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Plymouth wagons and woodies: Suburban, PT, Westchester, and Others

The early Plymouth wagons were called "woodies" because of their construction--some were called depot hacks. Mostly they were just called station wagons. It's a name that stuck--nothing exciting, just a good, plain descriptive title for a multi-passenger, cargo carrying motor vehicle. [Webmaster note: "station" may derive from their use as taxis at train and bus stations.]

The Star gets the credit for being the first one, back in 1923. A product of the Durant Motor Corporation, the Star did not survive the rocky times the economy threw at it--and with it went the fortunes of William Crapo Durant. He's the guy that started General Motors--and then lost it to the bankers. He's also the guy who started Chevrolet, which eventually bought out General Motors from the bankers so Billy could lose it a second time. His third try (and his last) was the Durant conglamoration. When it went under so did Billy, and he died near penniless and nearly forgotten many years later [trying to set up a bowling alley chain - ed.].

But Durant's idea for a utilitarian vehicle hung on. It's still with us today. The sale of station wagons has seen its ups and downs over the years but today's crop of mini-cars that are half cars and half station wagons owe their ancestry to Billy Durant's lumber yard on wheels.

Today the wood grain is either paint or Di-Noc decal but the vestiges of those early wooden bodies cars is still prevalent today. All steel station wagon bodies were a new idea in 1949 but today, it's the only method of construction. That was Plymouth's idea. People laughed at it back then--but then they laughed at Billy Durant, too.

Early Plymouth woodie station wagonPrior to 1934, station wagon bodies on Plymouth's were built to customers' orders by various body builders. if you wanted a wagon you bought the bare chassis from your favorite dealer and had it shipped to a body builder where the body was added. Plain and simple but officially not a Plymouth station wagon.

Plymouth's first official station wagon was offered in April of 1934. This time the factory got involved -- they shipped the chassis to the U.S. Body & Forging Company plant at Tell City, Indiana. There U.S.B.F. built and installed a station wagon body on the Deluxe PE chassis. Constructed of cottonwood panels, red gum, oak and ash, it was a handsome creation. Unfortunately none survive today -- they only built 35 of them in that first year. The price was $820 FOB Tell City. Body color was (like Henry's "T") your choice of black.

Options on the other PE models such as automatic clutch and free wheeling transmissions were not available and the rear bumper was deleted, for which the buyer got a small credit--bumpers were still optional in '34. The seats were upholstered in Spanish grain leather, all three of them. The rear two were removable for greater cargo carrying capacity. Glass was used in the front doors but the rest of the openings were covered with storm curtains.

The name for this new creation was a mouthful-- officially it was known as the Plymouth Westchester Semi-Sedan Suburban.

By 1935 the usefulness of the station wagon was becoming apparent to Plymouth buyers and production swelled to 119 units. The price had gone down to $765 a copy which might have accounted for the increased sales. The body this time was mounted on the business series chassis with a wheelbase of 113". Heavy duty springs front and rear, as well as fender mounted spare tires were carried over from the previous year.

For 1936 the wagon body was again built by U.S. Body and Forging--in fact all Plymouth wooden wagon bodies would be built by them until the "woodie" were phased out after the 1950 model year--and again it was mounted on the business chassis. This Semi- Sedan Suburban saw a production run of 309 unit selling at the same price as the 1935 version. The chassis as shipped from the factory was priced at $415-- the body itself cost $350.

By 1937 Plymouth had decided to re-enter the commercial car market in a big way, announcing a complete line of trucks in addition to the passenger car line. This line of trucks, mounted on Dodge like truck chassis and called the PT50, offered a pickup, a cab and chassis pickup, a sedan delivery--and the station wagon body on the PT50 Chassis.

The wheelbase jumped to 116" while production soared to 602 units. The price fell slightly, to $740. Glass side windows became an option as well as three different tailgate openings. The standard tailgate consisted of an upper liftgate and a lower tailgate. Two center opening sedan delivery type doors were the second choice while the third choice offered the best of the first two choices-- the upper liftgate section consisted of two center opening doors while the tailgate remained the lower door. The spare tire remained in the right front fender-- the left side was optional. Because of flood damage to the plant at Tell City the body works moved to Frankfort, Indiana.

