Against the Grain: 21 Woodies That Weren’t Station Wagons

As the tooling and techniques for metalworking improved in the early 20th century, the use of wood as a structural component in car bodies gave way to its new role as a decorative element. But even when it was just used as a stylistic flourish, as was the case with the iconic and long-running Chrysler Town & Country, outfitting vehicles with genuine wood planking was a costly and labor-intensive process, and automakers were starting to find ways to fake it. When durable, automotive-grade vinyl graphic appliqués hit the scene in the mid-1950s, the faux-wood revolution was in full swing, the crass wood-grain pattern adorning everything from refrigerators to television sets; it was only a matter of time until a crafty auto stylist put two and two together. Initially limited to use almost exclusively on station wagons, by the 1970s you rarely saw a wagon without vinyl faux-wood-grain siding, making them still pretty plentiful today. For that reason, the cars included here are the oddball, ill-conceived, and low-volume woodies from any era that defied the station-wagon stereotype. We’ve included models considered to be genuine SUVs, but no wagons. And that goes for aftermarket kits and concept cars, too. Does it pain us terribly to omit the 1980 Honda Civic Country Wagon woody? Hell, yes. Read on to discover some of the unique woodies that have crossed history’s showroom floor.1976 Chevrolet ChevetteChrysler’s Town & Country nameplate dates from the brand’s 1941 station wagon, a sort-of rounded-back design credited to Chrysler president David A. Wallace. Its signature element was mahogany veneer panels with white ash wood framing. With the arrival of the postwar Chryslers for 1946, however, the wagon was gone, and the T&C nameplate instead graced four-door sedans and convertibles with the same mahogany-and-ash wood trim. Unusually, the four-door woody was available in the midrange Windsor series as well as the top-of-the-line New Yorker (the convertible came as a New Yorker only); in either case, the Town & Country was far more expensive than its unadorned equivalent. --Other domestic automakers dropped their non-wagon woodies with the advent of their first postwar redesigns, but Chrysler stuck with them when its all-new ’49 models came out. A wagon—also with wood trim—returned, but the four-door T&C was gone; the Town & Country name was reserved for the convertible and the prototype of a new two-door hardtop that did not see production. The 1950 model year would be the last for wood-trimmed Chrysler coupes and convertibles, and the moniker reverted to the wagons. The Town & Country would go on to a long and varied future at Chrysler, carrying a generally diminishing association with the old-money lifestyle that allows one to have a house in town and another in the country, with the requisite staff to varnish one’s wood-sided car. —Joe LorioCall us crazy, but we think the world was a better place when you could buy a truck, tractor, refrigerator, milking machine, rifle, and lawnmower all from the same manufacturer. Back in the day, International Harvester was just such a manufacturer, and of its myriad products our favorite is the full-size D-series Travelall. Built from 1969 to 1975, the fourth-generation truck to wear the Travelall name is arguably best known for its role as the comically appropriate ride of Max Goldman in Grumpy Old Men. Someone give that propmaster a gold star.--Sure, its little brother, the Scout, gets all the attention and still has a pretty loyal following, but the Travelall wins our heart for its sheer size and literal “it’s a big box” styling. Available with a variety of engines up to the IH’s 392-cube V-8 (AMC 401s were substituted when IH’s strategic reserves of 392s were running low), the Travelall was loved by RV types and, we presume, Mormon farmers. Still, when it came time to add that little extra showroom zing to the mighty Travelall beast, there was one go-to option: faux-wood vinyl appliqué! Sadly, after six years of loyal service, the Travelall was dropped in 1975 due to stagnant sales and a restructuring of the International Harvester brand. —Andrew WendlerWe may laugh at the PT Cruiser now, but back when it was introduced at the beginning of the century, Chrysler’s five-door hatchback was a force to be reckoned with. Heck, we even put it on our 10Best Cars list in 2001. --Not one to let a good thing pass, Chrysler quickly capitalized on the car’s retro looks by adding faux-wood panels to the PT Cruiser’s exterior and called it the Woodie. Chrysler offered the package on 2002–2004 PT Cruisers for the sum of $895. Sadly, Chrysler never paired the Woodie package’s nostalgia with the powerful turbocharged engine of the PT Cruiser Turbo/GT. —Greg FinkOf all the “woody” models on this list, the Volkswagen Rabbit may be the most inexplicable. Seen in the photo above as displayed on the VW stand at the 1979 Chicago auto show, the Rabbit woody hit the scene when VW’s U.S. manufacturing facility in Pennsylvania was operating at less than 50 percent of capacity and the automaker was desperate to appeal to the domestic market and boost sales. Instead of playing up the car’s Teutonic character and efficiency as it had done with the über-successful Beetle and Microbus, it began trying to Americanize them with plush interiors, automatic transmissions, and, curiously, vinyl faux-wood exterior treatments.