the history of Woodies was about to unfold. The surfing era. In the early 60’s, Surfers, who spent their days riding those bodacious California waves all afternoon always seemed to be strapped-for-cash. In need of an inexpensive form of transportation, they found they could buy woodies cheap, and that they were perfect for lugging around the long 10-12 foot wooden surfboards of the day long.
While not really their goal, surfers prolonged the lives of countless Woodies. It was something of a California oddity but surfers didn’t actually restore their wagons, they couldn't afford to. They simply kept them going. Groups like the Beach Boys in songs like 'Surfing Safari' began to mention and immortalize Woodies in their lyrics, about how they were loaded up with boards and friends and driven to the California Coast and they forever became ingrained as a beloved icon of the surfing community as more and more were adopted by the laid back, fun loving culture. The connection between surfing and Woodies became permanent. It’s also said that surfers were the ones who coined the term “woodie”.
Over the years you’d see hints here and there of the Woodie in auto design and manufacturing. Vinyl wood paneling here, faux wood interior there but for the most part, in this day and age, they remain a cherished collector’s item. While the age of Woodies may have been wiped out of today’s trends for automotive style and elegance moving forward, the demand for Woodie souvenirs, clothes, toys, jewelry and other collectables continues to live on. Americans remained nostalgic over the years, whether having owned one or not and not just at surf shops. Woodies as cultural items, have gone mainstream and it still today remains one of the most iconic and summer fun, vintage surf cars to own. Knock on Woodie they'll continue to be cherished for years to come.