This week I stumbled across a used coffee table book at the Goodwill Store. It was nothing special, but the topic interested me. It was a collection of photographs of American cars that were manufactured in the 1940s. I quickly flipped through it with my friend Charlie and he convinced me to spend the $2 to buy it.
1940s cars are not my favorite by any stretch of the imagination. My impressions were formed because the cars I liked best were the tailfinned cars of the 1950s with styling inspired by the space age. The 1940s cars that were on the streets of my childhood were dull, rusty things that resembled upside down bathtubs. The styles appeared pretty much alike. They looked bulky and ugly.
I bought the book because I’m open to having my opinions altered. Maybe I could find something to like about 1940s cars. If the cars still didn’t interest me, at least I gave them a chance, and I could always re-donate the book to the thrift store.
At home I poured a glass of ice tea then settled into my easy chair to study the book with an open mind. I began to note that the cars had some differences. The ones I liked were either the most expensive cars like the Lincolns or the very cheapest ones, like the Crosleys.
The cars that really had the “wow factor” were the “woodie wagons”. I found myself lingering longingly at the photographs of station wagons that were constructed of steel and actual wood. Many of them were stunningly beautiful, some of them were merely mildly attractive, but all of them appealed to my tastes.
On an elementary level, they looked good because I’m a station wagon guy. I’ve owned and loved two station wagons. The fact that station wagons are seldom produced anymore, makes me feel a bit sad. I’d buy an affordable new wagon today, but not a minivan.
There are histories of the station wagon on the Web, so I won’t go into detail about these interesting cars today. Station wagons used to be made out of wood ever since the days of horse-drawn vehicles when they were known as “depot hacks”. With the advent of automotive transportation, some people bought cars without bodies and built or had coach builders build wooden bodies on top of the framework and fenders.
It wasn’t until 1929 that manufacturers, themselves, started selling finished wooden station wagons. That was when Ford introduced their mass production version. The cars were very labor intensive because skilled carpentry was necessary to construct and finish the necessary coachwork. Ford’s station wagons were largely hand built with lumber from their own tract of forest land on “Iron Mountain” in Michigan.
Chevrolet waited until 1939 to produce their own wooden station wagons and then other manufacturers followed suit with their own limited production wagons. These companies purchased wood panels from vendors or had the bodies built by independent coach-makers. Even though all-steel station wagons were already being built, the wooden variety remained the most popular models.
The early station wagons were sold as commercial vehicles as work vehicles. They were mostly used by delivery services or craftsmen to haul work materials. Many were used by taxi companies to carry passengers to and from railway stations. Only rarely did regular families own station wagons.
It wasn’t until after World War Two that wood-bodied wagons became status vehicles. Some of the luxury brands produced sedans and convertibles with some of the coachwork constructed of attractive varnished woods. These cars were beautifully crafted, truly limited edition, expensive vehicles.
It turned out that wood was not a practical or safe material of which to construct a motor vehicle. As the cars aged, the wood became prone to aging, rot, and discoloration. The joints became loose and created creaking and rattling. Plus the wood needed special care and refinishing. Think of a patio deck or wooden lawn chairs left outdoors in the ravages of weather.
The last of the production model wooden cars were built in the late 1940s. The high-end General Motors wagons for 1949 only had strips of wood applied lengthwise to the sides of the steel car bodies. The last brand to sell a factory production station wagon with actual applied wood was Buick on their 1953 top of the line Estate Wagon. From that year, onward, fancy station wagons only featured plastic faux wood detailing.
In less than a century, the wooden station wagon went from a derided, unpopular vehicle to an exclusive, sought after collector’s car. Station wagons that originally sold for several hundred dollars or around a thousand dollars, now command prices of over $150,000 today.