By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
From left to right, Harlin Young, Wilfred Soong and
Joe MacDonald park their "Woodies" at Like Like Drive Inn.
All are officers in the "Woodies of Hawaii" club.

WOOD if they COULD

The ultimate surf mobile/luxury car
is now the prize of collectors

Story by Burl Burlingame

LET'S get the spelling straight right off the bat. It's "woodie." A "woody" is either an Allen or a Woodpecker.

We're talking about woodie cars here. The classic, elegant wagon of the '30s and '40s that became a favorite of surfers because the max headroom allowed boards to be piled up inside the car. There are several in Hawaii, hidden away in garages like works of art, allowed out only when the V-8 engine needs to roar.

There's a national Woodie Club, and the Hawaii edition is called - hold on! - Woodies of Hawaii, established 1992. There are currently 27 members statewide, which is only a fraction of the woodie owners.

The national newsletter is called "The Woodie Times."

Treasurer Harlin Young let us cruise in his 1948 Mercury the other day. What a dreamboat. The body sits as high as the average van, and the wooden panels are made of mahogany and ash, hard woods that last.

"Woodies are also made of maple and oak, because they're attractive woods, but also because they're available on the East Coast, where the car companies had their expert woodworkers," said Young.

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Goin' for a ride in Soong's 1941 Ford Woodie.

As the car rolled through the parking lot of Likelike Drive-In, heads turned, and one old chap spluttered, "Hey! Where'd you get them gangster tires?"

"Mainland," said Young. "That's where the good stuff is."

Like most woodies, the roof is slatted boards, covered with a membrane, generally an all-weather vinyl, creating a feel somewhat between that of a soft-top and a birchbark canoe. The body is solid wood, sanded and polished and sealed, and the doors slam home with the meaty authority of an oak casket lid. As the car corners, it creaks and groans like a clipper ship.

President Wilfred Soong's oldest is a 1931 Ford, which appeared in the film classic "Tora Tora Tora" as well as other period films shot in Hawaii. He'd like to build a woodie from scratch, from the chassis up, probably on an old Model A frame, using koa.

"Woodie Fords were the elite vehicles," said Soong, an aircraft inspector at Aloha Airlines. (Club secretary Joe MacDonald, who a teal-colored '39 Ford, is a pilot at Aloha.) "They were the big cars bought by large estates to run important people from one point to another. Touring cars you could fit a whole family into. They're the rarest of the rare."

There's also memories involved. Young's grandparents had a '51 panel station wagon; Soong learned how to drive in a '51 woodie.

One of Soong's cars was recovered from a Kauai estate and wrecked in Hurricane Iniki, but not before the termites got it.

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Joe MacDonald poses between Wilfred Soong, left,
sitting in his 1941 Ford Woodie, and Harlin Young,
in his 1948 Mercury Woodie.

Because of the labor costs involved and the comparatively low production, woodies were top-line vehicles for their day. The first Ford-built woodie cost - gasp! - $696.

Today, a cherry woodie can run you $30,000 to $50,000.

Although most early cars had some wooden components, such as the Ford Model T, the "woodie" uses wood for it's beauty and insulating qualities, and this type of vehicle didn't start to be mass-produced until 1928, when Ford introduced the Model A station wagon, making around 5,000.

This holy grail of woodie collectors was built by the Briggs Manufacturing Company and the Murray Corporation in Detroit, with the wood coming from the Mengel Company of Louisville, KY.

OK, if you want to get technical, the Durant Star was a wooden production car first offered in 1923.

(All of you out there who have heard of the Durant Star, raise your hands. Thought so.)

Other companies soon broke out the band saws - General Motors, Buick, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Plymouth, Dodge, Chrysler. Not to mention Packard, Nash, and International.

Possibly, speculates club members, even DeSoto.

The wooden car craze died out in the early '50s, a victim of high tooling costs and consumer decline.

Detroit would continue putting wood trim on cars for years to come, and still do in the form of wood-patterned shelf paper, but a woodie needs to be at least in its '40s to qualify.

All in all, only about 200,000 wood cars were produced in America.

Rebuilding one of these vehicles requires "wood skills as well as metal skills," said Soong. "That's why I like woodies; they let me do everything."

The wood in older cars was protected by varnish. The clear polyurethanes used to seal modern restorations are a nod to newer technologies.

Unlike metal cars, a minor ding can often be erased with a wet towel and an iron.

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