Often dubbed a rolling work of art, one of the delightful aspects about owning a wood-sided station wagon is nearly each one comes with a story. Here's mine.
With my father at the wheel of his 1949 Ford woodie our family is barreling down the White Horse Pike through the pine barrens to the south Jersey shore. I'm a mere toddler sitting in the back taking in the sights and sounds on our summer vacation to Avalon. Who knew Dad was so cool, piloting a woodie?
The wood-sided station wagon has long been an iconic part of American automotive culture. In their earliest days they were known as depot hacks, bussing guests and luggage from railway stations to an upscale hotel, country estate or dude ranch. Film star Clarke Gable owned several Deluxe models to cruise through the farmland and small ranches of the San Fernando Valley. The Beach Boys and Jan & Dean (the chart-topping "Surf City") sang about woodies evoking memories of sun-splashed beaches and magical summer days.
Check out that woodwork. Clad in perhaps rare bird's-eye maple and framed in white ash, the panels were fitted and mitered with the perfection of a Chippendale highboy. They boasted intricate finger-jointed framing. Basswood created handsome longitudinal roof slats. Polished and lacquered, woodies satisfied the need for stylish transport of people and parcels.
A handful of local woodie owners will be displaying their beauties at the 41st Annual Indian River Region AACA Antique Auto Show Riverside Park on March 18.
"They have got a beautiful, timeless look, when people see one they can't help but smile," says Vero Beach's Bob Carnevale, who owns a head-turning 1948 Chrysler Town & Country. "They are always among the most popular vehicles at antique auto shows. For folks of a certain age woodies bring back a flood of memories."
First produced in the late 1920s, the timber-framed models were often the most expensive vehicles in a carmaker's line. Ford, Chrysler and General Motors mass produced woodie wagons that became the rage after World War II as a comfortable family vehicle perfect for camping and family outings.
However, by 1950 carmakers started phasing them out. Handcrafting the vehicle was complicated and expensive. For the buyers maintaining the wood frames and panels was intensive work. Weather elements wore away at the shimmering exteriors. Dry rot, splintering and water damage-- all took their toll on the wooden bodies. Instead, automakers opted for all-steel construction. The last model to use genuine wood panels was the 1953 Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon.
Woodies enjoyed a resurgence in the 1960s when California surfers latched on to cars wasting away in backyards and garages. They were cheap, tailor-made for toting 10-foot longboards and rambling trips along the coast. Then popularity faded, again. Yet over the past two decades another revival cropped up fueled by a keen interest of baby boomers and car collectors who grew up with them.
Gavin Ruotolo has a fascinating story too. He owns a 1940 Ford woodie that has been in his family since 1953. Ruotolo's brother-in-law owned a Ford dealership in Tewksbury, Massachusetts where he came across the woodie in a trade on a new Ford station wagon. In very good condition, the car had been used to pick up and drop off schoolgirls at a nearby summer camp in Plymouth, Mass.
"We had fun with it at his place in New Hampshire on Lake Winnipesaukee for a couple years but then we had families and other obligations," said Ruotolo, a former real estate developer in New York and New England. "The car went into a garage where it sat for 30 years while we went on with our lives. One day my brother-in-law called out of the blue and told me he was selling the lake house and to come fetch the car. I had totally forgotten about it."
A thick layer of dust and grime hid its original blue paint, but the car was in remarkably good condition. Pests hadn't damaged the genuine leather seats or the factory wiring. Sporting a 221-cubic inch V-8 engine, the woodie had earned another life.
"I put it on a trailer and hauled it to my home in Scarborough, Maine," recalls Ruotolo, who owns 30 classic and exotic automobiles and motorcycles, many housed in Vero Beach. "We put spark plugs and points in it. We drained the oil and replaced the battery and it started up."
Ruotolo had the car re-painted in the year-and-model correct color of Mandarin Maroon in 1983.
"I repaired the faulty tailgate and gave the bird's eye maple a fresh coat of varnish. The wood-- the grain, the coloration-- has a character all of its own. It gets polished every year. It's just a beautiful car-- the subtle curves, the finely crafted wood detail."
The Special Deluxe 1940 Ford has won top awards at Boca Raton's prestigious Concours d'Elegance.
"Just being at the show, I'm a winner," Ruotolo says. "A woodie stands out no matter where you bring it. It's from an era that has been forgotten, a time we'll never see again."