1938 was another year of big change in the Plymouth wagons. The body moved back to the passenger car chassis and the wheelbase shrunk to 112". Production fell slightly to 555 units, not bad considering that the Recession of '38 sliced Plymouth production by nearly 50 percent. And in light of the price hike to $880 per unit.

The spare tire, which had normally ridden in the front fenders, was now mounted on the tailgate itself. Side mount fenders on the passenger car line had ceased with production in 1936. With the one year ride on the truck chassis the tire had to move when the body returned to the passenger car line. The wagon now rode on the deluxe P6 chassis.

Wagon production leaped in 1939 despite a price hike (the rest of the Plymouth lineup saw a price reduction in '39). The Westchester commanded a whooping $970 when equipped with glass windows all around ($940 for the side curtain version). 1,680 were built on the Deluxe P8 chassis while another 97 were assembled for export sales on the P7 Roadking chassis.

Throughout the year, the wagon saw a great deal of advertising, often in combination with the convertible coupe and convertible sedan models as the "New Plymouth Sportsman." Sportsman was a name used only by the advertising agencies--it never appeared on the cars themselves. The spare tire again returned to the front fenders on both the station wagon and the sedan delivery models. Wheelbase was 114".

The wheelbase increased to 117" with the 1940 P10 Deluxe models while the price remained the same as '39. Production totaled 3,126 units on the P10 chassis with another 80 built again for export on the P9 Roadking chassis. This year the spare tire found a home on the inside, mounted in the center of the front seat back, while glass windows became standard equipment. As in years past the wagon had three seats, with the two rear sets removable. One set of seats was narrower than the other, allowing for an aisle along the right side of the vehicle for rear most seat passengers to gain access to their seat--however the seat mountings allowed either seat to be interchanged.

1941 Plymouth station wagonA major change came with the wagon offerings of 1941. For the first time the buyer had his choice of finishes to be applied to the outer wood work. The frame was made of white ash but the wood work panels could be finished in either white maple or Honduras mahogany. The base price was up slightly at $1,031 each. Perhaps the impending war clouds in Europe aided sales--or the economy's upswing or both--wagon sales increased to 5,594 units on the Deluxe P12 chassis with an additional 217 mounted on the P11 chassis.

The war-shortened 1942 model year saw only 1,136 wagons built at a price tag of $1,145. The buyer again had his choice of wood finish and this year a full length piece of chrome trim adorned the body. The wheelbase remained at 117"--it would stay at that figure until the end of P15 production after the war's end and the "warmed over" post-war models through 1948.

Following the war as automobile production again got into full swing the post war buyer had to contend with car shortages, strikes and a seller's market. The P15 station wagon in 1946 listed for $1539-- if you could find a dealer to sell you one for that, or any other price. By 1948 the same wagon was selling for $2,068 The two tone wood treatment was still offered but the application of chrome trim amounted only to the hood and the cowl.

The high cost of production of the wooden bodies, plus the nearly constant upkeep required, were distinct disadvantages of the station wagon. Clearly something had to be done to make the car more practical--and less costly to own. The industry had laughed when the first all steel car bodies had been built years before. Wood framed steel was the answer they all said, but pioneers such as Ed Budd had proved them wrong on that point. The all steel body was stronger, safer, required less upkeep and was cheaper to build. So why not apply those principles to the station wagon? it was a good idea, or so the production people at Plymouth thought. And for 1949--they acted, introducing the industry's first all steel station wagon. They called it simply the Suburban.

The Suburban was a radical departure for Plymouth as far as station wagons go. Not only was the body all steel, but it was a down-sized version as well. The Suburban, which was built on the Deluxe P17 chassis, had a wheel base of only 111". Passenger capacity was limited to 5 people, down from the 7-8 passenger rating of the previous line of station wagons. Other wagons had all been four doors version but the Suburban was only a two door model. The spare tire found a home in the well in the rear of the body floor. The car was short and stubby looking--truly one of those vehicles that are best described as being so homely that they're cute. Priced at $1,840 it was an immediate sales success. Production stood at 19,220 units, by far the best wagon sales Plymouth had ever seen.

