In the 30s and 40s, there weren’t any small vans available straight from manufacturers. Coachbuilders stepped in, taking existing vehicles and rebuilding the rear section of the body with large sections of wood paneling. This gave these vehicles plenty of covered space for tradesmen to carry materials and tools to work sites. Passenger versions with side curtains and fabric tops were popular with resorts, providing an inexpensive way to move people and their luggage during the temperate weather of the tourist season. It wasn’t long before automakers partnered with these builders to offer “factory” woodies in much the same way they partner with conversion companies today to build convertibles.
Technology had advanced during WWII, allowing manufacturers to create longer all steel bodies. This lead to the introduction of panel vans and inexpensive steel-bodied station wagons after WWII, ending the market for these custom-built work vehicles.
How did they become associated with surfing?
The reason for their popularity is simple: They were cheap. These were utility vehicles, bought to be used rather than pampered. When the surfing boom hit in the 1960s, there were plenty of old wagons with rotting wood, ill-fitting panels, and leaking roofs available for rock-bottom prices. With plenty of space in the back, these jalopies were perfect for teens looking to carry surfboards and camp on the beach.
The woodie cemented its association with surfing through popular culture. Jan and Dean’s 1963 hit “Surf City” captured the essence of this car culture with lyrics about a 1934 Ford woodie. This song launched the surf rock genre, led by Surf City co-writer Brian Wilson and his band The Beach Boys. Together with beach party movies like “Gidget” and “Beach Blanket Bingo,” surf culture spread from the coasts to the rest of the world.
Like everything else in the classic car hobby, the woodie was revived by a wave of nostalgia. By the ’90s, people who had owned woodies or had wanted one during their peak of popularity created a new market for restorations and recreations. Today, the market is split between immaculate hot rod restorations and survivors that capture the rugged utility of the wagons used on beaches 50 years ago
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