Photography By Jim Graham
Andre Harvey with his 1947 Ford woodie.

Wheels

Woodies

American Originals

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“They are an American original,” says DiFebo, 65, who purchased the car in 1964. “Most folks find the color and warmth of the beautifully hand-crafted wood especially appealing. You know, people tell me when they see a woodie, they can’t help but smile.”

Check out that woodwork. Clad in mahogany and framed in white ash, the panels are fitted and mitered with the perfection of a Chippendale highboy. With their eye-catching styling, woodies are not so much a means of transportation as they are rolling works of art that have attained iconic status.

David Helmer’s 1948 Chrysler Town and Country last appraised for $140,000.

They were the ones that transported passengers and luggage at railway stations in old movies. The ones Bette Davis and Clark Gable drove around Hollywood. The ones the Beach Boys (Surfin’ Safari) and Jan & Dean (Surf City) sang about, evoking memories of sun-splashed beaches and magical summer days.

Over the past few years, DiFebo rebuilt his ’48 Chevy into a custom-designed street rod woodie. In September 2011 – longboard strapped to the roof – DiFebo and a pal drove the regal burgundy vehicle to Wavecrest. Just off the Coast Highway at Moonlight Beach in Encinitas, Calif., it is the granddaddy of all woodie meets. Three hundred fifty owners, sporting colorful Aloha shirts, turned up from all over the country to swap tall tales and to bask in the golden glow of the finely finished timber-sided bodies.

“Driving out, when we stopped for gas, we would be there for 20 minutes just talking about the car and where we were headed,” recalls DiFebo, whose Wilmington family has been installing wood flooring in local homes for seven decades and who is currently restoring a 1950 Ford woodie.

“It was like returning to Mecca. Bands playing Hawaiian and surf music, woodies’ windows splattered with historic surf decals. Kowabunga!”

Paul DiFebo in his rebuilt ’48 Chevy.

Today, woodies are among the most sought-after collector cars in the world and command price tags to match. Direct descendants of the horse-drawn express wagons, their golden age lasted from the late 1930s through the early 1950s. Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors all mass-produced the car that became hugely popular after World War II, first as a comfortable family car and later as the vehicle of choice for the surfer set of the 1960s.

Polished and lacquered, the wood added an element of style to the metal frames. Some of the panels were hewn from rare birds-eye maple, resplendent with natural whorls and unique flowing patterns. Climb aboard and marvel at the long white ash slats that line the interior roofs.

Andre Harvey with his 1947 Ford woodie.

The intricate finger-jointed framing made the cars complex and expensive to build, however, and they were costly to maintain. Similar to those of a wooden boat, the timbers were typically sanded and varnished each spring. By the late 1940s, woodies began to be phased out for wagons constructed totally of steel, appealing to a red-hot new car market. The last model to use real wood on the exterior was the 1953 Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon.

David Helmer brought a pair of head-turning Chrysler Town & County models to the Radnor Hunt Concours d’Elegance last September – a lavish 1947 sedan and a flashy 1948 convertible. Both are distinguished by dazzling “harmonica” grilles, bulbous lines, and unique barrel-back trunks enclosed by twin rear doors that open sideways in clamshell fashion.

With its up-market look, the ragtop Town & Country led the sales parade (3,309 sold) combining sporty elegance with vault-like solidity, smooth-riding luxury, and loads of glitter. Sold new to a Lansing, Mich., buyer, Helmer’s convertible was found in Laguna Beach, Calif., fully restored in the summer 2011. In 1948, the convertibles sold at a list price of $3,420 (roughly $32,000 in 2013 dollars). Helmer says his car has been appraised at $140,000.

“They were such unique cars in their heyday, owned by actors and lots of wealthy people,” says Helmer, who owns four woodies. “The craftsmanship and general feeling of opulence is still there 70-75 years later. And they keep appreciating. I get so much pleasure out of driving them. You can’t say that about owning stock certificates.”

Under a piercing blue sky, celebrated sculptor Andre Harvey is at the jumbo steering wheel of his 1947 Ford woodie. Just below his enchanting home, we’re rumbling along a winding old lane bordered by a handsome drystone wall and old growth trees along the Brandywine River. Two hundred years ago, wagons rattled down the roadway transporting black powder from the Hagley mills.

Harvey is the car’s third owner in 66 years. Repainted just once, pheasant red, the dashboard holds a speedometer, clock, and radio with push buttons as thick as your thumb. Its original maple timbers are pleasantly time-worn.

“I found it in a shed on the outskirts of Camden, N.J., in 1972,” says Harvey, whose recollections unspool in animated tales. “The guy was getting divorced and had to sell it. In the 1970s, my wife Bobbie, used to drive it every day to her job at the New Bolton Center. It still has the original glass and the wood could use some work. But, I like it as it is. I’d be taking the karma out of it if I totally redid it.”

Pulling on to a main road, Harvey and I encounter plenty of wide eyes and waves. Later, we wind our way back to a shed built by Quakers in the 18th century. Inside is an expansive workshop where Harvey plans and assembles his sculptures surrounded by countless hand and power tools and automobile memorabilia, including a vintage Atlantic “White Flash” gas pump. In the garage’s lower level, visitors will find a ’37 Chevy pick-up, a ’41 Chevy “Huckster” pick-up and a ’55 Citroen purchased in France four decades ago for the Harveys’ eventful trek to Marrakesh.

“Growing up, my best friend’s family had a ’41 Plymouth woodie and we used to crawl all over it,” Harvey remembers with a crooked smile. “I especially appreciate the Old World craftsmanship, so there is definitely an emotional attachment. Over the past decade, there has been a revival, but to me woodies have always been timeless.”