(In May I accidently published a half written rough draft of this article. For middle-aged CC contributors, Premature Publication is real and it’s treatable. I’ve since finished and substantially re-written it so it should hopefully still be interesting even if you saw it previously) I’ve long been a Long Roof guy. My first car was a Wagoneer and since then tailgates, fold-down seats, and vehicles with the flexibility of a limbo champion have figured large in my life. As a car lover touring the Arizona classic car auctions in January, there were lots of vehicles I delighted in seeing yet nothing could make me stop and gawk faster than a good station wagon. Wagons are a small minority there, naturally, but they were well represented by some fantastic examples, 17 of which I’ll show here between today and part II tomorrow.
As in the previous articles in this series, it should be easy to skim through and pick and choose, take or leave my commentary, click on the auction house links, basically whatever level of involvement these cars inspire in you. Have fun! I did.
Looking through my photos, I realized the wagons (found mostly at Barrett-Jackson) represent a pretty good overview of station wagon history. So this will be partly an auction review and partly a history tour. Let me be your unofficial docent as we look at wagon history through some beautiful former work horses in their restored, or in some cases surprisingly original, glory.
1937 Ford Model 78 Station Wagon Ford was the originator of factory station wagons in 1929 and had the market to themselves for much of the 30s. 1937 was a unique year for front end styling and a favorite of Ford aficionados. The combination of tear drop headlights and wood bodywork are tough to resist.
Even more special is the originality of this example. The seller states that the vinyl top is original and the paint and wood are “mostly” original. The grayish tan color is quite distinctive and interesting. 1937 was the first year for optional glass windows all around, with standard canvas/plastic flaps the norm up until then.
The interior is original, too, including upholstery
If you’ve never heard the backstory, in the teens and twenties a number of companies would build a custom wood body onto a car or truck chassis designed to easily cart large amounts of people and luggage to and from the train station. A wagon for the station, or a Station Wagon (a.k.a Depot Hack). Ford just figured why let somebody else sell these when we can sell them ourselves?
Ford initially contracted with outside firms to do the bodywork, but gradually moved the operation in-house until late 1936 when the wagons were fully Ford-made including harvesting and milling wood from Ford’s own Iron Mountain forest in U.P. Michigan. When other brands added station wagons to their lines in the 30s and 40s, they mostly had contractors do the woodwork.
1940 Oldsmobile Series 60 Station Wagon. Have you ever seen a 1940 Oldsmobile wagon in person? I’m pretty sure I never had. It’s the first year Olds sold a wagon and they only made 633. How many survived? Word on the street is maybe 4 (according to this article. Could that be the same car?). The seller states this was a one family car in reportedly excellent condition until 6 years ago when it was purchased and restomodded.
Most marques added factory woodys in the late 30s and early 40s leading up to WWII. Of course, that came to an abrupt stop as car production switched to war materiel. Woody tanks turned out to be a non-starter.
The original six cylinder engine is long gone from the car. With a crate Chevy 350 Vortec, coilover suspension front and rear, power steering and brakes, air conditioning and even a full modern stereo system, this woody is said to drive as much like a modern car as a woody can. If that’s what you want in a woody, this is the car for you. It’s a tasteful, high-quality hotrod. I can’t help but be a little torn about it, though. Hotrodding a rust-free, mostly original car which may be one of as few as four extant? If it was a relatively common Ford, no problem. A 40 Olds? Seems sacrilegious somehow.
Here’s the money shot. Nothing is as sexy to a wagon lover as a wood roof! $51,700
1946 Ford Super Deluxe Station Wagon. Of the full-wood-body wagon era, 46-48 Fords had the highest production and are relatively common today. Happily, they are great looking wagons and have the most refined wood bodywork of the era. Notice the slight convex curve of doors, the jut out over the running board area, the less steep slope at the front of the vinyl roof going down to meet the windshield, the roll down rear windows. Ford also, starting in 1939, nailed the ideal woody look with dark mahogany panels surrounded by lighter maple or birch structural pieces for their Deluxe models.
Once again, this wagon is billed as unrestored in “mostly” original condition. Anyone who’s had wood patio furniture or deck has an idea how fragile wood bodywork must be and how remarkable that preservation is. All these original woodys had to have had exceptionally good storage and care their entire lives to not have suffered wood rot over the last 70 or 80 years. That’s even more of an accomplishment than the corresponding original paint and rust free bodies, which would be remarkable enough on any other car.
Wood roofs don’t get any more handsome. The beautiful contrast between light and dark colored wood continued on the interior side panels. $44,000
1949 Mercury Eight Station Wagon. Lest you think every woody is original, this Merc represents the actual majority in the world by being restored. Though not a true full woody, the 49-51 Ford/Mercury are the most unique, and arguably the most beautiful, woody wagons made.