--While the debate as to whether the vinyl-wood-grain Rabbits were born at the factory or a dealer-installed option rages on, thorough research on our part did turn up several official VW accessory brochures featuring the kits, and at least one official NOS VW vinyl kit for sale. Regardless of origin, the vintage MkI community has embraced the trend, with dozens of owners coming up with their own interpretations of the “woody” theme and applying it to their two- and four-door Rabbits and Rabbit pickups. —Andrew WendlerWhile the Chevrolet El Camino may be the first thing that comes to mind when someone says, “Hey, does Billy Ray Cyrus live here?” the 1957 Ford Ranchero actually beat the El Camino to market by two years. By 1970, the Ranchero was already on its fifth generation, and Ford figured it was time to treat its car/truck to the same faux-wood-siding appliqué treatment that it offered on its station wagons. With its new product, ingeniously dubbed the Ford Ranchero Squire, Ford once again beat Chevy to the punch, the bow-tie brand’s similarly vinyl-wood-grained El Camino Estate not making the scene until 1973.--Built from the bones of Ford’s mid-size Torino, the Ranchero shared many of the trim and powertrain options of the sedan. While that may sound unexciting, savvy Ford fans realized that checking the right boxes could bring the torquey Cobra Jet, Cobra-Jet Ram Air, or Super Cobra Jet 429-cubic-inch V-8s mated with axle ratios ranging from 3.25:1 to a tire-melting 4.30:1, turning the ho-hum hauler into a legitimate hauler of ass. Considering that the Ranchero had room for only two—three in a pinch—and a maximum people and payload capacity of approximately 1250 pounds, it’s amazing that Ford kept it in production until the dawn of the 1980s. The spirit of the Ranchero lived on unabated in the Australia-market Falcon Utility, a car/truck hybrid that managed to stay in production until 2016. —Andrew WendlerNothing says elegance like wood grain, and nothing suggests that you’re a devil-may-care fun seeker like a vehicle with a removable roof that has to stay home when you want the sun on the back of your neck. In 1972, it was possible to spec a woodlike tailgate decal, but when GM redesigned its full-size trucks for 1973, you now had the option of paying the General to stick faux lumber along the sides of your Chevrolet Blazer or GMC Jimmy as well.--By the 1975 model year, the formerly healthy 350-cubic-inch V-8 was putting out a miserly 145 horsepower and 250 lb-ft of torque. Opting for a Quadrajet in place of the two-barrel Rochester only netted you a 10-hp gain. Peak torque stayed the same but moved up the tach from 2200 to 2400 rpm. Two decades later, Chevy had the 5.7-liter V-8 breathing again, but in the darkest days of the Malaise Era, it seemed only fake plastic tree trunks could keep our spirits soaring. After 1980, for some inexplicable reason, General Motors ceded the wood-grain-covered large-ute market to Jeep. A decade and a half later, the Jimmy and Blazer nameplates had both been retired from full-size use. Alex Jones is probably pretty sure that the lack of wood had something to do with that. —Davey G. JohnsonDecades since its demise, the Ford Pinto nameplate still stands as an allegory of auto-industry greed and as a period piece from an era in which the domestic automakers were desperate to slow the onslaught of small cars from Japan. The Pinto isn’t likely to fade from pop-culture references and MBA syllabi any time soon, but this small car’s reputation in other ways has been coming back around. This little rear-wheel-drive two-door actually wasn’t the runt of the litter; in a 1971 Car and Driver matchup with the Chevrolet Vega, GM’s shorter-lived rival to the Pinto, we said the Pinto had “the sharp-edged, go-stop-turn feel of a sports car.”   The later years of the Pinto were known to be quite pleasant and well sorted out (it did share some parts with the Mustang II, after all). In certain “nerd car” circles, a good Pinto—especially a woody one—will get a lot of attention. And Ford’s decision to wrap the exterior of its Pinto sedan and hatchback and the corresponding Mercury Bobcat twin (in addition to the Pinto Squire wagon)—in wood grain with a roof rack that looks set up for surfboards remains mostly just a point-and-chuckle non sequitur in that car’s more sobering history. —Bengt HalvorsonIn the immediate postwar period, wood bodies weren’t just for station wagons; they were for convertibles and four-door sedans, too. The latter was the case for Nash and its Suburban, the wood-bodied variant of the upper-line Ambassador series. --Like all real-wood woodies, the Suburban was produced in minuscule quantities: 275 in 1946, 595 for ’47, 130 for ’48. Wood bodies were handsome, but maintenance was intense, what with annual varnishing—more like owning a boat than a car. The models also were expensive, about 20 percent more than the equivalent steel-bodied four-door. --At Nash, the woody died with the move to an all-new unibody design for 1949. It’s doubtful that many mourned its passing. —Joe LorioThe Plymouth Horizon and Dodge Omni were the first domestically produced subcompacts to adopt the layout of most European small cars, with a transverse engine, front-wheel drive, and a four-door hatchback. Their styling even aped the preeminent Euro hatch of the day, the Volkswagen Rabbit. But in at least one way, the Omni/Horizon twins were indisputably American: their long list of profit-padding options, including faux-wood-grain siding.