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The Lasting Allure of the Woody and the Tailfin

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Two classic designs remain cool for car collectors.

Photographs by Jim Graham

For people who came of age during the 1950s and ’60s, two styles of automobile are likely to elicit smiles. The “woody”—with real wood paneling on its doors and sometimes on its rear—evolved during the Depression years, though it didn’t come of age until the postwar era. For the second stylistic statement, cars grew tailfins.

The woody typically came in the form of a station wagon designed for the emerging suburban culture. The 1953 Buick Super Estate Wagon and Road- master Estate Wagon were the last of the authentic production models. After production ended, their lifespan was expanded and idealized by the surf cul- ture of the 1960s, and some companies occasionally produced cars with simulated wood siding.

Great sweeps of grandeur and overstatement emerging from the rear of Buicks, Cadillacs and Chevys, tailfins made you wonder if the Detroit stylists were doing a bit too much sketching on their cocktail napkins during their three-martini lunches. The first car to sport tailfins was the 1948 Cadillac, which had small protrusions one might call “starter fins.” Over the next few years, the fins became monstrous, and designers had to make up reasons to excuse such excesses.

Fins were doubtlessly influenced by such aeronautical milestones as Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier in his fighter jet and international air travel becoming common. Plymouth officials maintained that fins helped in steering their cars down the new interstate highways—and Mercedes noted that its fins provided sightlines while backing up. Tailfins took on their most gaudy manifestations with the 1959 Cadillac and Chevrolet. After that, they gradually shrunk and disappeared—like a vestigial organ that no longer served its purpose.

 

The Harveys’ woody.

Bobbie Harvey and her late husband, noted sculptor Andre Harvey, purchased their 1947 Ford woody in 1972, not long after they’d taken the vacation to France that convinced Andre his future was in sculpting. “We really wanted to own a woody,” recalls Harvey, who lives in Wilmington, Del. “We’d somehow convinced ourselves that, while we didn’t have much money, it would be cheaper to buy one at that time than it would be years later.”

They went searching as far as New England before they found their Ford stored away in New Jersey. “We were the third owner,” says Harvey. “It had been in storage because the second owner was killed in a hunting accident.”

These days, the ’47 Ford is back in storage, its shiny dark maroon paint still showing off the palomino-hued paneling. “I would say it’s in good condition,” she says.

Woodies are still fairly easy to find and reasonable to buy with prices starting in the $40,000 range and going up. Of course, new owners will have to enjoy shifting gears and rolling down their windows manually. “We recently had woodies as a featured category, and cars with tailfins are still pretty popular,” says John McCoy, who administers the annual car show at Hagley Museum and Library along the banks of the Brandywine Creek, which draws up to 600 automobiles every September.

Many “old cars” that show up at Hagley and other auto shows have been reconfigured—cut down, modified and painted in colors the rain- bow never saw. “We like to see the cars look like they’d just come out of the factory,” says McCoy.

 

Much like the Harvey’s woody. “So many were practically destroyed driving them on the beach [and then restored],” she says. “The patina of age isn’t there the way it is with original cars.”

For Hagley’s show, McCoy works with the Antique Auto Club of America and others. Another partner club is in love with a third car of ’60s origin. The Corvair Society of America celebrates the Chevy compact model produced between 1960 and 1969. It was the primary target of Ralph Nader’s 1965 opus, Unsafe at Any Speed.

Not all entries at auto shows are antique or even vintage—in that 25 years old is now the minimum standard for “old” cars. McCoy says there were only about 30 pre-1930s autos at last year’s show. “A lot of people are still driv- ing cars that old to work every day,” he adds. “The category is still expanding, as the older cars just don’t disappear and go away.”

For millennials who want to do as the Harveys did, now is the time to purchase cars built in the early 2000s—before GPS systems replaced road maps and automatic braking, lane assist and backup cameras made us forget what it feels like to actually drive an automobile.