It’s questionable whether the two door configuration helped the functionality but it sure did help the styling. I’ve never been a fan of the 49-50 Ford front end styling, but the Merc (which shared the junior Lincoln’s body shell and basic styling) is dope in my book. The Mercury’s longer wheelbase, simple grille, and just enough traditional front fender trailing back into the gorgeous wood bodywork are enough to make my legs wobble. I’d better stand back or I’ll be tempted to use the car to support myself!
I always wondered why Ford went with a two-door design for these wagons and I finally tracked down the answer in Collectible Automobile. The woody wagons, unsurprisingly, had never been a money maker, so Ford wanted their new model to make money, or at least lose less. They also wanted to shore up the creaky, loose bodies associated with station wagons. Two doors are cheaper than four to make, and also more structurally sound, so two wide doors was their answer.
Of course, the biggest contributor to the new car’s bodily rigidity was the steel underbody. Outer panels were a thin veneer, while frame pieces were pressure-formed laminates, all fitted over a steel structure with a steel roof.
The door panels are gorgeous but I can’t say the inside is as beautiful as the outside. It’s kind of a mess of colors. I count three shades of woodgrain, real and painted, plus a tan steering column, white steering wheel, black floor and green upholstery. The original green leather was said to have been retained in the restoration. $59,400
1951 Chevrolet Deluxe Styline Wagon. GM’s approach to the transition to steel bodies differed by division. When Chevy came out with their new 1949 model, they offered both wood/steel (like the Buick below, similar in concept to the 49-51 Ford) and all-steel versions. That only lasted one year, after which only the all-steel version was sold. However, the all-steel Chevy was the most thorough facsimile of a woody wagon that would ever be made.
GM used a photo transfer process to impart a convincing birch and mahogany look. Only the perfect smoothness and glossiness gives it away.
Framing on the door sills and laminate paneling on the doors are actual wood. Dash is photo-woodgrain. Upholstery has been redone in a non-original style. $23,000
1951 Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon There’s an otherworldly, dreamy quality to this car. Like it’s hard to wrap your head around the idea there was a brief time when they actually sold cars that looked like this. My gosh, the curves! The massive toothy grille and bumper! The looong hood! This car pushed a lot of buttons for me: Buick wagon, check. Real wood, check. Dark green over wood, check. Original condition, check.
The many imperfections are made up for by the originality, though the seller doesn’t explicitly state that the exterior is original. Sure looks like it to me. He states it was originally exported to southern France. Classy. And it must have really seemed otherworldly to postwar Frenchmen.
Representing GM’s transitional wood wagons, the body structure was steel and the wood components were only there because that’s what high-end wagon buyers expected. Really, wooden pieces were not necessary at all and accordingly real wood would disappear on other GM wagons in this generation. Buick never offered fake wood and held the line with real wood through 1953, the last woody in America.
Interior is likewise beautiful and classy. The seller does state the interior is original. I like the 50’s or 60’s vintage aftermarket radio.
The roof isn’t as sexy, but the tailgate is! $38,500
If you prefer a restored car, there was also a 1951 Buick Super Estate Wagon, with 5 in shorter wheelbase and smaller engine, that sold for $46,200
1953 Mercury Monterey Station Wagon. Termite interest in Ford’s wagons took a major drop in 1952. Industrywide, wagon bodies were mostly all steel now. The last stage in Ford’s transition was 52-54, when Ford optionally and Mercury standard came with woodgrain Di-Noc for the panels and A-D Pillars, with real birch or maple framing on the lower body. The wagons were undoubtedly cheaper to produce, but the prices remained the same. That’s what auto executives call a Win-Win Situation!
FoMoCo was alone for the next 10+ years in promulgating a wood look in their wagons. The appearance was still striking but the ownership experience no longer required much extra maintenance or structural sacrifices. In 1954, Ford’s “woodys” changed the real wood framing to fiberglass. After the 1954 Chevy/Pontiac. GM dropped any wood look on their wagons until the late 60s.
Accessing the rear seat(s) was easier too, since Ford/Mercury reverted to the offering the obviously more practical 4-door configuration for 1952. Ford did still have 2-door wagons, as did others, which I will hit in part II tomorrow.
It was stated this car received a top quality restoration and has won awards.
Those heads sure are flat! 1953 was the last year for the Flathead V8, making 125hp from 255.4c.i. in Mercurys. The “Y-block” OHV V8 would be standard in 1954 in all Mercurys and optional in Fords.
This Merc brought the highest price of any wagon automobile at B-J, including the real woodys. $64,900
Tune in tomorrow for Part II, where there will be more wagons but less wood.
For further reading:
Auction Classic: Wagons, Independents and Freaks in Scottsdale 2018 Wagons I found on my last trip to Scottsdale. There weren’t as many, but there are some choice longroofs including 1938 Ford, 1956 Plymouth, 1957 Oldsmobile Fiesta, and 1961 Chevy Nomad.
Auction Classic: Barrett-Jackson 2010 This one covered a small selection of great 50s and 60s cars including three sweet wagons: 1954 Ford Country Squire, 1958 Chevy Brookwood, 1960 Pontiac Catalina Safari.