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Woodie Wagons Guide

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by Bruce Caldwell  More from Author

From Surf Wagons to Super Collectibles

Wood is more than good when it comes to desirable street rods – it’s great. Once cast off, woodie station wagons have become darlings of the old car hobby. Cars that were formerly couple-hundred-dollar cheap but chic surf wagons have become six-figure show cars.

Not all woodie wagons have sky-high prices, but most do. Even supposed project cars can be very expensive to restore. From a street rod standpoint, everything in front of the dashboard and below the floorboards is garden variety hot rod stuff. It’s the intricately joined and shaped wood that runs up the bill. These wagons required yearly maintenance when new, and they still require more work than steel-bodied or fiberglass street rods. The good news about restored woodies is that, due to their premium prices, they’re almost never left exposed to harsh weather or prolonged outdoor storage.

 There are alternatives, such as phantom woodies and reproduction kits. As a general rule, the less real wood there is, the lower the prices are. The amount of wood used in woodie station wagons decreased over the years. They started out being almost entirely wood and ended up with wooden tailgates and a little wood around the side windows.

One way to save costs is to find an older restoration or a survivor with weathered but still solid wood and then leave the car “as-is.” As long as there isn’t any wood rot, a protected woodie should maintain its “patina” and charm. Street rodders favor the surf wagon look, and true surfer woodies were definitely weathered. The “just back from the beach” look can draw as much admiration as a fully restored woodie with flawless timber and mirror smooth varnish.

In the beginning, woodies were simply called wagons or station wagons. The term “station wagon” is very legitimate. In the days before freeways and commercial airlines, most people traveled by various modes of public transportation, especially trains. Station wagons evolved as a means of getting people and their luggage from the train (or bus) station to their final destination.

Station wagons were initially more commercial than private vehicles. They were especially popular with resorts and lodges. Station wagons would meet arriving guests at the train station and take them and their luggage to lakeside, ocean, or mountain resorts. Wealthy owners also used station wagons to transport family and friends to their lavish summer estates.

Early station wagon usage was heaviest on the two coasts. The first station wagons didn’t have glass windows; they only had primitive side curtains. Glass windows were more prevalent by the later Thirties, and standard by 1940. The lack of windows made station wagons more or less seasonal vehicles. Winter weather was especially hard on the wood.

The open-air construction of early woodies made them better suited to places like southern California. This was a big factor in the wagons being adopted by surfers in the late Fifties and early Sixties. The pop duo Jan and Dean immortalized woodies in their 1963 hit “Surf City,” which sang the praises of their 1934 Ford woodie. The high maintenance levels required to keep the wood bodies and canvas tops in good condition contributed to the bargain prices, which suited young surfers just fine. They were more concerned with cargo capacity than pristine appearance. The transition from surf wagons to street rods was leisurely.

Street rodders always appreciated woodies, but it was well into the Eighties before they started gaining serious attention at rod runs and in magazines. By the Nineties, woodie popularity was strong enough that professional shops started building high profile phantoms. These “never made by the factory” woodies were mostly two-door versions of wagons originally offered as four-doors. Restored woodies and externally original woodies with modern running gear really took off in the later Nineties and early Two-Thousands.

The phantom woodies have a strong connection to the earliest station wagons, since virtually all of them were custom built or coach built (the preferred term at the time). It wasn’t until 1929 that the Ford Motor Company added a wood-bodied station wagon to its product lineup. Ford became the predominant builder of wood-bodied station wagons, which fits perfectly with their leading role as the street rod manufacturer of choice. Ford even owned the forests which produced the wood for its station wagons.

One big reason for the number of coach built woodies and the canvas-covered roofs was that mass production solid steel turret roof technology had not yet been perfected. It was a big deal in 1937 when Ford sedans came with all-steel roofs. Steel roofs didn’t appear on Ford wagons until 1949. The use of wood in station wagons greatly diminished when the first all-new post war cars came out in 1948 and 1949.

The all-steel bodied 1946 Willys and 1949 Plymouth two-door station wagons marked the beginning of the end for woodies. Manufacturers quickly turned to using wood for trim (instead of structural components) and soon after that to using faux wood and decals. The last American woodie with real wood components was the 1953 Buick, which was available in Super Estate and Roadmaster Estate models.

Woodie station wagons were never produced in large quantities, and they had high attrition rates. They represent a small segment of the overall street rodding universe, but their popularity far exceeds their total numbers.  Woodie wagons are rare, but their appeal is as strong or stronger than any steel-bodied street rod wagons. There’s no denying that wood is good.   

           

 

 

 

A 1940 Ford DeLuxe station wagon is right at the top of the desirability list for street rod woodies. The favored style is to maintain the beautiful factory features while adding modern running gear. A nice, low street rod stance is also important. This gorgeous woodie belongs to well-known car collector Wayne Davis from Ft. Worth, Texas.

 

Restoring a wooden station wagon to the level of the Davis 1940 is an expensive, time-consuming process. To attain this caliber of fit and finish requires expert woodworking craftsmen. These cars also require a lot of maintenance to keep the wood in pristine condition.

