The history of the "woodie".
Whenever you have the pleasure to see one at a car show, museum, or simply driving down the road, you are transported to a place where the wet sand squishes between your toes and the sun always shines brighter. You can almost hear the first few notes of California Girls and smell the salt from the ocean in the air. I am, of course, talking about the 1960’s surf culture icon…the Woodie.
The Woodie had a meager genesis in the rail systems of the United States and the United Kingdom. The wagons were used to transport people and luggage between the stations and other points. These “station wagons” consisted of the front and chassis of a production automobile along with a custom wooden body. This combination kept the cost of the vehicles to a minimum versus an all-steel version.
As the station wagon moved from a commercial automobile to a family vehicle, most manufacturers chose not to build the wooden shells in-house, but contracted them out to various third-party woodcrafters. J.T. Cantrell & Co. and Campbell Mid-State were two of the larger companies that crafted the bodies, which were usually created from basswood. The outer shell was made of ash cross members with 1/4” panels of waterproof Philippine mahogany.
Through the Depression years of the 1930’s, the Woodie remained popular because of its economically sound price-point, and hit the height of its pre-60’s popularity just before 1940.
World War II brought about more reason to keep the Woodie as a viable production vehicle. The all-wood body saved on the amount of steel used in family cars, which in turn left more available for the war effort.
The post-war economy soared, and most Americans decided they could afford the safer, all-metal automobiles. It seemed that the Woodie was headed for the scrap yard.
Reemergence of the Woodie
The same reasons for which the Woodie was originally intended was the basis for its resurgent climb to popularity. By the time the 1960’s rolled around, the average Woodie was over 10 years old and had lost its appeal to most of America’s car buyers.
The surfer culture saved the Woodie when it found a vehicle that was inexpensive, but capable of carrying vast amounts of people and equipment. Plus, the Woodie was easily repairable by a normal carpentry skill set. Instead of carrying passengers and luggage to and from train stations, the spacious Woodie now toted surfers, surfer girls, surf boards, food, and whatever else the California teen needed to have a groovy beach party.
The scene caught on to the rest of the country through movies such as Gidget, Beach Blanket Bingo, and Where the Boys Are, and through music by The Beach Boys and Jan and Dean with songs like Surfin’ Safari, Surf City, and Boogie Woodie, all of which referenced the Woodie. Woodies became staples at the local beaches for over a decade.
Unfortunately, The Woodie has been relegated to the status of collector car. It has now been 13 years since a wood grain exterior last appeared on a 1996 Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon, the last production car to have such a feature. The hominess and character of wood-paneled automobiles has been tossed aside in favor of the more sleek and flashy style of today’s soulless cars.
The spirit of the Woodie-look is carried on in aftermarket kits for retro-looking vehicles such as the Chevrolet Chevy HHR, Chrysler PT Cruiser, and the new Volkswagon Beetle.
The spirit is also in the heart of every enthusiast who restores one of these classic icons back to their former beauty, allowing them drive down to the beach, watch the sunset, and listen to Good Vibrations with their surfer girl.
By Richard Howk