Woodies on the Wharf

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Woodies on the Wharf
Woodies on the Wharf

How surfers reclaimed a forgotten automobile and made it their own

There’s nothing like a sweet classic car. It’s generally agreed upon in the classic car collecting community that cars over 100 year and older should fall into the antique class, while the coolest classic cars are old enough to have enough historical interest to be collectable and worth the upkeep and preservation, while still looking tricked out and pristine. There’s a range of classic cars: Jaguars, Aston Martins, Ferrari Enzos…the list goes on and on, but there’s nothing cooler than a shiny “woodie”.

Woodies are a kind of car that went out of favor with the general public and was reclaimed and repurposed by broke surfers. This is the story of the woodie, as well as the long running Woodies on the Wharf event in Santa Cruz, California, which draws woodie owners from around the country to show off their beloved rides.

For the purposes of this profile, we’ll be focusing on the woodie, a car body style with rear bodywork constructed of wood framework and infill wood panels. Originally, the 1929 Model A was the first mass-produced woodie; with a passenger compartment made entirely from wood, its hood, front bumper and rails were composed of steel. This style caught on, and soon other manufacturers jumped in the fray; including Chrysler, Chevrolet, Plymouth, and Buick. During the 1940’s, the car’s began to be called station wagons. Their sizable passenger compartments came in handy while freighting people to and from train stations.

As one might imagine, these wooden materials did not age well. For a piece of machinery hurtling you through space at high speeds, these natural wagon bodies had fatal, and predictable problems; like splintering, rot, and moisture damage. By 1950, manufacturers and consumers alike realized that building cars out of wood wasn’t the brightest idea. From thereafter, the wood on most wagons was merely pasted on, in the form of wood-grain decals.

As woodie’s faded in popularity, one fringe group of society decided to adopt these vehicles as their own—surfers. Surfers have always been looked upon as an unusual tribe with reckless courage yet limited intellect. While the former statement checks out, the latter is the one generally undeserved. These surfers were clever when they claimed woodies as their own.

First off, as all the original woodies rotted away in yards and garages across the country, their owners were eager to sell the trashed vehicles to surfers, who were usually broke. Not only did these surfers get the woodies for a steal, they relished the space the cars provided; enough room to fit as many boards, bros, and babes as possible.

As surfing grew, the association with woodies become woven into the lore of our culture. There they remain as a symbol for the days of surfing over work, of the thriftiness and eccentric nature of surfers, of good days passed. Nowadays, Woodie owners have their own sub division within the surf culture itself. They espouse a sense of nostalgia and good times, and owners across the country keep the spirit alive with the National Woodie Club and their respective chapters.

The National Woodie Club promotes interest in woodies. According to their website, the club “ims to educate owners and the public on their history, beauty, usefulness and uniqueness; as well as providing an association through which woodie owners and enthusiasts may exchange information on history, building, restoration or modification techniques and share experiences.” They feel that since the woodie is a special kind of car, it deserves special recognition, a goal that the club continues to work towards.

The Club has its own magazine, the “Woodie Times”, organizes shows and meetings and has even designated May 20th as “Drive Your Woodie Day”. The event hopes to encourage woodie owners to pull their prized rides out of barns, garages, back yards, and storage units across the country, and take them for a joy ride somewhere they like, all the while documenting their experience. The Woodie Times encourages readers to send in their pictures with appropriate captions, with the best ones being published.

National Woodie Club members will be undoubtedly looking forward to the biggest woodie show there is, Santa Cruz’s own “Woodies on the Wharf” event, hosted by The Santa Cruz Woodie Club. With over 180 woodies lining up on the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf, the event is a chance for woodie clubs from all around to show off their prized rides in the warm California sun, followed by a procession leaving the wharf in the afternoon.

Dave Welles, a prominent member of the Santa Cruz Woodie Club has been a fan since Junior High. His friend’s older brother had a ’48 Ford, which he used to give them free lifts to the beach in the early 60’s.

Today he owns a 1938 Ford woodie he bought in 1994 which he found in a barn in the Santa Cruz Mountains. “It needed everything,” says Welles referring to his first woodie. “But I got it running and it now has over 50,000 miles on it. It’s been back and forth to Southern California a bunch of times and one summer we drove it to Colorado!”

Welles is one of the original founders of the Santa Cruz Club, which is celebrating its 23rd anniversary. He can’t wait to see what turns up at this year’s event.

“The first year we had no idea how many woodies would show up, so we were blown away when three dozen cars arrived. In recent years we’ve had over 200. The city told us the event has grown to become the biggest in town. Woodies on the Wharf is a ton of work, but by now we’ve developed a formula. There’s a core group of club members that step up every year and make it happen.”

Barb Bacon is one of those woodie devotees who credits the surf lifestyle in Santa Cruz and the West Coast as part of her life-long fascination with woodies.

“I read everything I could find about woodies and knew one day I would just have to have one!” recalls Bacon.  “Believe it or not, I had been saving since I was 12 years old! I had a fascination with the Beach Boys, going to the beach, and woodies seemed to be part of that scene, so I decided one day I would have to own a woodie and a surfboard! I didn't much care what kind --it just had to be in my price range”.

With guidance from SC Woodie member and legendary Santa Cruz surf photographer, Bob Barbour, Bacon was able to find her own slice of woodie heaven.

“Bob knew the history of most of the cars that were for sale. I finally found a 1949 Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon; it was an automatic, teal green, and in my price range. Once I got the car I became very involved in the club, helping every year with merchandise sales and set up for the Woodies on the Wharf event, which I look forward to every year” remembers Bacon.

Welles is looking forward to this year’s WOW event, which, not only is a tribute to woodies, but the surf culture that spawned their resurgence and preservation.

“Most of our members still surf. Many of the woodie owners up and down the coast are old surfers, too. So the club decided early on to make surfing a big part of its culture. We’re like a tribe and when woodie folk meet up in Santa Cruz in June, they’re totally ready to party.”

For more information check out www.nationalwoodieclub.com, www.santacruzwoodies.com

Make sure to check out this year’s event on Saturday, June 23rd-26th at the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf

Learn more about shipping a Woodie and other classic automobiles by visiting https://www.a1autotransport.com/classics/ .

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Graduating from UCSC with a Bachelor's Degree in history, Neal has been an avid writer since childhood and loves writing about anything from automobiles or motorcycles to surfing. 

Neal has gotten quite a bit of writing experience attending UC Santa Cruz, where he graduated in 2007 with a Bachelor’s Degree in History. Since then his writing has been published in Transworld Surf, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, Alaska Airlines Beyond, among others. 

Neal started working for A-1 Auto Transport back in 2009, first as a customer service representative before becoming a big player on the sales team, and finally as a full time writer for the website where he can share his expertise of the industry with readers.


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