From the mountainous switchbacks and imposing redwood forests of Mendocino County to the bright blue waters and golden sands of the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, California’s Highway 1 has epitomised America’s spirit of adventure for almost a century.
Equally ingrained in West Coast beach culture is the humble woodie, a style of automobile born out of necessity that grew to become an unlikely cult classic, long after its star had begun to fade.
And there’s no better place to celebrate three of the country’s finest timber-bodied station wagons than Newport Beach, a glittering jewel on the California coastline less than 20 miles from where Highway 1 draws to a close at Dana Point.
Stop at any state beach along the 656-mile length of Highway 1 and you’re as likely to see a woodie with a longboard strapped to the roof and a drinks cooler on the back seat as you are a Volkswagen camper, yet when woodies first came to the fore in the1920s and ’30s they were built not for style but for practicality.
Rather than being factory models, the lion’s share of early station wagons – modified saloons that earned their keep collecting passengers and luggage from the railway station or ferrying people around large estates – were instead constructed by independent coachbuilders.
It was the cost of steel and the abundance of old coachbuilding techniques that led most to construct bespoke bodies from wood, and what began as simple ‘depot hacks’ with canvas flaps in place of windows – load-luggers built for hard graft – eventually became objects of desire.
Early woodies were rustic, purposeful affairs with rear compartments built of ash and poplar, and as technology evolved so too did their style.
The advent of roll-down windows brought with it a more bulbous look with a wider rear to accommodate deeper channels in which to house the glass.
As the woodie developed it began to make the transition from utilitarian workhorse to country club chic, with the high prices of the bespoke coachwork drawing a small but enthusiastic following among aspiring businesses and the upper-middle class.
As time went on, mainstream manufacturers got in on the act, some outsourcing the construction of wooden bodies to specialist coachbuilders and others, such as Ford, carrying out all the work in-house.
Whichever route was taken, the cost to both manufacturer and customer was invariably high, and none were produced in enormous numbers.
Considering the high level of maintenance required – and the cost of not doing so – it’s no surprise that today woodies are some of the rarest cars on America’s roads.
Orange County’s Crevier Classic Cars is in many ways a port in a storm, with owner Donnie Crevier’s passion for woodies resulting in a fine collection of beautifully maintained and incredibly rare examples.
The oldest in this three-car set is the ’38 Buick Century, and it’s perhaps the model that best encapsulates the firm’s post-Great Depression bounceback, going from selling just 43,000 cars in 1933 to some 220,000 four years later.
Much of its recovery was due to the sharp and rationalised line-up of cars introduced in 1936.
General Motors’ vice president of styling, Harley Earl, led the charge, bringing to market the streamlined A-bodied Special, B-bodied Roadmaster and Limited, and, the sweet spot in the range, the ‘Banker’s Hotrod’ Century, which mated the small A-body with the Roadmaster’s powerful straight-eight Dynaflash engine.
All featured technological improvements, with the addition of powerful hydraulic brakes.
Showing his commitment to keeping the range fresh, Earl’s striking Art Deco designs were reworked for 1937.
As well as benefiting from a longer wheelbase, which was now up to 126in, the Century and its stablemates were made lower, wider and longer, increasing passenger room – though at a significant weight increase.
In order to compensate, the Century’s straight-eight gained 10bhp to take it to 130bhp, but even bigger changes were to come in 1938.
Externally there was little to differentiate the ’38 model from the ’37, with the exception of a bold grille with fewer, thicker horizontal bars. Beneath the skin, though, things were much improved.
The dated I-frame chassis was changed for a stronger and stiffer X-frame, while the rear cart springs were swapped for coils, offering a smoother albeit slightly wallowy ride – particularly with the extra weight of a woodie conversion.
Thankfully the Dynaflash was also uprated with crown contour ‘Turbulator’ pistons, raising the compression ratio and with it power, with the output rising to 141bhp.
By the time Crevier’s 1938 Buick Century left the Fisher Body Plant in Detroit, destined to be clothed in its resplendent body by Joseph Wildanger Company in Red Bank, New Jersey, woodies were already in terminal decline.
Wildanger, a carriage maker from Hungary, had been building bespoke wood-bodied wagons since arriving in the United States in 1910, working on Model Ts for local businesses and hotels before founding his own company in 1922.
The coachbuilder would go on to produce more than 500 station-wagon bodies, mostly based on Ford Ts and As but also more upmarket machinery from the likes of Pierce-Arrow, Cadillac and Buick, before going bust during the Great Depression as his wealthy clients began to wane.
Fortunately, Wildanger was able to buy back many of his old woodworking tools at the bankruptcy auction, but he would only live for another two years.
The reins of his new, smaller venture were taken up by his two sons in 1936, but Joseph and Arthur would both see active service in the 1940s and by the time they returned to New Jersey bespoke commissions such as Crevier’s Century had become unprofitable, leading them to specialise in maintaining and repairing existing station wagons.
This stunning creation was one of only a small number built, and is thought to be the sole example to have survived.
Like Buick, and every other domestic automobile manufacturer, Packard was hit hard by the onset of the Depression in 1929 and took drastic action by slashing the list price of its range in an effort to maintain cash flow.
