In the 1930s and 1940s, few cars had more prestige than the Ford/Mercury "woody" station wagon. Nearly always the highest priced model in the Ford line, it was about as practical as a backyard gazebo but carried as much status as a Chris-Craft speedboat.
While Ford led the industry in wooden-body wagon sales, production was always low, due as much to limited production capability as to the small demand. Woodies of all makes were sought after by hotels, resorts, country clubs, stables, and movie studios, and Ford's woodies were owned almost exclusively by country squires long before its wagons were ever called that.
Though highly impractical, there was something about the Ford woodies that made them slightly magical. They invariably squeaked, rattled, and groaned as glued and screwed seams came loose, and their bodywork required at least as much maintenance as a boat (owner's manuals recommended annual stripping and revarnishing).
But the country squire seemed to accept the responsibilities that went along with woody ownership. Hired help did most of the work anyway, and besides, the ritual of annual revarnishing was always a special part of the woody mystique.
To understand why Ford built woodies in the first place, you must understand the peculiar nature of Henry Ford. He believed that his company should be completely self-sufficient, from mining ore and operating rubber plantations to growing maple, birch, gum, and basswood for Model T floorboards and body frames.
In its quest for self-sufficiency, Ford Motor Company bought vast forest reserves on the rugged Upper Michigan Peninsula some 500 miles northwest of Detroit, and constructed a plant there, at Iron Mountain, in 1920. Ford grew its own trees, cut its own timber, ran its own sawmill, and cut and formed its own wooden body parts.
But no matter how many Lizzies the assembly lines turned out, they never seemed to exhaust the company's forests. Typically, Henry wasted nothing: even sawdust and leftover wood pieces were turned into Ford Charcoal Briquets. It was almost inevitable that the Iron Mountain operation would be tapped for production of wood station wagon bodies.
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Design and Production of the Ford Mercury Woody
During the heyday of the Model T Depot Hack and other commercials, Ford had depended on outside suppliers for its wood bodies, firms such as Seaman, Columbia, Martin-Parry, Mifflinburg, and York. It was only when Ford introduced its first "real" station wagon in 1929 that it began to use Iron Mountain. Even then, the wood for the Ford Mercury woody was only cut and formed there.
Actual body assembly was carried out by Briggs or Murray of Detroit or Baker-Rawling in Cleveland. These Model A wagon bodies were made of maple with birch or gumwood panels. They were four-doors, with piano hinges at the A- and C-pillars so that the rear doors opened "suicide style."
Only the windshield was glass. All other window openings had canvas curtains with small plastic openings that limited visibility. Just a few wagons were built in 1928. The first year that Ford mass-produced wagons was 1929, when it built 5200 in all. From that point on, Ford was America's undisputed "wagon master."
Production of Ford woody wagons continued through 1951. Ross Cousins, an artist in Ford Styling from 1938 through 1948, recalls with amusement, "It was not a very practical venture, but it was always interesting. I'm sure they lost money on it, though I don't think they ever knew how much."
Evidently, the company discovered that it wasn't very economical to produce its own wagons, because it contracted the Mingel Company, a furniture manufacturer in Louisville, Kentucky, to build wood wagon parts from 1932 to 1935. Briggs and Murray still assembled the bodies in Detroit.
In 1933-1934, the wagon body was altered somewhat, and both front and rear doors were of the suicide type. For 1935, Ford went back to producing its own body parts at Iron Mountain, with Murray doing the assembly.
The 1935-1937 bodies were virtually the same. All doors now shut at the B-pillar, as they had done from 1929 through 1932. However, the body changed considerably from previous years, and all the ribbing was now horizontal.
For the 1935 models, crank-up glass windows were newly featured in the front doors, though canvas curtains with large plastic panels were used for the rest of the openings. Also for 1935, the spare tire was mounted on the tailgate. It had previously been carried on the left (1929-1931) or right (1932-1934) front fender.
Late-1936 wagons could be ordered with glass rear windows as an option, and Ford scored a first with a swing-out rear window for 1937. For 1938 the body again changed slightly and the spare moved inside, mounted behind the driver's seat. For 1939 there were two Ford woodies, Standard and DeLuxe. Up to this point, the woody had been considered a commercial vehicle.
