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« Let’s Make a Deal | Main | A Collision With Destiny »
Friday
Dec082017

California Dreaming

By William G. Sawyer, Contributing Editor

Photo © RM Sotheby’sWood-clad wagons, or Woodies, are inexorably tied to the surfer culture that defined Southern California life in the Sixties. Songs like the Beach Boy’s Surfin’ Safari and Jan and Dean’s Surf City provided the sound track while Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon tantalized teens with visions of an endless wave of fun free of the realities rushing into their lives like a sinister undertow.

Within a few years another automotive icon became the symbol of a movement, this one occurring a few hours north in a San Francisco neighborhood known as Haight-Ashbury. Like the woody, VW’s Microbus caught on with hippies due to its low cost and carrying capacity, but ended up as a mobile symbol for the counterculture lifestyle. Both vehicles were utilitarian by nature, but just quirky enough to telegraph their respective movement’s rejection of realities they longed to escape, but couldn’t.

1951 Ford Country Squire

Photo © Fast Lane Classic CarsWood was an integral part of early auto production. 100 board feet of the material went into each Ford Model T.  In need of raw material, Ford asked Edward G. Kingsford, a relative, real estate agent and Ford dealer, to find a suitable spot in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for a plant. Ford purchased acreage north of the City of Iron Mountain, built a saw mill and parts plant, and went into production. Rather than discard the waste, Ford recognized an opportunity to turn wood scraps into charcoal. Following a method developed by Orin Stafford, a University of Oregon chemist, the left over wood was combined with tar and bound together with corn starch to create what became known as charcoal briquettes. Ford’s friend Thomas Edison designed a plant for the manufacture of briquettes that Ford built next to his parts plant, christened it Ford Charcoal, and appointed Kingsford — who was married to Henry’s cousin Minnie Flaherty ­— to manage the business. The product was packaged individually as well as bundled with a portable grill in a Picnic Kit, and sold solely through Ford dealerships.

An investment group purchased Ford Charcoal in 1951, renamed it Kingsford Charcoal in honor of Kingsford and the town of the same name that grew up around the Ford plants, and sold it to Clorox in 1973.

Meanwhile, furniture makers built wood-bodied vehicles called depot hacks for resorts to transport guests arriving at nearby train depots. Wealthy vacationers took to the vehicles and purchased them for their country estates, establishing an upscale image car makers were quick to capitalize on.

Star, a division of Durant Motors, was first to offer a factory-built vehicle we now know as the station wagon. Six years later, in 1929, Ford introduced a wooden wagon of its own. Others followed, but Ford dominated the market until 1942 when war interrupted production.

Photo © Fast Lane Classic CarsAfter the war real-wood station wagons quickly fell out of favor. Servicemen returning to a country experiencing a technological boom were unwilling to put up with drawbacks endemic to the design. Creaking joints, rotting wood, and constant upkeep weren’t acceptable in a world engulfed in prosperity and high tech wonders developed in wartime. By 1941 Chevrolet, Pontiac, and Oldsmobile limited wood to the tailgate and a single strip along the side. However, Buick somehow managed to buck the trend at GM. The division soldiered on with real wood on the exterior of its wagons until 1953. Ford, and its sister Mercury, continued to use wood cosmetic panels until the 1949-1951 model station wagons. A year later, wood was gone altogether at Ford and elsewhere, replaced by materials that evoked the image of the country gentleman without the hassle.

Our reference woody is a 1951 Ford Country Squire available at Fast Lane Classic Cars (www.fastlanecars.com) with an asking price of $94,995. Previously owned by the President of the Southern California Woody Club, this Culver Blue stunner features a 239 in.3 Flat Head V8 sporting Offenhauser heads. Extremely well outfitted, it has the 3-seat option, dual horns and dual outside mirrors, AM radio, under dash heater, and sliding rear windows. This final-year example from a bygone era is sure to be ushered to a front row parking spot at the local drive-in or car show.

1960 Volkswagen Deluxe Microbus

Photo © RM Sotheby’sThe 1921 Rumpler Trofewagen (rain drop car) and Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion are generally credited as the first passenger vans. Neither reached production. Later, on April 23, 1947, Dutch VW importer Ben Pon sketched his idea for a people mover and commercial vehicle based on the VW Beetle Type 1 platform. Included with his sketch were suggestions of a payload of 1520 lb. and an extreme forward-control driving position. A prototype was developed in three short months, however, VW engineers quickly nixed the Type 1 platform for a ladder frame and unit body, but they specified that the wheelbase remain the same. Wind tunnel testing at the Technical University of Braunschweig convinced designers to split the windshield to create a subtle V-shape, and this resulted in a coefficient of drag of 0.44 compared to 0.48 for the Beetle. With a scant 25 horsepower to work with, the engineers couldn’t afford to waste energy pushing through the atmosphere. Now designated the Type 2, the Microbus debuted in May, 1950, six months after the introduction of the Kombi and Commercial variants.

The counterculture was attracted to the Microbus due to its utility, affordability, and ease of maintenance, but fell in love with its quirky style and in-your-face nonconformity. While their parents gas-guzzled their way to the country club in V8-powered evocations of the original woodies, their kids piled all their earthly belongings into a Microbus and headed for Woodstock.

As Damon Ristau, director of the The Bus, a documentary chronicling the Microbus phenomenon, told USA Today, "The van represents freedom. It has a magic and charm lacking in other vehicles. It's about the open road, about bringing smiles to peoples' faces when they see an old VW van rolling along."

Surfers, too, embraced the bus as their woodies aged, although its appeal to Dead Heads and pot heads is most memorable. Rumor has it Steve Jobs, no stranger to hallucinogens, sold his personal VW van and used the money to buy a circuit board as he and The Great and Powerful Woz, Steve Wozniak, labored in his garage creating what became Apple Computer.

The Microbus may be cute, but driving one in traffic can be ugly. Grossly underpowered, its acceleration might as well be measured in years rather than seconds, and the combination of a tall boxy shape and rear engine mean the handling can be dicey. Plus, the over-the-front-wheels driving position is almost guaranteed to make you pull your legs up to your chin in fear at the hint of a head-on collision.

Our subject vehicle is a 1960 Volkswagen Deluxe Microbus that appeared at RM Sotheby’s Icons auction in New York December 6, and it’s somehow fitting that this Microbus was originally delivered to Los Angeles. Restored by Napa Valley Restorations with a replacement, but correct specification, 40-horsepower engine, it’s a coveted 23-window version with a canvas sunroof. What’s unknown is whether the technicians found a few stray joints or a stash of Owsley’s acid when they stripped the vehicle prior to restoration.

Photo © RM Sotheby’sFormer flower power couples worried about how they’ll pay for retirement will rue the day they sold their Microbus once they see what this one brought at auction. Projected to bring $150,000 to $225,000, it sold for $207,200, plus buyer’s commission. (Ironically, a BMW Z8 formerly owned by Steve Jobs sold for $329,500 in the same auction.) A fitting symbol for the many hippies who succumbed to capitalism as they grew older.

In the Sixties California was the Promised Land, a mirage promising endless prosperity and freedom to the dreamers who fell under its spell. Like the counterculture movements it spawned, reality is now very different as the state struggles to reconcile the differences between the Eden of their emotions and reality.

Nevertheless, whenever we’re in need of a few minutes respite from the daily pressure, we’ll pile into the Virtual Collection’s Ford Woody and VW Microbus, and let them take us away.

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