One never knows where the perfect Cars & Parts feature vehicle will be found. As has been told on these pages many times before, car shows are fertile ground for finding great vehicles, and this featured Dodge is no exception. The journey from discovery to this month's cover began when I was tipped off to the world's biggest all-woodie gathering held at Moonlight Beach in Encinitas, California, each September.
The wood-bodied station wagon, a fixture in California's surf culture dating back to the' 40s, is an American icon, virtually unique in the world of classic cars. Like the music of The Beach Boys, Dick Dale, The Challengers, The Ventures, and dozens of classic bands, woodies paint a picture of a different, uncomplicated time, when innocence was in much greater supply than today.
Fifty-four-year-old Brad Anderson, of Temecula, California, remembers when he was just a 13-year-old beach bum living in southern California. He would sit on a block planter outside Dewey Weber's shop in Venice, just hanging out, hoping to see Weber come or go. Years later, in 1996, he would catch a glimpse of a small ad in the back of a surfing magazine: "Dewey Weber's last woodie for sale, call Shea Weber."
Recently, Anderson and I shared some hot chicken wings at my favorite Buffalo Wild Wings in Temecula while he related the rest of the story.
"When I saw the ad," he remembered, "I just had to call and talk to Dewey's son Shea, to tell him how much I admired his father. Shea was gracious and asked if I wanted to see the woodie. He said it was stored about an hour away in Carlsbad. Thinking how cool it would be to see Dewey's last surf wagon, I drove down to meet with his ex-wife, Caroline.
"Caroline told me that when Dewey died in 1993 they put the woodie in a rental garage in back of an apartment building and closed the door. The Weber family had planned to restore it, but that just never happened. After three years of letting it sit, they decided to sell the woodie and use the money to open another surf shop.
"Late afternoon, sun setting, she unlocks this single-car garage, and when I lifted the door, there was the back of what looked like a big wooden container, split in the middle. The Dodge was so tight in this small garage that you could not pass on either side nor was there more than six inches above the woodie. We opened the rear door, and I had to crawl through the interior just to sit behind the wheel. It was an experience I will never forget as I was sitting where Dewey Weber would be driving to the beach with surfboards, the musty smell of the wood filling my nostrils. I saw through the windshield that the front end and hood looked good, but not much else. It became my mission to own this woodie, but I knew my wife Kelly wanted a Suburban to haul our three growing kids around. I told Caroline I was interested, but I had to go discuss this with my wife first.
"The garage door closed, and on the drive back home, all I could think about was what I would say to Kelly. I decided to tell her I had found her a Suburban and ask for her blessing. Calling back later the next day, after a little discussion with Kelly, I was heartbroken to hear from Caroline Weber that someone else had given her a $500 deposit on the Dodge. I was depressed to know that Dewey's woodie was within my grasp and I had lost it.
"Good karma returned just two days later when Caroline called back and asked if I still wanted the woodie. After freaking out for a moment, I said 'absolutely!' Caroline said that the first buyer who put the deposit down was just interested in flipping the woodie to make a quick sale. 80th Caroline and Shea wanted the old Dodge to go to someone who really wanted it for what it was - a cherished part of California's surf culture, Dewey's last woodie. It was obvious she knew I would cherish it. She returned the first buyer's deposit, and I became the proud and very grateful owner."
After a half-day spent priming and cleaning the fuel system at the storage garage, Anderson was able to get the woodie to limp home at 35 to 40 mph, with his supportive wife following.
So, what did Anderson put in his garage, after tricking his wife into letting him buy it?
Our feature vehicle is a 1950 Dodge"' Highlander commercial wagon - a model B-2-B half-ton that rides on a 108-inch wheelbase. Production numbers were not broken out by Dodge for the 1950 trucks, but we know that, overall, 51,250 B-2-B series trucks were manufactured in 1950, including 4,300 for export. Anderson's chassis and cowl carried an MSRP of $997 and had a shipping weight of 2,350 pounds. From what Anderson has been able to find, his Dodge was first used as a bus at a girls' boarding school in Utah.
The original wood body was manufactured by the Mid-State body Co. in Waterloo, New York, and the body tag declares it was "Campbell Built." The name "Campbell" refers to Robert Campbell, the president of the Hercules- Campbell Body Corp. of Tarrytown, New York, who transformed Waterloo Bodies Inc. into the profitable Mid-State Body Co. in 1932.