On a sunny December morning I climb into the car in Ruotolo's garage. He turns the ignition key and presses on the floor-mounted starter button. After a few tries the engine slowly turns over. Idling almost silently, off we go. Rolling through Ruotolo's neighborhood we make our way over to the Moorings Yacht & Country Club. Along the way we encounter our share of wide-eyes, waves and phones snapping pictures.
"The cars are so cool, and it's fun to see the smiles and get a thumbs-up from people," Ruotolo relates. "They can be hard to drive, temperamental, no power brakes or steering. But that's also part of the charm. It's given me a lifetime of joy."
Bob Carnevale's car is a showstopper, a 1948 Chrysler Town & Country. It's distinguished by an ash frame, a dazzling "harmonica" grille, bulbous lines, and a unique barrel-back trunk. Back in the day the car appealed to affluent buyers boasting an extra large and more refined cargo area. The paint color is Diplomat Blue that teams up with a luxurious interior of gray broadcloth with maroon leather trim. With its up-market look, the Town & Country was Chrysler’s post-WW II star.
Carnevale purchased the car six years ago for six figures from a dealer in New Jersey. Tracing the car's history, he discovered it was owned by former MBNA banking titan Charlie Cawley.
"When I was a kid a neighbor had one of these and I said someday I'll have one too," remembers Carnevale, 78, who stores a dozen classic cars in his recently built climate-controlled warehouses. "It was in vogue in the 1940s, a status symbol that told the world that you arrived. It turned heads in 1948 as it does today. Aesthetically, it's a beautiful car. It really pops."
If you're in the market for a vintage woodie, Carnevale suggests contacting the National Woodie Club, searching the Hemmings publication or attending the Mechum Kissimmee auction, Barrett Jackson in West Palm Beach, and RM Sothebys at Amelia Island.
"We are not car collectors, we're temporary custodians of automotive history," Carnevale reflects. "They will always be in demand since there are so few of them around. Whether they will hold their prices, I can't really say. I can say you will never see craftmanship like this again."
The 1929 Ford Model A woodie was the first mass produced wood-sided wagon. To accomplish this groundbreaking leap, Henry Ford bought half a million acres of forest where he grew maple, birch, gum and basswood that provided the wood needed to build the vehicles. At its Iron Mountain plant the Ford company cut its own timber, ran its own sawmill, and cut and formed its own wooden body parts.
Growing up in Guilford, Conn. Rich Gagliardi had an eye for woodies, especially the 1929 Ford Model A.
"I always admired those wooden station wagons," observes Gagliardi, 83, who has lived in Vero Beach for 35 years. "I met a fellow from Merritt Island at a car show around 2005. We both had the same goal, let's build a '29 Model A. We acquired steel frames and off we went."
There were no blueprints available and no one in the region owned the vehicle to study so the two men waited to attend car shows and took pictures and measurements.
"Sketched out the Model A little by little," he says. "We made a lot of the steel parts ourselves. Vero's Doug McPherson rebuilt the engine, a four-cylinder with 44 horsepower."
A builder and remodeler who has worked with wood all of his life, Gagliardi relished the challenge. The project involved selecting the right wood – high in quality and properly dried – and custom-shaped each piece. He sourced the wood locally from Sturgis Lumber.
Automotive carpentry can be tricky for even skilled woodworkers: every piece must fit perfectly. Gagliardi shaped the wood himself using tools such as a table saw, jigs, routers and files and fitted each piece together using a mortise and tenon method-- a type of joint that connects two pieces of wood.
"You work on a certain piece one day, and rip it apart the next day if you didn't get it right," Gagliardi relates. "It was piece by piece, slow going."
When the hard birch wood body was completed, Gagliardi applied the first coat of varnish, dried it and sanded it. He re-varnished the woodwork six more times until a uniform coat was achieved. When his four-year odyssey was completed in the summer of 2009, Gagliardi presented the vintage woodie to his wife who was only able to enjoy a few rides before she passed away.
"Rosemary loved the reaction we got from people as we drove along, all those smiles it brought to so many faces," he remembers.
These days Gagliardi hits the back roads a couple of times a month-- the engine purring, the woodworking gleaming. He's still pulling in those waves and broad smiles.
"It was about the challenge of creating something so complex," Gagliardi reflects. "Lots of hard work, plenty of trial and error. Part of the fun was there were a lot of lessons learned. The mystery of it all."