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Woodie club holds first national meet in Dearborn

Quirky, wood-bodied wagons find favor with collectors, beach bums and street rodders

Jenny King
Special to The Detroit News

Dearborn — It took members of the National Woodie Club no fewer than 43 years to hold their first national meet.

There was no particular reason for the delay; it just worked out that way, said Bill Sampson of Malibu, Calif., president of the 2,700-member club.

Woodies — vehicles with solid wood bodies — were built largely between the mid-teens to the early 1950s. Hard to find and expensive to restore and maintain, they are special-interest vehicles among enthusiasts. “It’s like a disease,” Sampson quipped.

And after discussing various venues for the gathering, including Iron Mountain, Mich., where Ford Motor Co. had wood bodies fastened to Ford chassis for three decades, members settled on Ford Park in Dearborn, just outside the Motor City.

That was good for woodie owners Dorothy and Jim Bartish, who could drive their green 1948 Chevrolet Fleetmaster the 55 miles from Toledo.

Enthusiasts coming from California, Georgia, Tennessee and Indiana chose to trailer their wood-bodied prizes, probably wanting to avoid both damage from highway debris as well as any handling issues typical of heavy, older vehicles with original suspensions.

The Bartishes are an exception. They like to travel in — not in front of — their Fleetmaster.

“We have driven our woodie to Minnesota, Maine and North Carolina,” said Dorothy Bartish. Its top safe speed is 50 miles an hour, she added.

“We first saw this car at a balloon event in Defiance (Ohio),” said Bartish. Smitten then and there, she announced to her husband Jim, “That car is for sale.”

The Bartishes bought the Chevy in 1983. It has had lots of work, most recently new roof skin which the installer — a furniture upholsterer — found difficult to stretch across, fit and attach.

Automakers who produced and sold woodies — and almost every one got into the act prior to the early 1950s — often suggested the wood be varnished on a regular basis.

That might have worked for the owner of a luxury-level Pierce-Arrow with wood body who had a caretaker. But it was hardly practical for car-buying veterans returning from service in World War II with little time or money for extensive upkeep, said Sampson. Thus surviving woodie vehicles did not fare well, and those that did needed almost total makeovers.

Garry Wood and his son, Brian, can attest to that. They found their unusual 1949 Dodge woodie in a barn in 2013. Once a military vehicle posted in New Mexico, it had been in storage for more than four decades.

“We used a cabinet maker in Rockford, Ill. whose hobby was restoring cars like this,” said Garry Wood. “He was even able to re-create the top half of the tailgate — the only piece of the wood body that was missing.”

The Woods did the mechanicals on the Dodge pickup, the chassis used by Dodge for woodies built between 1948 and 1950.

They replaced three fenders and found a restored six-cylinder engine. The woodie has a four-speed manual transmission.

They brought it back to life in four years. “Twenty days ago it wasn’t quite finished,” said Brian, who was determined to complete the job so he and his father could attend the 2017 meet at the end of September.

Buick is credited with building the last true woodie offered by a major automaker: a 1953 V-8 Estate station wagon. Dick and Joyce Thams of Grosse Pointe brought an earlier model to the event. Their 1947 Buick 76C is one of an estimated 13 still around of the original 300 built that year.

Another Grosse Pointe resident, Vince Muniga, was showing his 1948 Ford woodie wagon. Muniga bought the car in California and invested 2,000 hours (and many, many dollars) bringing it to showroom condition.

Like Muniga’s Ford, existing woodies that spent at least part of their lives in California are likely to have been beach bums at some point. They were favorites for surfers who could stash their boards or bedrolls in the wagons. Muniga keeps a small plastic beach figure as a decoration.

A 1951 Ford Country Squire owned by Thomas Brumley of Findlay, Ohio sported a beautiful wood surf board and a rear window plastered by stickers from various places visited.

Member Jeff (Woody) Krickhahn, from Delafield, Wis., dates the woodie “craze” from the 1960s and the West Coast surf crowd. “Street-rodding them started probably in the late ’70s and early ’80s,” he said.

“Quite a few of those are what we call ‘phantom woodies’: They were never actually produced in that form.”

Krickhahn owns a 1929 two-door version of a woodie wagon which, in 1929, was only offered as a four-door passenger wagon.

Some street rods started as restoration projects, he said. But the vehicles were too far gone to be brought back to original condition and were converted to hot rods.

There’s no shunning of conversions versus real woodies. “We all share the love of the woodies and the place they hold in automotive history,” Krickhahn said.

As is true with most car groups, you don’t have to own a woodie to join the National Woodie Club, said Bill Sampson.

Some present owners are serious collectors with many special vehicles in their inventories. Most are women and men with a soft spot for beautiful cars with bodies of wood and interesting histories.

Generally speaking, these were everyday vehicles, from train depot hacks to family haulers.

“This isn’t the Packard club,” Sampson joked.