Between 1937 and 1939, all the firm's wood-body operations were moved to Iron Mountain. Timber now literally went in one end and came out the other as a complete woody body, including metal cowl, instrument panel, and floor.
For 1940 there was another new body design, less angular than before and with rear doors hinged at the B-pillar. The spare tire returned to its previous tailgate mounting, which would be retained through 1951. The body was altered again for 1941, becoming more solid and simplified and now with mahogany panels and maple or birch frames.
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Evolution of the Ford Mercury Woody
Ford Mercury woodies figured heavily in FoMoCo's plans for its first new postwar models, but the need to economize and a last-minute change of direction meant woody sedans and convertibles didn't stand a chance.
By this time it was a woody world. Every GM division except Cadillac had a factory woody model, and a special Cadillac woody sedan body could be ordered from Coachcraft in California. Studebaker, Hudson, Packard, Plymouth, and Dodge all had woodies, many for some time. Chrysler introduced its striking new Town & Country wagon that year, offered in six- and nine-passenger versions.
Ford now carried its station wagon body over to the Mercury line, where it appeared as a lone-eight cylinder model. There were four woody wagons in the Ford line: a Six and an Eight in both the DeLuxe and Super DeLuxe series.
Iron Mountain continued turning out woodies until World War II halted all U.S. civilian car production. Wagon output for 1942 was a mere 1222 Fords and 900 Mercury s.
The 1942 body returned unchanged for 1946-1948 except for the familiar postwar face-lifts, and the DeLuxe wagon was dropped. Up to this point, all Ford woody wagons had been evolutionary.
But the 1949 model was quite revolutionary. It marked the last time the firm would be financially unsuccessful at building wagons. The 1949-1951 design generation would also see the last Ford and Mercury wagons with real wood bodywork.
The origins of the 1949 wagons can be traced as far back as 1941, when the styling group under E. T. "Bob" Gregorie began work on the 1943 models that never appeared because of the war.
By 1943 there were a number of clays that clearly outlined the basic shapes of postwar Mercuries and Lincolns. Among them was at least one mock-up of a new wagon body, probably envisioned as being all-wood.
The atmosphere at Ford Motor Company in this period was chaotic. Edsel Ford died in May 1943, and old Henry was becoming increasingly senile. Whatever postwar planning could be managed was carried out in complete secrecy from Charlie Sorensen, Ford's right hand man, and the U.S. Government, which forbade any new product development during the war.
Yet some brilliant work went forward, some of it undercover, including an independent front suspension for Ford and Mercury and a new torsion-bar suspension for Lincoln.
Engineering projects proceeded under Larry Sheldrick, whom Sorensen eventually fired, while design efforts were supervised by Gregorie, who quit but soon returned. Given the cloak-and-dagger conditions, it's a miracle that anything at all emerged from this wartime work.
From the beginning, wood wagon bodies had been squeaky, drafty and, above all, costly to build. Any postwar wagon would have to be stronger, quieter, more durable and stylish and, most of all, more profitable.
These requirements led to Gregorie's wagon design of 1943-1944. In its final form, it had an all-steel body with a steel top. Wood was used only for the outer panels and lower tailgate section.
Two doors were employed instead of four, because two-door models are cheaper to build and provide greater overall structural strength. Ross Cousins still has a drawing he did, dated 8/24/1944, and it is clearly the same wagon design introduced in early 1948 for the 1949 Ford and Mercury lines.
At about the same time, Cousins rendered a convertible sport wagon, essentially the same car without a top. Cousins says both these ideas were Gregorie's; he only rendered them. While he doesn't recall a clay model of the new wagon, he does remember doing a full-size blackboard drawing of it and believes a prototype was done later that Gregorie drove.
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Development of the Postwar Ford Mercury Woody
As late as early 1947, Ford's postwar planning did not just include the Ford Mercury woody; Ford envisioned four separate car lines. Besides a compact "light car" there was to be a standard Ford on a 118-inch wheelbase, including Gregorie's wood/steel two-door wagon and convertible.
