Woodies revive memories of motoring's golden age in Geneva

Woodies, such as this Chevrolet Fleetline, were a highlight of the Geneva motor show Keystone

The Geneva motor show is a showcase for technical innovations in the motor industry, but visitors are being encouraged to take a detour to see the Woodies - a priceless piece of motoring memorabilia.

This content was published on March 7, 2001 - 07:43

The eight lovingly restored automobiles at the exhibition transport the visitor back to a post-war baby boom America, full of wide-open spaces and far from the high-tech concept cars jostling for space elsewhere in the show.

The Woodies were so named because they were built predominantly from wood. This was partly as a result of the wartime shortage of steel, which forced carmakers to seek alternative materials, but mainly because it made the cars look good.

For a few years in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Woodies became a significant trend in US car manufacturing. They were made not only by big companies such as Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, but also by smaller firms like Nash and Kaiser.

"It was just after the war, people were relaxing, they wanted to have their home in the country, and the Woodies were part of that spirit," says Tom Harrington, owner of a rare 1947 Nash Ambassador, which is one of the cars in the exhibition.

But, although attractive, these cars were far more difficult to maintain than those made from sheet metal. At around the same time, the giant car plants of Detroit were gearing up for the future - and it was a future made of steel. The Woodies' heyday was over almost as soon as it had begun.

"They rotted very quickly, and very few were saved," Harrington says, adding that his Nash needs regular attention. "Wood dries out and gets damp, and splits appear. If they're not repaired immediately, the wood rots."

Left to decay in backyards or on scrap heaps, the Woodies enjoyed a revival in the 1960s when they were adopted by the California teenagers looking for cheap but stylish second-hand cars, which could easily accommodate their surfboards.

Today, the Woodies are rare. They became collectors' items barely 20 years ago, but today, the few examples that remain intact fetch huge sums. It is little wonder that collectors go to great lengths to track them down.

"There are only three or four Nash Woodies that have been saved and restored," says Tom Harrington.

"It took me a long time to track down this Woodie, and it took me eight more years to persuade the owner to sell it. Then I spent three or four years getting it in the shape it's in now," he told swissinfo.

Even the names of the cars on display at the Car Show conjure up that special post-war American atmosphere: a 1947 Ford Sportsman, a Chevrolet Fleetline from the same year, a 1948 Chrysler Town and Country, and Mercurey Station Wagon.

There are even two Italian cars - a 1949 Fiat Giardiniera and a Lancia Aurelia, made in 1952 - which prove that the trend made it over to Europe.

Like many, Tom Harrington believes it is important to display cars like the Woodies at big motor shows like Geneva, as it demonstrates the rich automobile heritage: "The new mini looks fantastic, but it's important to remember where it comes from."

by Roy Probert

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