American car manufacturers have had a longstanding love affair with “Woodies” – cars accented with wood paneling – but how and why did it start? Think back to the days of horse-drawn carriages. These “cars” were made of wood. As automobiles were developed, the passenger compartment was often made of wood or framed in wood, in part because wood was less expensive than steel. Even when the price of steel dropped, wood paneling remained a popular aesthetic choice.
By the late 1940s, things were starting to change. Wood was pricey at this point; real wood paneling was prone to rotting and splintering, and while people liked the way it looked, it served no real purpose. Buick was the final holdout, offering real wood paneling on two of its 1953 station wagons. Then, faux-wood paneling made of vinyl or plastic came into vogue, remaining somewhat popular until the 1990s.
The beautiful woody shown here is one of our favorite examples of the genre. With elegantly arched clamshell doors in the rear, a wooden slat roof rack, a sliding rear seat, a middle seat that folded out for extra passengers, and of course, that gorgeous two-tone wood, the ’42 Town and Country was ahead of its time.
In the ‘60s, aging woody wagons experienced a renaissance as they became the vehicle of choice for surfers, for several good reasons. While they were old and the wood paneling was probably rotting off, they were roomy enough to fit a bunch of longboards and plenty of surfing buddies, they could be snapped up dirt cheap, and they provided reliable transportation to that favorite surf break. Just check out the lyrics to the Jan & Dean’s 1963 hit “Surfin’ Safari” (co-written by Beach Boy Brian Wilson):
I bought a ‘34 wagon and we call it a woody (Surf City, here we come)
You know it’s not very cherry, it’s an oldie but a goody (Surf City, here we come)
Well, it ain’t got a back seat or a rear window
But it still gets me where I wanna go
Even recently, carmakers have continued to flirt with wood paneling, though in more subtle ways. The Ford Flex, introduced in 2008, features side- and rear-panel grooves meant to invoke wood trim. According to Car Design News, the car’s aesthetic is “notable for referencing a previous era without resorting to obvious styling cues.” It’ll be interesting to see where carmakers’ obsession with faux-wood paneling takes us next.
Photo by Joe Ross