Trucks were shipped from Dodge factories to Waterloo in the form of a chassis and partial body. The wood bodies were constructed from ash structural pieces, the undercarriage was made of 2x6-inch wood planks, and the roof was composed of oak slats covered with felt and vinyl. In addition to its Highlander model, Mid-State offered Dodges in Club (116-inch wheelbase), Surrey (126-inch wheelbase), and the massive Convoyer (152- inch wheelbase) configurations. There are no numbers to verify how many Dodge cars and trucks were bodied by the Mid- State Body Co.
"After starting the restoration of the wood," Anderson said, "I realized it was going to take much more time than I had. Fortunately for me, one of the premier wood-body restoration specialists, Ron Heiden, of Heiden's Woodworking, is located about an hour away in Encinitas. Ron works only on one woodie at a time. He's a true craftsman who can't be rushed. Ron was very interested) in refinishing the wood on the Dodge because it was something of a different beast. So four months later, I was able to get my turn with Ron, but not before driving it around town, cleaning what I could, and researching some of the Dodge's history.
"When Ron scraped off what we thought was thick coat of peeling varnish, it turned out to be resin that surfboards were made with. Then, the engine needed work, so the woodie went off to Randy Clark at Hot Rods & Custom Stuff in Escondido.
"Randy got the engine running like a fine Swiss watch, and he bead-blasted and re-varnished the undercarriage to a showroom finish. The only modification I made was to change out the old cloth-coated wiring to vinyl-coated wiring. To maintain authenticity, I kept the six-volt positive-ground system.
"When it was new, the Dodge was a pale tan color. In my research, I found an auto paint supplier that had all the Dodge colors available in 1950, and I changed the color to a factory green. (Dodge offered red, blue, green, yellow, and tan as the only colors back then.) The restoration took 18 months from the day Ron got it."
With the Dodge being a commercial station wagon, there are only three doors - two on the passenger side and only one on the driver's side, so passengers would not exit into traffic. Under the hood, you'll find a 95hp, 217.8ci inline flathead six wearing a Carter carburetor. Anderson was told that the woodie, being a school bus, was required to have turn signals back then, as did postal vehicles. On the dash, there is a wire grille for a radio speaker and a knock-out for a vertically installed radio by the steering column, but, being a bus, the extra-cost radio and speaker were not installed.
Anderson's truck is a continuation of a design Dodge introduced in model-year 1948. The company's first all-new post-war truck model, the' 48 was available in 248 different configurations, from 4,250- to 23,000-pound gross vehicle weights. Visibility was enhanced through the increased glass area with the new "Pilot House" styling. Inside the updated cab, Dodge moved the shifter from the floor to the steering column, creating a "three on the tree" layout. Anderson's truck is equipped with the optional Fluid Drive transmission that allowed the driver to put the car in gear, remove his foot from the clutch, and let the truck idle in gear until he stepped on the gas to go. Anderson notes this is a nice feature to have when stopped on a hill.
His Dodge seats three in the front, two in the middle row, and three in the back, making it an eight-passenger wagon. This commercial-type wagon was often used to take people from the railway station to hotels, so the tailgate (which is a good two-thirds of the back) folds down, allowing luggage to be placed there during travel. The taillight mounted on the tailgate swings out as to be visible with the tailgate down and driving. The front grille elements are stainless steel with chrome bumpers'.
Although wood-bodied station wagons were beautiful and remain iconic, by 1950, their popularity was declining as steel bodies dominated the market following the end of World War II. High- maintenance and rot-prone wood bodies evolved into simulated panels with vinyl decals and wood-grained fiberglass trim covering sheetmetal. The last application of real wood came in 1953 when Buick discontinued its wood-bodied station wagon. With the end of the wood era, bodymakers such as Mid-State (which declared bankruptcy in 1957) came on hard times and closed their doors.
For Anderson, this Dodge provides a double dose of nostalgia. It recalls the easygoing era of the 1930s through the 1950s, when craftsmen built cars by hand, and the surf craze of the 1950s through 1970s, when living on a California beach was the dream of many a teenager. .