--The Premium Woodgrain package, $312 in the cars’ debut year, included not just the wood look on the body sides and lower hatch, but also a phalanx of chrome trim, along with bright wheel centers and lug nuts. (The Premium Exterior package also was available, for those who coveted that shiny chrome but wanted to save a vinyl tree.) The wood-grain option featured prominently in promotional photos for the cars—unlike the arguably tackier vinyl top. --The wood-grain package reappeared for both the Dodge and the Plymouth in the 1979 and 1980 model years. By the second year of the new decade, however, it was gone. Instead, there was a new Euro-Sedan package with blackout trim and a stiffer suspension. The times, they were a-changin’. —Joe Lorio1973–1980 Chevrolet SuburbanThose who fall somewhere between Baby Boomers and Gen Xers might think of the 1980s as a time when imports surged, when John Hughes movies gave teen angst and being young a new look, you got your mullet at Fantastic Sam’s, and you listened to U2 or Duran Duran on cassette while motoring along in your worldly Saab 900, Audi 5000, or BMW 3-series. But that was lost on an entirely different, older generation with different tastes and allegiances, for whom the Chrysler LeBaron and LeBaron Town & Country convertibles—including, oh yes, a woody version—appealed. ---Built on Lee Iacocca’s gruff guarantees and the same modest front-wheel-drive K-car underpinnings that once saved the company and birthed the minivan as we know it, the 1983¬–1986 LeBaron Town & Country convertible was powered by a Mitsubishi-supplied 2.6-liter four-cylinder engine and a three-speed automatic transmission. The Town & Country’s soft ride was just what buyers expected, and the wood grain probably matched the picnic basket that this Lawrence Welk crowd might still have had in the pantry. Although these special-K convertibles were discontinued for 1987, the Toyota Solara arrived about a decade later (sans faux wood, of course) to give Baby Boomers with Kenny G CDs their own version of this experience. —Bengt HalvorsonGiven the El Camino’s Spanish name, it would be logical to think the car/truck hybrid’s wood-panel package would be named something along the lines of La Madera. Unfortunately, logic wasn’t at play when Chevrolet named this special El Camino package “Estate.” Hell, we would have at least kept the Spanish theme going and named it La Finca.--In Chevy’s mind, though, the El Camino Estate wasn’t for just any Joe Blow who needed a bed to haul stuff in. No, as the image above shows, Chevrolet created the El Camino Estate to appeal to the motorcycle-riding, adventure-seeking playboy who likes to be candid with his lady friends. Originally offered as an option package on both the El Camino Standard and Custom, the Estate package was later relegated to the Classic model (a trim that was introduced in 1974 as a replacement to the Custom). --Alas, the little known El Camino Estate’s five minutes of fame were all too short, as the package and its faux-wood trim weren’t revived for the fifth-generation El Camino. —Greg Fink1978–1979 Dodge Li’l Red Express Truck1968 Mercury Park LaneFor most of the vehicles on this list, wood grain was little more than a style element. In the case of the Jeep Wagoneer, it added years to the model’s life. Introduced in 1963, the Wagoneer could be had with a little spear of wood grain starting around 1970; by mid-decade, Jeep was offering the full body-side slathering. It wasn’t until the midyear 1978 introduction of the Wagoneer Limited, however, that the concept fully flowered. Besides its wood-grain siding, the Limited would come to include leather-and-corduroy upholstered bucket seats, shag carpeting, air conditioning, aluminum wheels, and power everything. Renamed the Grand Wagoneer for 1984, it became so popular that all lesser models soon were dropped.--The Grand Wagoneer went on to boast the highest customer demographics of any car sold by the Big Three. It would last through the 1991 model year, a testament to the original Brooks Stevens design—and the power of wood grain.--As a postscript, Jeep offered a wood-sided version of its new ZJ Grand Cherokee for 1993, but the magic was gone, and it was dropped after just one year. —Joe Lorio1984–1995 Chrysler Minivans1946–1948 Ford Sportsman2002 Lincoln Blackwood1968–1969 Chrysler Newport SportsgrainWhen the boxy Jeep Cherokee XJ was introduced in 1984, it had several trim levels right off the bat—but only the Wagoneer model came with wood-imitating laminate stickers running down its body sides. The wood trim on the dashboard and other interior surfaces was equally genuinely not real, but who cares? In its post-1985 iteration, with its stacked headlights and chrome trim, the Wagoneer looked oh-so-right with its goofy wood-grain siding. ---Jeep later offered the Briarwood from 1991 to 1992 (the Wagoneer iteration faded from showrooms after 1990). Pictured here, this XJ model was resplendent with European-inspired mesh aluminum wheels, chrome, and the regular Cherokee’s single-headlight front-end treatment. It also came with fancy Jensen AccuSound speakers, which provided whatever loudness the wood-grain look didn’t. —Alexander Stoklosa
from Car and Driver BlogCar and Driver Blog

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