Celebrated in song and story and embraced as the darling of an entire generation of beach bums and surfers, the Woody to this day remains a vivid symbol of eternal summer. Yet, the Woody’s beginnings were far from the sandy beaches of Surf City.
The iconic Woody, with a body fabricated from wood and not metal, had a short production history that spanned a little more than a decade. Although wood had been used since at least the turn of the century, its heyday in vehicle construction was in the late 30s and especially the war years of the 40s. These ornate vehicles crafted of ash, oak and mahogany had originated in the rail systems of the USA and the UK, being primarily used as inexpensive but spacious transportation for passengers and their luggage to and from train stations—thus, the name “station wagon.”
Due to the scarcity of metals during WWII and the subsequent government restrictions limiting production and even sales of new cars, a resurgent interest in Woody design and construction resulted. Brooks Stevens designed the Monarch Motors wooden body conversion for Ford and Mercury sedans and coupes, featured in the PatentWear Woody43 design created from the Stevens design patent issued in 1943. The conversion kit allowed specially-built vehicles to carry cargo and injured passengers when the need arose. The necessity for civil defense vehicles and especially station wagons took priority over other designs, and was so great that Monarch Motors turned to mounting wooden bodies on both new and used passenger car chassis.
Brooks Stevens, along with Raymond Lowey and John Vassos was considered a giant of industrial design in America. He designed everything from the fender for the 1949 Harley-Davidson Hydraglide motorcycle, (still used in its Heritage Classic series) to the Briggs and Stratton mower, outboards for Evinrude, the Jeepster after WW2 and, an all-time American favorite: the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile in 1958.
By the mid-50s, wood-bodied vehicles were subject to new federal safety standards and eventually legislated out of existence. Squeaky, drafty and difficult to maintain cosmetically, they had lost their appeal to the “Greatest Generation” who could now afford the safer, all-metal vehicles. The Woody had become a victim of its own success, but was later saved by none other than the surf culture for the same reasons it had been initially created: low cost and carrying capacity.
Worn-looking Woodies became easy finds on the used market at bargain prices. Surfers in search of the perfect wave recognized the Woody as the perfect surf mobile. Inexpensive, capable of carrying lots of surfers, girlfriends, and gear (especially suited for 60s-style longboards) there was also ample room for post surf session crashing and partying. Further immortalized through popular surf movies and music that referenced the Woody, its archetypal surf culture image was destined to endure.
Though the surf culture has moved on with its choice of cool vehicles, from classic VW, Ford, and Chevy vans to 4×4 vehicles and now even luxury SUVs, the Woody is still the quintessential wave wagon—and the first to be linked specifically to surfing.