My husband almost bought a Woodie.
It was about 25 years ago. He had a neighbor who had one in storage, and she wanted to get rid of it. All he can recall about it is that it was a 1940-something Dodge and that the wood was badly warped. Even though she was going to give him a great deal on it, he passed. Way too much hassle, he decided.
The hassle of maintaining these cars is one reason people stopped wanting them. They look beautiful, but they can be high-maintenance divas.
Woodies weren’t “Woodies” until some time in the 1950s, I found out. Before then they were just station wagons. Station wagons were a way of transporting people and their luggage from train stations to their final destinations. They were directly descended from horse-drawn express wagons.
Before the 1930s the passenger compartment of a vehicle was normally made of hardwood. A station wagon had the typical wooden body – built by a local carpenter, probably – and was used in a privately-run shuttle service.
The 1923 Star was the first wooden paneled station wagon sold commercially (made by Durant Motors). But the Ford Motor Company sold more wood-bodied cars than any other manufacturer, according to Art Daily, building its own bodies in a plant in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Ford Motor Company was vertically integrated; the wood – kiln-dried maple and ash framing, with mahogany panels – was harvested from the company’s expansive Iron Mountain first-growth timber tracts.
It was harvested, kiln-dried, and aged, all in one facility. Skilled craftsmen hand-built, assembled, and trimmed each car’s wooden body as they would fine furniture. Then it was shipped to a local Ford assembly plant to be mated to its engine and chassis.
General Motors didn’t sell as many wood-bodied wagons as Ford. Since it wouldn’t have been efficient for GM to produce the cars in small numbers, says Art Daily, a few respected suppliers hand-crafted Chevrolet, Olds, Pontiac, and Buick woodies. Packard, De Soto, and Nash also offered wood-bodied wagons.
Chrysler came out with its Town & Country wood-bodied wagon in 1941 and eventually began making wood-bodied 4-door sedans and convertibles. The Town & Country, with an all-steel roof and a white ash and mahogany body, is designated a Classic. People really want to see them. And get their hands on them.
Wood-bodied cars were undoubtedly complex and expensive to build and required special care.
Many pieces were made of rare bird’s-eye maple, resplendent with natural whorls and unique flowing patterns. Woodies were beautiful, but they were weather-sensitive and subject to an early demise. Manufacturers issued instructions with each wood-bodied car that instructed owners how to sand and re-varnish the body every year. No one would tolerate that frequency of maintenance today, but it was a different era.
And Woodies were fragile. A fender-bender that’d simply dent a metal car body could reduce a hapless Woodie to matchsticks. Brutal Northeast winters meant that these were essentially three-season cars, at best.
People who restore Woodies say that most of the ones they see are in bad condition. They commonly see both dry rot and termites. Eric Johnson, who rebuilds these cars, spoke to John Katz of Hot Rod and Restoration about the difficulty of restoring original wood.
I’d love to have a car with original wood. I’d love to keep it all original. But when you start taking an old wooden body apart, it’s like opening a can of worms. You may have seen only a few rotted areas when it was all together. But when you take it apart you’ll find tenons that are rotted out from where water got into it.
He says that sometimes you have to build a whole new reproduction body – something Rick Mack specializes in. He estimates that less than 1 percent of Woodies have good, original wood. He builds about a dozen woodsets a year and ships them all over North America. As Jeff Layton describes it:
The process is meticulous and time-consuming. There can be upwards of 64 wood pieces on a vehicle. Very few are straight or square; most bend in two directions, and some have a twist.
Mack uses a hand-crank press to laminate and shape replacement wood. He then uses jigs, patterns, and templates to dictate where to drill holes, round corners, and router interlocking pieces.
Pieces are accurate to the originals within 1/64th of an inch, he says. (Once varnished and installed, even judges at car shows can’t tell if the wood is original.)
Because many woodies were kept in storage during winter months, some of them can be found in pretty good condition. But to a lot of owners, proper maintenance was not a priority. Manufacturers understood this. Some people say that the last great year for the Woodie was 1949. Postwar auto production made handcrafting complicated and maintenance-intensive wood frames and panels hard to justify, according to David Traver Adolphus.
During the 1950s, car design, along with the tastes of people who drove cars, underwent radical changes, he says, and woodies fell from favor. The Chrysler Town & Country was discontinued in 1951. The 1953 Buick wagons were the last of the real woodies from a major American manufacturer.
Rick Mack drives a 1950 Ford Woodie wagon, even though it’s not a great idea in the Pacific Northwest. “Driving in the rain can make the wood swell,” he confesses to Layton.
But he drives it anyway. He loves Woodie wagons.