Wooden station wagons, once workhorses. Many created in small numbers because they were ugly. After a half-century of manufacturing, they were halted due to their difficulty in manufacturing and maintenance. Now they are classic beauty, worth more than a home. The first horseless wagon was created by a forgotten craftsman in the late 19th century. A style of an automobile was formed from that basic beginning, and it still influences us over a century later.
In the early 1900s, furniture craftsmen began creating “woodies” as a side business. They’d buy a car without a body and create one out of wood. Resorts employed these specialized trucks to transfer guests to and from railroad stations. Then they weren’t called woodies. They were dubbed “depot hacks“. A “hack” was a horse-drawn wagon.
A Look at Custom Woody Wagons
Some woodies upscaled and became wealthy favorites. They were popular with “country gentlemen” who possessed huge rural estates.
Automakers eventually created their own versions. Ford made the first woodie in 1929. Throughout the 1930s, more manufacturers joined in, albeit with limited success. Chevrolet, the largest vehicle company at the time, introduced its first woodie in 1939. “Depot hacks” had been renamed “station wagons” by then, but the name referred to train stations. No automobile maker ever made money on Woodies. They were practically hand-constructed. Other makers simply purchased the lumber or had outside vendors create the wood bodies.
Woodies were part of the truck line. They were advertised with pickups and delivery trucks. While families may own station wagons, the local handyman is more likely to drive one. Despite the clear advantage for transporting children, family use of station wagons was still years distant.
The whole passenger compartment was composed of wood, including the waterproofed roof. The cars squeaked as the wood joints aged and needed constant refinishing, much like outdoor furniture. With continual care, the wood was susceptible to dampness, discoloration, and rot. It’s simple to suppose that in a significant crash, the woodie’s passenger compartment would splinter and shatter.
Interestingly, all-steel wagons were available during this time period. Chevy had one in the 1930s, the forerunner of today’s Suburban. However, steel wagons were not popular… but their time will come.
Ford dominated wagon production until 1942 when WWII ended all civilian automotive production. During WWII, the military ordered a few woodies in army green or tan. Most, it appears, were exported. Returning GIs started the historic baby boom. The new 1946, 1947, and 1948 cars were merely rebadged in 1942s. This includes vans. After meeting demand, automakers focused on new designs and retooling. This was the end of the wooden car. The 1949 Chevrolet, Pontiac, and Oldsmobile wagons had a woodside stripe and a wooden tailgate. This year’s wood was replaced with a wood grain decal.
Real wood was used in the 1949-51 Ford and Mercury wagons as inserted panels. The wood was defunct. It was a shave The wood was gone when the new 1952 Ford wagon came, replaced by a wood-look substance. Buick offered the only full-production wagon with a real wood exterior in 1953.
The Woodie era has come to an end… But the all-steel station wagon’s popularity was just beginning. Families finally saw their value, and output soared. Chevrolet produced 161,000 wagons in 1955, up from 800 in 1939. Until the 1980s, wagons were the unquestioned family automobile.
By the late 1950s, all old woodies vanished from American streets. They seemed destined to be forgotten relics of a bygone era, gathering in junkyards and abandoned in remote locations. But these amazing automobiles have another chapter to write. This began in the early 1960s. Cheap woodies were great for hauling around the long surfboards of the day.
Despite not intending to do so, surfers saved several woodies’ lives. Surfers didn’t actually rebuild their wagons, they just kept them running. When surfing music came along, bands like the Beach Boys canonized woodies. The link between surfing and woodies was cemented. Surfers and their music gave birth to the word “woodie”.
Woodies were regarded as low-end collector automobiles until the early 1970s. Will O’Neil of Hawthorn, California, founded the National Woodie Club in 1973. Since then, values have increased continuously, to dizzying heights. Today, a woodie can fetch up to $150,000. Even post-war woodies with steel bodies are in demand.
Carmakers have always paid homage to the classic woodies. Even in the 1980s, the top-of-the-line wagons had a wood look, even if it was just adhesive-backed vinyl sheets. Chrysler minivans had “wood” paneling in the 80s. Until the 1990s, Chrysler had a nice line of wood-paneled wagons in their K series.
It’s hard to believe cars were ever built of wood. For half a century, just a small percentage of cars were made of wood. “Hey, that’s a great automobile… when are you going to take it out of the crate?” was a running joke. It wasn’t all fun and games, though.