In honor of Woodies on the Wharf June 21, a look back at how surfers saved an American classic
Woodies on the Wharf returns to the Santa Cruz Wharf on June 21, and the 20th anniversary of the annual Santa Cruz gathering—which will feature dozens of the classic cars on display—raises the question: What is it about woodies that inspires devotion? Is it the incongruous combination of chrome and steel with the voluptuousness of hand-shaped, hand-rubbed hardwood? Is it the big, boxy, let’s-all-go-for-a-ride-together accommodation? Or is it that just about every coastal Californian over the age of 40 has a woodie story to share?
Prior to World War I, woodies were the worker bees in America’s metropolises. Primitive, motorized updates of wooden horse-drawn wagons, their assignment was to ferry travelers and luggage between the train stations and the grand hotels. They were originally called depot hacks, but as their popularity spread, they earned a more pleasing, though less imaginative name: station wagon.
The bodies of these early woodie wagons were manufactured by the same companies that built the horse-drawn versions—a simple but critical transition if these manufacturers were to survive in the new century. The bodies were sold as a complete unit to one of a number of companies in a new growth industry: motorized chassis manufacturing. These new companies then went on to assemble and market the completed vehicle.
This use of independent coach-builders became the model for woodie manufacturing in the automobile industry and continued through the end of the woodie era. In the early years, Companies like Mifflinburg, Columbia, York, and Martin-Parry reigned. At one point Martin-Parry, a big supplier to Ford, operated fifty body and body kit assembly plants around the country.
Few of these early coach-builders survived the crash of 1929; but by the end of the Great Depression new companies had emerged to help steer the woodie wagon into what would be its heyday. Companies like Campbell, Cantrell, Ionia, Hercules, and US Body & Forging built bodies for virtually every American brand—with one exception. In the early ’30s, Henry Ford bought half a million acres of hardwood forest in the upper Michigan Peninsula. He opened his own sawmills at Iron Mountain, and by 1936 was producing his own bodies. While other auto manufacturers trumpeted their glamorous models—big Packards, Buick Roadmasters and Chrysler’s over-the-top land yacht, the Town and Country—none of them came close to matching Ford’s sales figures. In 1940, Chevrolet, then the best-selling car in America, offered wagons in two levels of trim: the Master 85 and the Special Deluxe. Combined, Chevrolet sold 2,904 of these wagons. That same year, Ford’s woodie was also available in standard and deluxe trim. Combined, Ford sold over 13,000.
Woodies were always the priciest model in a carmaker’s line. They quickly came to be associated with private estates, country clubs and dude ranches. Showy accessories of gentleman sportsmen, woodies were high-maintenance toys. Like wooden boats, they required stripping and varnishing on a regular basis. An annoying expense for the well-heeled, this upkeep landed on the deferred maintenance lists of the young families that bought second-hand woodies for their roominess.
The 1950s ushered in the era of chrome, fins and tri-colored, sputnik-inspired automobile styling. By the time the 1959 Cadillac was unveiled, no one with any self-respect would be caught dead in a woodie. (“What a crate!” became a popular phrase.) Woodies soon found themselves turned into storage containers, chicken coops, or even kindling.
Things were looking bad for these once-grand, hard working vehicles when, in the early 1960s, a savior appeared. A tribe of saviors would be more accurate. Along the coast, surfing was spreading like the annual wildfires that race ahead of Southern California’s Santa Ana winds. The advent of modern plastics and resins had brought the introduction of lighter, more maneuverable surfboards. Surfing was no longer the exclusive pastime of a handful of hardbodied beach boys. It was now open to any kid with a surfboard and a ride to the beach.
Obviously more fun than going to work, the surf scene was heavily populated by young guys chronically short on cash. Their vehicles had simple criteria to meet: they had to be big enough to haul surfboards, and they had to be cheap. Since motels were out of the question on a surf safari, bonus points were awarded to vehicles that had room enough for a mattress.
It was only a matter of time before surfers discovered woodies. Unlike the rest of the country, California’s climate had been kind to the cars, and many had survived. Available for next to nothing, they soon began appearing around the surf breaks up and down the coast.
In California, the surf and hot rod cultures were never totally independent. There were always guys crossing the fringes of each. It was inevitable that woodies would cross over as well. It didn’t take long to discover that a cherried-out woodie with a hot rod engine made a bitchin’ ride, and today woodies are unique in that they’re one of the few “collector” cars worth more hot-rodded than stock.
But it was the surfers that saved the woodie. They celebrated them in their songs, movies and legends. They made them a treasured icon in California culture, and forever tied them to a lifestyle that’s hang-loose, irreverent, and fun. No wonder we love ‘em.
Woodies on the Wharf will be held on Saturday, June 21, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., on the Santa Cruz Wharf. Free.