Woody cars were once a marker of American luxury that later became a popular retro styling cue. We explore some of the most iconic woody car models.
A century ago, wood was the primary material for building cars. As steel was gradually adopted, wood frames and bodies became the province of upscale models. Station wagons of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s in commonly came with bold-looking wood paneling accentuating their “outdoorsy” qualities, take the Ford Deluxe Woody for example. Even after manufacturers decided real wood was simply too much hassle, they continued to trade on the nostalgia of those old wagons with faux wood paneling on the likes of the Jeep Wagoneer and Ford Country Squire. In fact, dozens of models from the 1970s and 80s offered “wood” panels, often as part of high-end trim packages.
The fashion of wood panels has long been out of favor with modern designers, but most car people still have a lot of admiration for woody cars. Astonishingly, in a year that traded so heavily on nostalgia as 2020 (think Bronco, Hummer, et al), FCA failed to make the right call and include wood paneling on their relaunched Jeep Grand Wagoneer. Generations of American car lovers pine for the days of varnished mahogany and birch, whether real or fake, lining their wagon or sedan.
As metal working processes improved over the early 20th century, the cost of building cars with steel was greatly reduced. Wood remained a challenging material to work with, requiring many man hours to execute properly. What was once common in automobiles became a marker of luxury and as the decades wore on the amount of wood used was reduced from structural to the merely cosmetic. The elegant Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon of the early 1950s is a perfect example of the use of (real) exterior wood accenting.
The shift away from wood in favor of steel not only made cars cheaper and easier to build, but it also made them safer. Even in the days before crumple zones, wood didn’t have the best energy absorption properties for the forces involved in car accidents.
Another significant drawback for woody cars was that wood requires a lot of upkeep and care to make it last. Moisture, sun, grit, and cold are all rough on the condition of wood. This is one reason woody cars became popular among the SoCal surfer crowd; the southern California climate was gentler on those cars (that and they just looked cool with a pair of longboards loaded on top).
Whether the wood is real or fake, and whatever modern car designers think, we love woody cars. Here’s a list of our favorite wood panel car designs throughout automotive history.
The Germans might have the fanciest station wagons today, but back in the 1940s it was Packard. Their 120 Station Wagon featured wood inside and out. Our favorite feature is the wood-lined roof.
The Ford Deluxe of the 1940s is commonly known as the Woody station wagon. By the late 40s, Ford’s station wagon had gone from a cheap alternative to steel (as it was in the 1930s) to a mark of luxury.
The 1940s Chrysler Town & Country is another example of the evolution of the classic woody station wagon. Consider this late 1940s convertible version of the Town & Country with its rounded trunk-lid and prominent shoulder line curve in the front doors. The 1941 Town & Country station wagon featured rounded wooden barndoors in back.
The Roadmaster is great example of the transitions in woody cars. While the Roadmasters of the 1940s features copious wood in their construction, the 1950 model moved on to a mostly steel construction, only keeping some wood panel accenting.
By the time Ford was producing the Mercury Woody station wagon, the use of wood was already on the wane. The Mercury Woody was only produced for three years and be the last Ford to feature extensive wood construction. (Though they would continue using some wood paneling and accenting though the 1950s.)
Speaking of accenting, the 1970s saw a resurgence of wood, but this time the skeuomorphic form of fake vinyl wood and wood-grain decals. The wood vinyl paneling on the Ford Ranchero Squire adds sophistication to this classic ute.
The Wagoneer is perhaps the most memorable use of faux wood styling. It and the Grand Wagoneer were the “modern” inheritors of the old idea of wood panels being both outdoorsy and posh at the same time.
A true classic of fake wood paneling, the Ford LTD Country Squire as been cemented in the minds of Gen-Xers and Millennials as the prototypical station wagon, not least for being the basis of the Griswald’s Wagon Queen Family Truckster. (It turns out Clark had a thing for woody wagons. His next car in the sequel Christmas Vacation was a 1989 Ford Taurus wagon, complete with faux wood panels.)
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and to us the Chrysler Le Baron Convertible of the mid-80s is the perfect quintessence of that decade’s warped fashion sense. This woody car doesn’t really start to make sense until you imagine yourself driving it as a Yuppie dressed in a Don Johnson-esque white blazer. If you’ve been planning on doing some Miami Vice cosplay, the Le Baron Convertible is almost as good as a Testarossa and a whole lot cheaper.
The 1990s Buick Roadmaster takes the woody roadmaster full circle with fake wood paneling harkening all the way back to the Roadmasters of old. Complete with leather upholstery, third row of seating, and hefty V8 engine, the 90s Buick Roadmaster was one of the last great American station wagons.
The retro push of the late 1990s and early aughts was hit and miss, with a whole lot of misses. But one that seems to have succeeded despite all odds is the Chrysler PT Cruiser. In a nod to the woody Chryslers of old, including the Town & Country of the 1940s, the PT Cruiser could be optioned with faux-wood paneling.
Recently, car companies have been leaning on their legacy nameplates (Ford’s new Bronco and Mustang Mach-E) and looking to their past for “fresh” ideas (like an electric Hummer). Wood paneling is one retro/classic style we wish they’d consider. Why Jeep choose not to include fake wood on their new Grand Cherokee is a mystery. In trying to keep things modern they forgot the whole point of reviving nameplates, to trade on the nostalgia of buyers.
The Grand Cherokee, however, isn’t the only new vehicle that would benefit from some exterior wood accenting. Why not the inheritor to the Town & Country name in the Chrysler Pacifica? The Chevy Blazer of the 1970s offered fake wood, why not the current (and more than a little boring) Blazer? Ford has a long history of woody station wagons, with both real wood and fake wood. Their upcoming return to the segment with their Outback-esque Fusion wagon could benefit from the added pizzazz wood paneling offers.
Or maybe you think wood paneling needs to stay as a subtle interior accent trim? Let us know what you think about this iconic classic car design in the comments.