American Woody Wagon Phenomena

classic woody wagon

There is nothing so American as the classic woody wagon. You have to follow the history of wood bodied cars to figure out why they were so popular. A millenial today probably would look at a woody wagon and ask “why, why, why?” Why did we once build vintage automobiles made with wood bodies? Why were they so popular? And why do collectors pay huge prices for them now? The connection between the wood bodied cars of old, the popularity of the American station wagon and the rise of suburban America are all intricately intertwined. Only in North America could this story have been told.

This week a Canadian collector from Winnipeg, Manitoba listed his 1939 Ford Woody Wagon for sale in the Station Wagon section of the website. The wood bodied station wagon is in such nice restored condition that it was invited to participate in the 2018 Cobble Beach Concours D’Elegance held along the Georgian Bay in Kemble, Ontario. (Follow this link to review the ad description and photos.) The seller says it is one of the nicest all wood bodied wagons in existence.

The 1939 Ford Woody Wagon, a desirable original early V8 Ford, was treated to a professionally nut and bolt, body-off restoration to high quality standards. It is powered by a 221 ci Flathead motor backed by a 3-speed manual transmission with overdrive. The seller says it starts easily and idles smoothly. The transmission shifts with ease and it stops and steers just as it should. The big Ford sedan woody is an 8-passenger car with a new interior, also equipped with a factory radio, factory clock and banjo steering wheel.

A vintage roof rack rides the roofline, while dual spotlights, optional “spider” hubcaps, wide whitewall tires and dual exhaust with chrome tips complete the accessories. The seller says the sheet metal is solid, as is the detailed and painted chassis. The wood fits tightly and has been properly refinished.

classic woody wagon

History of the Woody Wagon

In the early days of the automobile it was common for carriage makers to transition into auto manufacturing. Early on, Ford Model T’s were often converted into what were called “Depot Hacks” or wood carriages built to transport passengers from train depots to hotels. “Send Tom down to the station to pick up our guests,” they might say. And so developed the term “station wagon.”  These wood bodied wagons were custom built to transfer groups of people from one area to another. Over time, manufacturers saw the need for these custom built vehicles and filled that need by manufacturing them. 

Whereas in Europe a station wagon might have been considered a “shooting brake” or a hunting vehicle, here in America the station wagon developed as a vehicle for suburban families. Wood bodied station wagons were a little more expensive than a regular coupe or sedan, so fabricating much of the car out of wood was at first a little less expensive for customizers. But when metal stamping came onto the industrial scene, and metal fabrication evolved, the wood bodied wagon still held their appeal. Only now they were more expensive to build than an all metal car. It was considered a sign of wealth and sophistication to have a woody station wagon. Wealthy rural gentleman might own a woody station wagon as a utility vehicle.  That’s where the trend really became interesting. Throughout the 1930’s and 1940’s, wood bodied station wagons symbolized the growth of suburban family living.

The woody wagon was popular right up into the 1950’s where the trend fizzled out. By the mid-50s it has become too expensive to make the wood panels, so manufacturers were experimenting with plastic materials and faux wood panels. Chevrolet came out with a “tin woody” where they were able to create faux wood panels out of tin.

Woody Wagons and Surf Boards

Soon after World War II woody wagons got a new lease on life out west in California. Surfers would load their boards on top of a big flat topped woody wagon to go to the beach. Used woody wagons were all cheap to buy.  They became synonymous with the surf culture there. That is why today you generally see a surf board atop an old woody wagon when you see them at car shows. In the 1960’s, Hollywood made the surf culture famous with its “Beach Blanket Bingo” movies featuring teen stars Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon. 

From time to time a wood paneled station wagon would appear from an American automobile manufacturer. Chrysler, Ford, Chevrolet, Pontiac, Plymouth, Dodge, AMC and even Honda was still making woody station wagons in the 1980’s. Chrysler came out with a woody Lebaron convertible in those years also. Jeep continued the wood panel look on their Jeep Wagoneer thru the 1990’s.  Chrysler vans and PT Cruisers continued the wood panel look into the next century. 





One Response to American Woody Wagon Phenomena

  1. Will Simmons July 1, 2019 at 8:50 pm #

    Nice article. Lovely car. I have a 1939 Pontiac woodie wagon my mother bought in 1944 when she started to drive. Her first car and only one she ever bought. She met my dad at a cottage prayer meeting at a friends house. He made a date with her, they married and had me to make up our happy little family. Her father took the woodie when he moved the rest of the family to Florida after mom married dad. I can remember playing on it when we’d go down and visit. At the tender age of 13 I got it from my grandfather and brought it home. Dad and I restored it through the years and I still have it today thinking about moving me and it to the beach.

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