The Coast News Group
The decidedly hip crew from Surf Dog Records in their classic woody. Photo by Chris Ahrens

Waterspot: The legend of the ‘Surf Wagons’

“I got a ’34 wagon and I call it a woody. You know it’s not very cherry, it’s an oldie but a goodie… Well, it ain’t got a back seat or a rear window, but it still gets me where I wanna go.”

— “Surf City,” The Beach Boys

It’s probably going to take about 30 years before the car I drive now, a 2005 Honda Element, is considered a surf classic. It took about that long for “woodies,” station wagons with real wood paneling on them to earn classic status.

I first became aware of woodies when I began surfing in 1962. Back then every surfer either owned one or wanted one. That wasn’t because they were pretty—they weren’t. They were generally termite-ridden rust buckets without back seats or rear windows.

While the Beach Boys were basically considered hodad music, and their song  “Surf City” was the ultimate corny and inaccurate licks—nobody ever “strapped their board to their back and hitched a ride in their wetsuit”—they were dead on in the implication that the looks of the car didn’t matter, but the destination did.

Most woodies could be purchased for a few hundred bucks in the ‘60s, got about eight miles to a gallon of 23 cent gas and used nearly as much oil.

Sometime in the mid-’70s woodies made a modest comeback. It was around that time I recall my then employer, now good friend, Sunset Surfboards owner Ed Wright buying one for $1,4000. I don’t know the make or year of that car, but it was perfect (like the surfboards Ed shaped and still shapes on occasion.)

But the sight of that wagon (it’s still going strong, just like its owner) floods me with joy and, to be honest, a little envy every time I see it.

Unlike Brain Wilson’s mythic ride from Surf City, most woodies now have not only rear windows and back seats, but plush interiors, multi-layered paint, and side panels that are works of art all on their own.

The next classic surf cars to hit big were VW vans. I blew up four of them, three in Baja and one, a 21 window, ragtop, in Oceanside. That car, if I still owned it, would pay off my house and leave enough to pay cash for a Tesla. Window vans and other VW vans are in high demand along with ‘60s Ford, Chevy and Dodge vans, and, my personal favorites, camper vans with chrome ladders.

The idea back in the day was to get the most metal for the money, not to have a cool-looking car that was allergic to sand, sun and saltwater. If I were currently looking for good, cheap transportation I would shop in the least hip isle possible.

Yep, you got it—I would be checking out “soccer mom” vans. They are inexpensive, well maintained, economical, can carry a group of screaming people, and soak up barf from that of infants to inebriated adults.

Everything about them from the license plate rims advertising the Lion’s Club, to the “Congratulations class of 2021″ painted on the rear window reeks of middle age unhippness.

Being hip in the car department won’t get you to the beach or anywhere else you wanna go. It won’t even get you out of the driveway. I love every car I have described, but I love the places they go far more.  Get out there and have a cool summer.