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
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.
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."
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?
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
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
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.