 

An inside peek at the Davis 1940 shows how much wood is used inside as well as on the outside. Note the unique metal plate that covers the door handle and window crank mechanisms. The dashboard is a regular 1940 Ford unit, although air conditioning has been added underneath.

 

A close-up view of the rear corner shows how many intersecting curved pieces are required to form the rear quarters and tailgate/liftgate sections. Note that the fenders are much thinner than 1940 Ford coupe/sedan fenders, so there isn’t room for the iconic chevron taillights. Small taillights are mounted on brackets attached to the lower corners of the wooden structure.

 

Here is a 1940 Ford Standard station wagon that’s in good condition, but not concours condition. It’s still a highly desirable woodie, but it looks more like a survivor or older restoration. Note the unique divided windshield with the metal centerpiece.

 

A close-up of the lower rear corner of the 1940 Ford Standard wagon shows how the wood ages. It’s still in serviceable condition. The intricacy of the wood gives a hint of why so many original owners fell behind on maintenance.

 

Ford only offered four-door station wagons in 1940, but that hasn’t stopped numerous creative street rodders from building “phantom” two-door woodies. This phantom 1940 is so well built and designed that it looks like a factory model. Note the lack of exterior door handles and the V-butt windshield.

 

Among of the rarest and most desirable woodies are the 1949-1951 Mercury models, all of which were two-doors. Even though there were only two doors, there were still three rows of bench seats. This beautifully updated 1950 Merc woodie belongs to Michael Ratcliffe. There is wood on the inside and outside of the tailgate, but the surrounding structure is metal. It has a stroker small-block Chevy under the hood.

 

Even though Mercury never made four-door 1949-1951 woodies, that didn’t prevent Brian Sisson of Kelowna, British Columbia, from building a phantom version. The rear side windows have a contemporary look to them – possibly from a Taurus wagon. The relatively limited use of wood made this project easier than if more wood had been used on the doors.

 

Among the more commonly seen hot rod woodies are the 1949-51 shoebox Ford models. These were the last of the true Ford woodies, although they used less wood than the 1948 and earlier wagons. This series had a unique roof – note how much sheetmetal is above the top of the windshield. This is a 1949 model, which had a $75,000 asking price in 2009.

 

This 1950 Ford woodie appears to be an original California car. A company name and Long Beach (California) lettering is still faintly visible on the rear quarter panels. The wood is weathered, but solid. The less-than-laser-straight front clip has been covered with DP-40 primer/surfacer, but front fenders are easy to replace or repair. This woodie has a great slammed stance and would probably be best left as is, rather than spending the money for an expensive restoration.

 

Phantom woodies are a good way to save money and build a unique street rod, but they should have some resemblance to real woodies of the era. This kitchen cabinet on wheels gets a “D” for design, although we’d score the matching camping trailer a little higher.

 

Here is a far superior phantom woodie based on a 1929 Model A Ford. The factory wagons were all four-door models and didn’t have glass side windows. The great availability of Model A sedans as bases makes Model A woodies an excellent way to build an affordable wooden street rod.

 

Prices for real woodie wagons (street rods or factory originals) have gone crazy. It’s fitting that this gorgeous 1946 Ford woodie was parked under the Meguiar’s Car Wax “Car Crazy” awning, since it had an asking price of $125,000.

 

A unique and more affordable way to get a woodie wagon is to find one of the smaller British woodies, like this 1959 Morris Minor Traveller wagon. These wagons are larger than the Austin/Morris Minis, but they’re about ¾ the size of an American wagon. They don’t have a tremendous amount of wood, which helps keep purchase and restoration costs in check. They’re available in right hand and left hand drive versions. The Morris Minor Traveller wagons were produced through 1967.

 

The 1953 Buick Super Estate Wagon (shown) and the top-of-the-line Roadmaster Estate Wagon were the last of the true American woodie wagons. 1953 was also the first year Buick came with V-8 engines. Wood usage was more limited than on earlier woodies, but the tailgate, liftgate, and areas around the windows were still structural elements, not just decorative.

 

1933/34 Ford woodies are among the upper echelons of woodies. The black fenders and top contrast beautifully on Ray and Harriet Freeman’s real 1933 Ford woodie. The car runs a 350/350 Chevy drivetrain combo. The luxurious leather interior is finished to standards far above anything offered by Ford in 1933.

 

The Freemans’ 1933 Ford woodie was displayed with a surfboard hanging out the back window. This was very common in the Sixties, when young surfers embraced the then-inexpensive old station wagons. Given today’s high prices, you’re not likely to see a real woodie filled with surfboards parked beside the Pacific Ocean.

 

This is a restored 1947 Mercury woodie wagon. Differences between similar years of Ford and Mercury woodies are confined to the sheetmetal, trim, and dashboard. Mercurys had more ornate grilles and extra trim (e.g., there are two trim strips on each fender on this Mercury, while Fords only had one trim strip). Notice that there is wood all the way across the bottom of the tailgate. 1949 and newer woodies used metal around the tailgates.

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