The stripped-back Six, or 110, was in many ways a cut-price version of its big brother, and though it lacked some of the finer appointments of the 120, such as the attractive chrome accents on the bonnet and the sharp wing-mounted spares, it proved a massive hit with the public.
Look beyond the smaller-diameter tyres and spartan dashboard and what remained was very much a Packard, complete with a full-sized 115in wheelbase, hydraulic brakes at each corner and independent ‘Safe-T-Flex’ front suspension.
Priced at just $795, not even losing two cylinders compared to the 120 could put off buyers.
What might have given potential purchasers pause was the cost of the firm’s first production woodie, which arrived midway through1937.
Based on the Six, the station wagon variant cost $1295, the huge premium reflecting the work that went into each body by Cantrell of Huntington, New York.
After a year’s hiatus the station wagon returned for 1939, and the following year it became possible to specify the more powerful 120 with the woodie body.
Around the same time Packard parted company with Cantrell, with responsibility for the bespoke bodywork being entrusted to Hercules Body Company of Evansville, Indiana.
Hercules was well placed to fulfil the orders having built bodies for Chevy’s Carryall since 1937, along with coachwork for International’s D2 station wagons.
In total, the Midwestern firm built 358 bodies for Packard’s 110 and 120 models, each using an ash frame with birch panelling, or mahogany if a customer was feeling flush.
Crevier’s 1940 110 features the former, and differs from the 120 only in terms of legroom – the 122in chassis of the entry-level car is 5in shy of the 120 – while under the bonnet lies a 100bhp, 245cu in straight-six allied to a three-speed manual gearbox with overdrive.
It speaks to the complexity of the work and the ongoing maintenance costs that fewer than a dozen examples are thought to survive.
Crevier’s car is therefore a rarity, fortunately saved by a dedicated collector after it surfaced in California in the 1970s, and it has gone on to become a consistent class winner and member of the Packard International Circle of Champions.
But of all the woodies, no organisation blazed the trail with as much zeal as the Ford Motor Company when it came to custom bodywork.
No sooner could you buy a Model T passenger car than other flavours became available, from pick-ups and tourers to coupes and torpedo runabouts; the Blue Oval made sure you could make your Tin Lizzie your own.
It’s an ethos that continued throughout the 1930s and into the ’40s, by which time the production of timber-bodied station wagons was a strictly in-house affair, even down to the raw materials coming from the firm’s expansive 313,000-acre sawmill operation at Iron Mountain in Michigan.
The pinnacle of Ford’s wood-bodied station wagons arrived in 1941, coinciding with a complete redesign of the range led by Eugene Turenne ‘Bob’ Gregorie, an ally of Edsel Ford.
The pair had worked closely to create the Lincoln-Zephyr and ’39 Continental, but the update at the beginning of the next decade marked a departure from the pointed styling that had characterised Gregorie’s earlier work.
For 1941 a much more modern look was penned, with a wide body that almost totally consumed the old-fashioned running boards, front and rear wings that blended more closely with the body, and high and wide headlamps above the wheels.
The new styling was available in several body options, ranging from two-door coupes to four-door sedans, but the most expensive by some margin was the maple-framed station wagon, which set back buyers $1125.
In Super Deluxe trim, such as Crevier’s 1942 example, the woodie benefited from extra chrome, smart leather seats and a wood-grain dashboard, as well as featuring an attractive grille with vertical slats – a styling cue unique to that model year.
Beneath the wood-framed bodywork the Super Deluxe Wagon was comparable to its rivals, including its four-wheel hydraulic drum brakes, but the suspension was a bit more basic than the Buick, combining a solid front axle with a live rear and semi-elliptic leaf springs.
The drivetrain, too, was more tried and tested than cutting edge, with the top of the range model fitted with the firm’s 221cu in flathead V8 and a three-speed column-shift manual gearbox.
No doubt many more Ford woodies would have been built were it not for the Second World War.
Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, US car manufacturers threw their weight behind the war effort and Ford halted woodie production in January 1942.
The model wouldn’t return until after the conflict, with the last example being built in 1948 – a victim of the rising costs and changing tastes that also marked the end of the flathead.
The writing had been on the wall for timber-bodied station wagons for a number of years, and it was the war that proved the final nail in their coffin.
By the time the 1950s rolled around, manufacturing processes had changed so much that it no longer made financial sense to opt for wood instead of steel as a structural element in suburban cars, while safety concerns no doubt played a role, too.
In Britain the woodie lived on until 1971 in the Morris Minor Traveller, but Stateside the trend became non-structural wood panelling, which later gave way to veneers and imitation finishes as late as the 1980s.
America’s love affair with the woodie will always be tied in with the beach culture of California, and it’s perhaps fitting that the pairing was also a marriage of convenience; costly and time-consuming to maintain, old woodies were cheap and plentiful in the 1960s.
Most of all they were practical, and there was no better way of getting to the beach with a gang of friends and a couple of longboards than the likes of this Buick, Ford and Packard.
Images: James Mann
Thanks to Crevier Classic Cars