In addition to the Suburban, Plymouth also offered a wooden bodied wagon on the special Deluxe P18 chassis. This wagon was more true to form for Plymouth; it was a four door, 7-8 passenger car. Although still carrying the wooden body it was the first woodie in Plymouth's history to have an all steel roof. The spare tire found a new home in a neatly sculptured housing molded into the tailgate. The woody sold for $2,372. At $1,500 more than the steel bodied Suburban only 3,443 of them were built.

For 1950 Plymouth offered two versions of the all steel Suburban. The regular version on the P19 chassis was the Deluxe Suburban which sold for $1,946. A more dolled up version, called the special Suburban, also on the P19 chassis, sold for $1,946. Production of these types amounted to 34,457 units.

1950 was the last year the woodie was built. Essentially the same as the previous years offering, with a wheelbase of 118 inches and a price tag of $2,372, only 2,057 were built. With the end of the woodie so ended an era -- the last of the wood bodied cars. Progress had marched ahead several steps and the woodie wagon could no longer compete effectively in the market place. The cars were expensive to build, and expensive to maintain.

Maintenance, or the lack of it, is probably the reason so few woodie wagons remain today. The factory recommended redoing the wood work yearly--for most owners that was a service procedure that was ignored. Dry rot, termites, fire--all took their toll on the wooden bodies. An auto accident -- forget it, most body shops wouldn't touch a repair on a wooden body for love or money.

The woody had probably survived longer than it really deserved but they were--well, the only word to describe them was "cute." They had a certain charm, a certain elegance that far outweighed their utilitarian purpose and design. For a bottom of the line, qualsi-commerical-passenger vehicle they were seen in the best of places. Somehow the all steel wagon never enjoyed that status.

For 1952 the all steel wagon came in two versions, the Concord Suburban at $2,064 and the Deluxe Concord Savoy at $2,182. Despite material shortages due to the Korean War, the wagons enjoyed a production run of 76,520 units for the years 1952-52. There was no model change;as such between the two years although the prices increased slightly for '52, to $2,163 and $2,287 respectively. The 111" wheelbase was retained and advertised passenger capacity remained at 5 people.

For 1953 the wagons received new names and a 6 passenger rated capacity. The standard version was called the Cambridge Suburban, priced at $2,044. 43,545 were sold while a dressier version called the Cranbrook Savoy with a Belvedere interior commanded $2,187. 12,089 of these were built, a on the new 114" wheelbase chassis. The cars had the new body offered throughout the Plymouth line in 1953.

Although the '53- 54 line of Plymouth's were considered "small" or "compact" by the standards of the day, the wagon was much improved in looks, losing some of the previous Suburban's stubbiness. As a whole the years '53-54 were not good ones sales wise for Plymouth however. Although Plymouth retained its third place in the national sales spot for 1953 it was a weak hold and by 1954 the division had lost its grip on the spot entirely--in fact Plymouth had slid not just to 4th place, but even worse, to 5th.

For 1954 the Suburban was offered again in two series. The cheaper Plaza Suburban sold for $2,064 and 35,937 were built. The deluxe Belvedere Suburban was cataloged at $2,288 and only 9,241 were built.

In later years Plymouth would offer a station wagon with wood paneling but this time the wood was fake; made of a Di-Noc decal, it required little, if any, care and still it added some of the charm of the old wooden bodies to the station wagon. As a whole the later all-metal wagons have not enjoyed great success among car collectors. They almost have to rank down there with hearses, ambulances and fire trucks.

Editor's note: the last Plymouth wagon was named with the traditional Plymouth Truck name, PT, but instead of a number, it was given the moniker "Cruiser." Styled like the original Plymouths - though critics attributed its styling to the 1934 Ford - the PT Cruiser was given to Chrysler after the name PT was stuck to it.

Click here for a page on Chrysler Town & Country woodies.

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