A brace of Mercuries on wheelbases of 120 and 123 inches was also scheduled, again with these body styles, though the wood/steel Sportsman convertible was more closely related to Mercury's production 1946-1948 woody ragtop than the new wagon.
Finally came Lincoln, with a standard wheelbase of 125 inches, Custom or Cosmopolitan models on a 128-inch chassis, and a 132-inch-wheelbase Continental and limousine.
A Sportsman-type convertible was targeted for the standard Lincoln series, while the Cosmopolitan line would get a smart wood/steel sedan, both apparently intended as replies to Chrysler's 1946-1948 Town & Country offerings.
With all this, woodies figured very heavily in Ford's postwar thinking. Yet except for the wagons, none of these models ever appeared. What happened?
In 1945, newly installed company president Henry Ford II brought in Ernest R. Breech from Bendix and GM to be his second in command. Breech was never very comfortable with Gregorie's Ford designs; he felt they were much too heavy and ponderous.
In August 1946 he told Ford's policy committee that the new Mercury should be based on the proposed 118-inch-wheelbase Ford and that the two Mercurys should be combined to form the smaller Lincoln series. The Cosmopolitan would stay at the top of the Lincoln line.
He also recommended a totally new Ford be designed from scratch on a 114-inch wheelbase and declared it should be the company's top priority.
The committee bought all of Breech's proposals. Both Gregorie and an outside group headed by George Walker now submitted proposals for the new 1949 Ford. Except for minor details, their designs were quite similar because a very tight package had been set down.
Ultimately, the Walker group's model was chosen. Gregorie again left the company because of this and other differences with Breech, though his departure was an amiable one.
The 1951 Ford and Mercury wagons set an all-time high in FoMoCo woody production. They were the most expensive models in their lines, but they also had the poorest resale value.
Engineering work for the 1949 Ford now moved ahead at full speed, a crash campaign unprecedented in the industry at that time. Everything else was secondary in Dearborn, and a lot of plans were left by the wayside, including the compact Ford, a coupe, and a whole fleet of fastbacks.
The Continental project was tabled indefinitely, and there was no hope for the woody sports wagons, convertibles, or sedans. The reason given in each case was cost effectiveness: Ford Motor Company was losing nearly $10 million a month at the time, so the need to economize was obvious.
The only woody project to reach production was Gregorie's station wagon, his basic body design being developed for both the 114-inch-wheelbase Ford and 118-inch-wheelbase Mercury chassis that appeared for 1949.
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Production of the Postwar Ford Mercury Woody
It has been said that the Ford Mercury woody wagons looked rather like boats. This may be due in part to Gregorie's love of yachts. He was trained as a naval architect, and when he left Ford in December 1946, he returned to designing yachts.
It has also been said that the 1949 wood-wagon body was so heavy that it must have been originally intended for Mercury. This is quite correct. As noted, the 1949 Mercury was supposed to have been that year's Ford, and it turned out to be the better-performing of the two wagons. The Ford version has some peculiar qualities.
For example, its rear section is so heavy that the front feels quite light, and the car handles almost like it has power steering. The 100-horsepower Ford flat-head V-8 is coupled in the wagon with the 3.91:1 Mercury rear end instead of the 3.73:1 setup used in other models.
The engines are nearly identical, of course, but a 0.25-inch longer stroke gives the Mercury 10 more horsepower than the Ford. And the Ford really needs that, because it weighs 3543 pounds, a mere 83 pounds less than the Mercury.
The only body difference between the two is that the upper portion of the Mercury's front door is tucked in at the cowl to meet its lower fenderline.
Complete steel bodies for both 1949 wagons were shipped to Iron Mountain, where the wood outer panels were added. Whereas the earlier body framing was made from solid pieces of maple, the 1949 frames were constructed with an elaborate electrobonding process.
Door frames, for example, were formed by a radio-frequency bonding press applying pressure to a loose package of resin-coated wood plies, then radiation-energy laminated into a frame pillar blank. The process utilized eighteen 75-ton laminating presses.
