Article by Mark Trotta
Wood-bodied station wagons, affectionately known as Woodies, may be gone, but are certainly not forgotten. Woodie wagons were first popular in affluent American communities, and were often found at hotels, country clubs, and national parks. Featuring hand-crafted strips of birch and mahogany on both interior and exterior panels, wood-bodied wagons were priced higher than regular models.
Woodie Wagons History (1928-1953)
At the start of the 20th century, most every form of transport was made of wood, including boats, planes, and horse-drawn carriages. When the automobile arrived, many early examples were wood-bodied.
Steel-stamping techniques slowly improved, and car manufacturers gradually replaced hardwood with steel. Designers, however, continued to use wood for styling. Steel improved body strength and durability, but car owners liked the look and charm of wood.
Ford Woodie Wagons
In June 1920, Henry Ford bought over 400,000 acres in the Michigan's Iron Mountain forest as a source for lumber. While most other car makers had outside vendors manufacture their wood bodies, Ford's huge track of forest gave them nearly unlimited lumber for their wood bodied cars, trucks, and wagons. Although located in the village of Kingsford, it was always referred to as the Iron Mountain plant. Today, the facility is a county-owned, public airport.
Outsourcing to Coach Builders
In addition to Ford and Mercury, most American car companies, including General Motors, Chrysler, and Nash, offered wood-bodied wagons during the 1930s and 1940s. One of the major outside vendors to manufacture wood bodies was Hercules Body Company of Evansville, Indiana.
The Hercules Company began in 1912, building body kits that converted Ford Model-T roadsters into pickup trucks. They were called upon by other car manufacturers, including Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Dodge.
Another major outfitter of wood-bodied wagons was Ionia Manufacturing Company in Ionia, Michigan, who built many station wagon bodies for General Motors. Although Pontiac and Chevrolet turned to all-metal wagons in 1949, Ionia continued to produce all 12,791 Buick Woodie wagons from 1949-1953.
The assembly of each wood-bodied wagon usually required over 150 sizes and shapes of wood, from strips several feet long to tiny framing blocks. The bodies also required hundreds of different parts from hardware to safety glass. Wood-bodied wagons weighed an additional 200-300 pounds heavier than their all-steel counterparts.
After the wood body was finished, it was cleaned and sent to the varnishing booth. After the first coat of varnish was dried, it was sanded and re-varnished several times until a uniform coat was achieved. After drying, the body was lightly sanded and a final coating of varnish was applied. From there, it went on to the trim line for interior fittings, minor electrical work and the installation of the seats.
1940 Packard Woodie Wagon
Before World War Two, the Packard Motor Car Company built some of America's finest luxury cars, featuring hand assembly and traditional craftsmanship. In 1940, Packard offered two Woody Wagons; the One-Ten series, and the longer One-Twenty series. The latter models were powered by Packard's 356ci "straight-eight" engine.
Both the Packard One-Ten and the One-Twenty wagons featured ash frames and birch panels, with a mahogany-paneled version available at extra cost. Either model could carry eight passengers, but the eight-cylinder One-Twenty offered more comfort with an extra five-inches of rear-seat legroom. 1940 was Packard's first year for the column-shift transmission on the One-Twenty series. It was also the last year for free-standing headlamps.
Post WW2 Woodies
Woodies weren't very profitable for car manufacturers. They were labor intensive to produce and hand-assembled. In 1947, Chevrolet's eight-passenger wood-bodied wagon continued to be their most expensive, and least popular model. A total of 4,912 were built that year. By 1951, the Woody wagon would be gone from Chevy's line-up.
Last Of The Wood-Bodied Wagons
Ford woody wagons up to 1948 were all wood from the cowl back, with the exception of the rear fenders. On 1949 to 1951 models, real wood attached to the steel body on the doors, sides and tailgate. Starting in 1952, all Ford station wagons were steel-bodied.
Late in 1950, the mahogany paneling on Ford wagons was replaced with Di-Noc plastic vinyl sheeting bonded to steel panels. Chrysler had been using this trimming idea on their Town and Country models since 1948. Chrysler ultimately stopped using Di-Noc and converted over to body color panels and wood framing in mid-1949.
The last wood-body Pontiac was the 1949 Streamliner Wagon. Approximately 1,000 were built. Plymouth discontinued their Woodie station wagon in 1950.
Buick's 1953 Super Estate and 1953 Roadmaster Estate Wagons were the last production American station wagons to have real wood construction. By the mid-fifties, car manufacturers produced steel bodies only, due to their durability and lower cost.
As Woodies became older and more affordable, they passed into the hands of younger drivers, most notably surfers on the America's West coast. Along with the language, clothes, and music, the Woodie Wagon became a part of 1960s California surf culture.
Maintenance of Wood-Bodied Cars
Old Woodies require considerable more maintenance than conventional steel-bodied wagons. They needed to be washed more frequently, and protected against rain, road grime, and road salt. Weather-worn panels need replacement, and nuts and bolts holding them onto the car's body need to be gone over periodically.
Woodie Wagons as Investments
Once thought to be a mere curiosity vehicle, old Woodies have risen steadily in value through the decades. Finding any wood-bodied car with it's original wood still intact is rare. It is not uncommon for a clean example Wood-bodied station wagon sell for $50k or more.
Read: Investing In Classic Cars
If you're looking to buy a Woodie Wagon, you'll find many more Ford Woodies than any other make, and very few Chevy Woodies. Although the pre-war models command the highest prices, post-war Woodie values have been rising.
National Woodie Club
The National Woodie Club was formed so that Woodie owners and enthusiasts can exchange information and share experiences with other members. As of this writing they have 18 chapters across America. Their monthly magazine is called the Woodie Times.
Pictures courtesy of NashNut.com