Milpitas Camera Club Field Trip
Field Trip: Woodies on the Wharf
Trip Date: June 24, 2006
Report Author: Scott Hinrichs
Report Date: July 19, 2006

In search of the elusive woodie

Three persons squeezed into Dave’s brand new Toyota SUV to go see a gathering of his vehicle’s elder cousins, a group of old woodies. Held at the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf, the Woodies on the Wharf event occurred the weekend of June 24 and 25.  Why go see the woodies and not a gathering of Bugatis or Rollses or Beemers? Hell, Maynard, you can’t get any funkier than the woodie—it has a kitsch-factor few other vehicles can deliver. And this just sounded like a fun event.

Perhaps it was the funk factor or the cheap prices for used woodies that permanently bonded this vehicle with its human water-borne host known as the surfer. And it was the surf culture that lent the woodie its cachet as a desirable set of wheels for wild-haired young rebels. Every third adolescent boy on the West Coast wanted to drive a woodie down the P.C.H. or on the red clay back roads of the Hawaiian Islands to find that cove where the towering waves came crashing down and the place where all the hottest bikinis gathered.

Well, we certainly saw an abundance of the wood-clad vehicles—Fords, Oldsmobiles, Packards—even a hot-pink-and-white Studebaker dressed up for a beach party. There was, however, a conspicuous lack of surfers; only some old boards lashed to a few roof racks. As for the bikinis, well, they were all on the distant beachs with their minds on anything but a parking lot full of musty old Fords! 

This particular event is one of those types of gatherings that I like to refer to as a “foamers’ convention.” What’s a foamer? you ask. Well, they are those guys in the engineers’ hats you avoid at model railroad shows, or those folks you see crawling all over the tracks when an antique locomotive rolls through town or the guys who dress up like their favorite Star Trek characters—or… (God forbid!) …some of our very own ilk who attend camera shows! The proverbial “foamer” is supposed to be into his particular distraction so much that he begins to foam at the mouth. (By the way, never chat with a foamer unless you have cleared your schedule for the rest of the day.)

Getting back to the point, we saw more woodies than we cared to; then we caught a bite of lunch near the Boardwalk and headed back home in a regular metal-bodied vehicle.

The Woodies on the Wharf event was in its eleventh year and attracted a pretty sizeable crowd. Car owners had to meet two basic requirements to show their cars. First, each owner had to drive the vehicle there under its own power, and the body had to have actual wood components—not those plastic, simulated wood appliqués one sees on cars built in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. If you were driving such a “fake” woodie you wouldn’t be allowed through the gate.

After the woodie show was over I did a little surfing, I surfed to various woodie websites (among them, seeking the intriguing saga of the woodie—and some of the oddities I found caused me to chuckle a bit. To follow is a strange summary of the royal bloodline of the woodie:  Early woodie history: Woodie historians go as far as saying that the early roots of the woodie station wagon lie in ancient China and in seventeenth-century Holland. The Chinese built wind-powered wagons and chariots outfitted with sails. And the post-medeival Dutch had a four-wheeled land-boat that could average about 20-plus miles per hour and carry as many as twenty persons. It was apparently a regularly used conveyance at the time. A couple of centuries later in America, an inventor developed a boat with wheels powered by a steam engine, the Oruckter Amphibolis, the first amphibious vehicle on record. Was this the American proto-woodie—the missing link of the woodie family? Well, I’ll leave that for you to decide.

The woodie of modernity: A less outlandish and more logical theory about the origin of the woodie was that its precursor was a run-of-the-mill horse-drawn carriage. Woodie historians name a particular type of carriage as the great granddaddy of the modern woodie, the Curtain Rockaway carriage, which had an external wooden framework and roll-up curtains (which could be found on woodie automobiles as late as the 1930s). Regardless of whether all that historic succotash is valid, the woodie car body was probably a logical progression from the carriage-making trade. Wood was the material of choice in the nineteenth century before it was replaced by metal. By the late ‘30s it seemed that steel automobile bodies were in for good.

World War II probably was the greatest reason for postponing the extinction of structural wood used in auto bodies.  Suddenly steel and other metals became strategic materials and were thus in short supply. Automakers returned to wooden automobile body construction until the war ended in 1945; then regular automobile production began to normalize after 1946. Apparently some automobile buyers liked the wood-paneled look because the big three automakers continued production of wood-paneled cars up through the 1950s. For a while, the wood-paneled station wagon was the vehicle of choice for young postwar families—basically the woodie was the SUV of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. The popularity of the woodie eventually slumped in the mid ‘50s because owners were not willing to provide the needed maintenance to keep the wood presentable. As a result, used car lots were filled with weatherworn woodies. By the ‘60s, 70’s and 80’s the wood in the woodie became simulated wood grain plastic appliqués affixed to the steel bodies of cars. Superficial decor with zero maintenance.

You may ask, why did surfers embrace the woodie? Well, I’ll just quote a passage from the history of the Woodie website: “By the late fifties and sixties, used car dealers had plenty of cheap, poorly maintained wood-clad cars. Surfers found these bargains perfect for hauling their long boards in search of the perfect wave. A sub-culture and a car became legend.”

And there you go: The history of the woodie. Hang loose, brau!

© 2006 S.R. Hinrichs