At the time these cars were built, dealers were supplied with replacement wood. The idea was that as the wood frames and panels deteriorated, owners could replace them with new wood from dealers.
But few owners stockpiled wood, and eventually dealers simply threw out the old stock. Thus, restorers may have a difficult time finding new-old stock wood today. Replacement pieces can be made, but they will not be laminated.
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Legacy of the Ford Mercury Woody
Were there any unique versions of Ford's last postwar woody? Yes. A prototype of the convertible sports wagon or Mercury Sportsman was reportedly built, and Siebert of Toledo, Ohio, constructed a few 10-passenger wagons on a stretched wheelbase. The latter, featuring four doors and a fourth seat, may have been built as 1949 Fords only.
As for differences between the three model years, there are quite a few among the Fords but very few among the Mercurys, apart from the expected front-end styling changes shared with their linemates.
Beginning about mid-1950, the wood tailgate on both models was replaced by a steel gate decorated with woodgrain decals, and the removable center seat was replaced with a fixed fold-down seat.
The Ford's attractive woodgrain instrument panel gave way to a panel simply painted in a neutral color, its chrome windshield molding was replaced with a rubber molding, and its wood interior panels were abandoned for cardboard that simulated wood.
For 1951, the Ford wagon retained the 1949-1950 instrument panel while all other models had a completely new dash, and the wagon's spare tire cover was no longer offered. Interestingly, most of these nice custom touches were retained on the Mercury for all three years.
Ford could offer a little more in the Mercury because it charged more for it. But the company really held the line on wagon prices in all three years due to the highly competitive market of the time. In fact, prices actually declined a bit for 1950-1951.
For 1951, Ford turned over all wood-wagon body assembly to Ionia, probably for reasons of cost efficiency. It is a paradox that the name "Country Squire" first appeared on the Ford wagon for 1951, when the model was much less a fancy "Squire" than in previous years.
The name was emphasized beginning with the new all-steel 1952 models, adorned with mere decals and a token natural wood border.
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Gordon Buehrig and the 1949-1951 Ford Mercury Woody
The Ford and Mercury woody wagons came to an end with the 1951 editions, which achieved an all-time high in FoMoCo woody production. Though they were still the most expensive models in their respective lines, they had the poorest resale value.
Meantime, Plymouth, Chevrolet, and others were tapping into a whole new market with all-steel wagons, and Ford was not about to be left hiding in its own woodwork.
For 1952, Ford introduced its first all-steel wagons, two- and four-door models in three distinct series. Mercury also switched to metal bodywork that year, but offered a single four-door wagon with six- or nine-passenger seating.
Famed designer Gordon Buehrig, who created the 1952 wagon line, explains why FoMoCo's real woodies finally disappeared:
"I was in charge of a small group called the Body Development Studio. What we had to work with was a 1952 sedan with two doors on one side and four doors on the other.
"From this model, it was our assignment to design all the others using maximum interchangeability of parts, and this is when we came up with the [Ford] Ranch Wagon and the Country Sedan and the Country Squire.
"That 1949-1951 station wagon had the worst resale of any car in the line. It was the most expensive car in the line, and it had the lowest production. [Actually, the Ford Crestliner and business coupe had lower volume.] GM and Chrysler both had all-steel wagons. They were outselling us, and their wagons had better resale.
"The all-steel wagons that we came out with, that first year they built all they could build [the Korean War put restrictions on all 1952 production] and by the third year  they got up to 145,000.
"The Ranch Wagon had the best resale of any car in the line, which was a complete reversal from the old wood jobs... I was never very sympathetic towards the 1949-1951-model wagon because it was an economic flop, and I designed something to replace it."
If FoMoCo woodies were now history, they weren't forgotten. For a time they were cult vehicles favored by California surfers and beatniks, while a few were loved and cherished by owners who religiously varnished the wood every spring. And even before most models of the 1940s and 1950s became collectibles, the woodies had achieved a certain "special interest" status.
Today, the 1949-1951 wagons have survived in the greatest numbers because they had the highest original production and because of their sturdier steel inner panels and tops. Unfortunately, it is hard to find an unrestored specimen from any of these years with "perfect" original wood.