Aaron Widmar
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Wacky Woodies: How Did Wood-Paneled Cars Originate and Why Were They Popular?

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California Automobile Museum - 1950 Dodge Woodie Coronet Station Wagon

1950 Dodge Woodie Coronet Station Wagon

Many vehicle styling fads come and go with the times, but one trend that baffles young drivers today is the Woodie. This distinctly American fad was seen on cars for decades, but few people nowadays see that fake wood paneling as appealing. So why did the Woodie ever catch on in the first place?

Wood-paneling on vehicles was around long before your grandpa’s station wagon. In fact, wood has been intrinsically involved in the automobile’s history ever since its origins.

Why Do Some Cars Have Wood Paneling?

When the first automobiles were invented, they were actually, as many people know, horseless carriages that used motors instead of horses to power them. These carriages, thus, were made of wood rather than metal. Many companies that produced cars were more familiar with how to form, cut, and assemble wood than other materials. In fact, many furniture makers purchased the inner workings of automobiles and built a wood body for them (known as “depot hacks,” where we get the term “station wagon”). Automakers outsourced body production to coachbuilders.

Eric Clapton's Chevy Woodie

Eric Clapton’s 1947 Chevy Fleetmaster

When steel was introduced, it was too expensive for many companies, but as automobiles grew in production quantities, metal stamps proved easier and cheaper than mass-producing wooden bodies. As vehicles drove faster, the safety hazards of using wood bodies on cars was realized—as well as the ongoing cost of maintenance—so the market transitioned to metal. By the 1950s, wooden bodies were a thing of the past.

Still, some customers preferred the appearance of wood over metal, as real wood elements had become synonymous with luxury. So as a compromise, automakers offered wood-grain-like decals on metal, vinyl, and plastic side panels.

Automakers would probably not have produced so many faux-Woodie models in the latter half of the 20th century were it not for the influence of the SoCal surfing community. Because most Woodies were sold for cheap on the used market, they were the perfect choice for those on the West Coast who needed large, inexpensive transportation for their gear. Woodies became so ingrained in surf culture that faux-wood paneling stuck around well past the 1960s.

These days, some automakers still offer strips of birch and mahogany paneling on the inside and outside of high-end vehicles for affluent customers, but the Woodie as we know it has retired.

Sources: Charlie Crowell via Articlebiz.com, Popular Mechanics, Classic-car-history.com