Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The History of Woodie (or Woody) Station Wagons

In their day, wooden bodied station wagons were work horses. Considered unattractive and strictly utilitarian, they were produced in low numbers. Then after a half century of production, they were gone, discontinued, largely because they were so difficult to manufacture and maintain. Yet today, they can sell for more than a house and are considered classic beauties.

Sometime in the late 19th century, a forgotten mechanic fastened a primitive engine to a horse drawn wagon creating the first horseless wagon. The details have been lost to history but from that humble beginning, a style of automobile was born, one that still exercises influence upon us over 100 years later.

Just into the 20th century, furniture makers began making "woodies" as a sideline to their businesses. They would purchase an automobile without a body, and build a body from wood. These custom vehicles were often set up like small buses and were commonly used by resorts to transport guest to and from railroad depots. They weren’t called woodies back then. Rather, they were known as "depot hacks". In the horse-drawn days, a "hack" was a wagon.

Some woodies went upscale and became favorites of the wealthy. Sometimes referred to as estate cars, they would gain popularity with "county gentlemen" who owned large rural estates.

Eventually auto manufacturers began producing their own versions. Ford introduced the first production woodie in 1929. Throughout the 30’s most other manufacturers joined in, usually with very limited success, Some lesser known car makers only produced a prototype or two. The largest car compamy at the time, Chevrolet, waited until 1939 before they introduced their first woodie.

By then the vehicles had become known as "station wagons", a variation of the earlier name "depot hack", but was still a reference to train stations.

Woodies were never a profitable item for car makers. They were extremely labor intensive to produce; literally hand assembled. Ford bought a track of forest known as Iron Mountain in Michigan as a source for lumber, other makers simply purchased the lumber, or more often, had outside vendors manufacture the wood bodies.

Woodies were considered commercial vehicles; part of the truck line. They were advertised with pickups, delivery vehicles and other commercial workhorses. While families might occasionally end up owning station wagons, you’d be more likely to see the local handyman driving one. Despite the obvious advantage for transporting kids, use of station wagons for family transportation was still years away.

With the passenger compartment being made completely of wood (including the roof which was covered with a waterproofed fabric), there were plenty of drawbacks. The cars tended to squeak as the wood joints aged and the wood needed constant refinishing much like a piece of furniture left outside. Despite constant care and attention, the wood was prone to moisture damage, discoloration and rot. And while no one ever performed any safety studies on woodies, it is easy to assume in a serious crash, the passenger compartment would splinter and break apart.

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