The tale of the wonderful classic British woodie

| 27 Mar 2023
Classic & Sports Car – The fascinating story of the British woodie

There wasn’t much on offer between luxury saloons and commercial trucks in the early years of motoring. The former were so expensive that, if you could afford one, you could afford to have your luggage shipped separately.

The latter… well, they were the ones carrying the luggage, or it went by train or even horse and cart.

By the 1920s, however, both sides of the Atlantic had developed a small market for a car that could carry people and luggage.

Classic & Sports Car – The fascinating story of the British woodie

The first shooting brakes were built on luxury chassis, such as this 1926 Rolls-Royce 20hp by Hooper © Rocket City Customs

The names these vehicles took on either continent reflected their origin, the ‘station wagon’ of the States connected America’s leisure hotels with the rail network; in Britain, the ‘shooting brake’, or later ‘estate’, would transport hunting parties around the country piles of the wealthy.

In both cases, however, these niche machines would largely be made of wood.

Prior to the invention of glassfibre, and when working with steel was expensive, timber was the obvious material for low-volume or one-off body production.

Classic & Sports Car – The fascinating story of the British woodie
Classic & Sports Car – The fascinating story of the British woodie

The clamour for fuel rations led to some sporting models being given the timber treatment, such as this 1937 Bentley 4¼-litre © Bonhams

Wood frames were frequently used by coachbuilders of limousines and sports cars, although it was often wrapped in cloth or leather rather than left bare.

Many woodies were built by the same coachbuilders that were making limousines in the first place, such as Mulliner, Radford and Hooper, on chassis from Rolls-Royce, Lanchester and Alvis.

As the 1930s progressed, however, firms began to specialise in woodies, such as Brakenvan, Utilicon and Utilibrake, and cars from more populist manufacturers – such as Austin and Ford – received the same treatment.

Classic & Sports Car – The fascinating story of the British woodie

Vincents of Reading converted this 1937 Bentley 4¼-litre into a timber-clad estate in 1949 © Bonhams

A convenient tax break – woodies were classed as commercial vehicles – helped with their popularity, but WW2 would prove the real making of the British woodie.

That commercial classification also ensured that owners received a greater fuel ration than for a normal passenger car, so the war led to some improbable cars receiving the woodie treatment, including MGs and Bentleys.

Britain’s armed forces had a need for more vans and ambulances, too, and the quickest way of getting them was turning existing saloons into wagons.

The aftermath of the conflict and its resulting steel shortages meant a heyday for the British woodie in the late ’40s and early ’50s.

Classic & Sports Car – The fascinating story of the British woodie

The Lea-Francis 14hp became a favourite for conversion into a shooting brake in the late 1940s, built first by companies including Jensen Motors and the Southern Caravan Company, before work was moved to Lea-Francis’ main body supplier, APA

Many owners simply went to their nearest truck, caravan or bus coachbuilder for these cars, built as one-offs or in small batches, sometimes quite crudely.

Manufacturers got in on the act, too: first Austin with its Countryman series and then Lea-Francis, which, having supplied nearly 500 14hp chassis to coachbuilders for conversion in 1948-’49, took production in-house.

After that, wooden-bodied estates and vans became a significant proportion of the firm’s output – indeed, the final two Lea-Francis cars were both woodies.

The increased prevalence of monocoque chassis began to kill off the woodie by the mid-1950s, however, as it did coachbuilding in general, while low-volume work with both steel and aluminium was becoming cheaper, too.

Classic & Sports Car – The fascinating story of the British woodie

Designed as a car/van hybrid for travelling salesmen, shopkeepers and farmers, the Morris Traveller was the last true production woodie, very much a car of its era

Morris, which was one of the last to join the timber game, would provide a culminating crescendo for the British woodie.

Morris wagons, known as Travellers, were built at Cowley, first the Morris Oxford MO Traveller of 1952 and then, in 1953, the Minor-based Morris Traveller.

The latter would be the first of its type built on a semi-monocoque chassis, with the wooden frame becoming a structural member – something that condemned many Travellers to short lives after the MoT test was introduced in 1960.

More than 250,000 Minor Travellers were built, becoming by far the most popular British woodie and also the last mass-produced example, having outlasted even the US offerings when production ceased in 1971.

Classic & Sports Car – The fascinating story of the British woodie

Evoking US wagons, where faux-wood panelling had become the norm, Ford brought Di-Noc synthetic timber to Britain for the top-spec Consul Cortina Super Estate

The Minor wasn’t the last Traveller, though. The Mini Traveller (and its Austin Countryman clone) of 1960 had similar woodie looks, but by that stage they were purely ornamental – simply wood stuck to the outside of the body.

The Ford Consul Cortina Super Estate took that idea on another step in 1963, with mock-wood panelling stuck to the side of the car as had become the fashion in America, where the spread of monocoque construction had similarly led to the true woodie being largely abandoned.

The ADO16 Traveller/Countryman diluted the concept yet further with an optional faux-wood strip across the side, while the Mini Clubman Estate of 1969-’80 would be the British woodie’s final whimper, with a wood-coloured vinyl sticker available for each flank.

Images: C&SC archive/Rocket City Customs/Bonhams

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