Dear Car Talk: I was born in 1947 and lived through the whole "Woodie" era. I knew people who had them, and they were considered special, like a Lexus or Land Rover might be today. But I have always wondered if that was real wood. Was it? — Ronald
Absolutely. In fact, if you walk up to a Woodie and look closely, you can see the bar code from Home Depot. For those too young to remember Woodies -- which is most people now -- they were cars that had side and rear panels made out of actual wood.
Early on, Woodies were kind of custom vehicles, made either by do-it-yourselfers or by third-party customizers who would add wood panels to your car for a price. Then, in the 1930s, you started seeing a bunch of cars from the big, American car companies that came from the factory with wood panels. The dealers couldn't sell you rustproofing you didn't need back then. But I wouldn't be surprised if they sold plenty of termite-protection packages.
Eventually, though, everybody realized that steel was a heck of a lot safer than wood in an accident. I mean, just the splinters alone could kill you. And it turned out steel was cheaper, too. You're probably not old enough to remember when some brands were advertising "all-steel construction" as a big competitive advantage.
Then, in the early '50s, Woodies kind of disappeared, and that was the end of real wood on car exteriors. Except for my brother's '67 Suburban, onto which he glued the old wood paneling he'd ripped out of his den when he renovated. After that, it was all contact paper: vinyl stickers that boasted of "simulated wood grain" but looked only vaguely like wood from a distance of 40 paces. You probably remember the Chevy Caprice Wagon and the Ford Country Squire of 1960s with fake wood appliques on the sides.
By the time the last of those humongous American wagons, the Buick Roadmaster Estate, was retired in 1996, even the fake wood was gone. And these days, the only place you see real wood is inside luxury cars. Now, for a price, you can have a real wood accent next to your cup holder. And then you, too, can stare at it and wonder "is that real wood?"
Got a question about cars? Write to Ray in care of King Features, 628 Virginia Drive, Orlando, FL 32803, or email by visiting the Car Talk website at www.cartalk.com.