Boogie Woodie
Mike Salisbury, 05.13.02

After nearly 40 years you can still feel the sun, smell the sea and hear the reverb of a surf guitar.

I remember the first one I ever saw. It was a green 1949 Ford wagon, and it sat at a gas station across the street from a Denny's on a hot and treeless corner off Midway Drive in San Diego. Leaning against the fenders were two tanned, shirtless guys with straw-colored hair. They both looked like Troy Donahue, cocky and laughing and collecting change from two girls in pigtails and bikinis. It was 1964, summer in Southern California. No one had heard of the Beatles yet; Viet Nam was still spelled as two words. The guys pumped whatever amount of gas that pocket change would buy back in those days. Then, in what seemed like a single, fluid motion, they hopped into the woodie with the girls and headed south on Pacific Drive with the tailgate open and two yellowed surfboards hanging out the back.

For an entire generation woodies were a symbol of rebellion and fun. They were cheap and, like the kids who drove them, they ran on anything. Owning a woodie meant girls and freedom and cool. You turned the key and you were gone, man, anywhere the Pacific Coast Highway took you. As Jan & Dean sang, "I got a '34 wagon and I call it a woodie/You know it's not very cherry, it's an oldie but a goody/Well it ain't got a back seat or a rear window/But it still gets me where I want to go..."

By the time I had my summer epiphany in San Diego, woodies were already in their second incarnation as an American icon. Furniture makers constructed the first of them on truck frames in the late 1920s. The car replaced the horse-drawn vehicles--jitneys or hacks--that had hauled passengers from train depots to hotels. Woodies were, literally, "station wagons," and you'll see them turn up in old movies from that era. (Was there a Gene Autry or Roy Rogers film that didn't feature a woodie wagon?)

For roughly the next 20 years, until the '50s, Ford, Chrysler, Packard and General Motors turned out family wagons adorned with varnished woodwork and high-gloss lacquer. The woodie was the baby boom generation's first SUV, and with grandiose names like the Estate Wagon, the Sportsman, and the Town and Country, they had a way of spinning a slice of suburbia into a country estate.

But they were expensive to produce--440 board feet went into making a woodie by the '40s--and impractical to maintain, and pretty soon they were piling up on used-car lots in Southern California, where surfers bought them cheap and gave them a second life and a new status.

Surfers couldn't afford the '50s models, so they generally bought '40s wrecks, often for a king's ransom of up to $300. Surfer and photographer Tony Friedkin had one. His dad wrote The Pawnbroker and co-created the I Spy TV series. His mother was a showgirl. Tony grew up pure Southland. "Despite sunny weather, woodies required a lot of maintenance," he remembers. "Even termites were a problem, so people basically gave them away. Which was great for us. The car carried longboards and you could throw a bare mattress in the back and sleep in them on surfari." People started calling woodies "bedrooms on wheels."

Randy Nauert bought woodies with the money he earned playing bass for a popular surf band called the Challengers. He and his buddies would fill up the gas tank with cleaning solvent and drive down to Dana Point to surf. Nauert says, "I would park backward at the drive-in and watch the movie with my girlfriend."

Many of those hard-bodied surfers of the '60s are today the jowly granddads you see at the swap meets, longingly eyeing some ol' '48 and remembering smog-free sunshine, clean water, clear waves and...what the hell was her name, anyway?

Today, a final renaissance has come to the woodie--its third incarnation--and the car has never been more popular. With its Honduran mahogany paneling and pastel paint restored, with its chrome and ivory Bakelite fixtures glimmering, the woodie is now one of the most collectible of automobiles. Who would have believed it?

In Southern California, the place to see any style in wood cars is the annual Wavecrest meeting, held every September at Moonlight Beach near San Diego. Trophies are given for Best 1960s Surfing Woodie and Best Hot Rod Woodie. There are big-money restorations and Model A's with rotting wood, Buick Estate Wagons with fewer than 50,000 miles on the odometer and more Town and Country wagons than Pasadena's Rose Parade.

Lovely as these ghosts are, there's nothing that can duplicate your first time. Nearly 40 years ago, on the afternoon when I saw that first woodie in a San Diego gas station, I was just out of USC for the summer, on my way to my part-time job in a suit and tie. What I watched from across the street was a preview of another kind of life, one that was raw and vital, one where a whole world was spread out along the coast waiting to be discovered. It was a moment that changed my life--because that day I quit my job and started surfing. And all because of a car.

Collecting Wood