Taking to the Woods—1951 Chevrolet Styleline Deluxe
A 1951 Chevrolet Styleline Deluxe eight-passenger station wagon’s doors are big, so climbing in is easy. The bench seats are covered in leatherette, a leather-like plastic-coated fabric designed to be tough and long lasting. The interior is roomy and handsome, though somewhat curious in that – though rich real wood moldings, with the feel of a classic Chris-Craft speedboat surround you— when you look out over the dash and hood you see a typical 1951 Chevrolet.
I turn the key, push the starter button, and the inline, six-cylinder, 216-cubic-inch, 92 horsepower engine gives a couple of lazy six-volt turns and comes to life. After a few seconds of warm up, with just the faintest ticking of tappets, it settles to a smooth quiet idle. I pull the column-mounted shift lever into low and we are off for a spin through a local park. The engine pulls smoothly, with plenty of bottom end torque, but runs out of revs fairly quickly. Shifting is almost effortless with the short throws of the column-mounted lever. And except for the slight hum of the differential, typical of station wagons, the car is quiet and comfortable.
If you were looking for speed, and nimble handling, a 1951 Chevrolet station wagon would not be a good choice, but if you wanted smooth, comfortable, reliable transportation that would accommodate the whole family, plus four bags of mulch, a couple bags of chicken feed, and groceries for a week, this car was made for you. People called it a station wagon, but that is a misnomer.
You see, that term comes from the days when hotels had what were called depot hacks, or station wagons, which were literally horse-drawn wagons with special semi-enclosed wooden bodies intended for picking up guests at the train station. These were eventually replaced around the time of World War I by automobiles with similar bodies and sometimes lengthened chassis to accommodate more patrons. And then Henry Ford, who had a couple of such rigs built for driving around his estate, finally decided to go into production with such specialty vehicles in 1929 using the Model A Ford chassis.
However, by 1951 a little over 20 years later, the world had changed radically. Fewer people travelled by rail, and the highway systems were excellent, so driving vacations with the family became quite common, as did roadside motels. Flying to vacation spots was still too expensive for most people, and the baby boom was in full swing, so station wagons were in their heyday, although not for going to train stations.
In addition to this there was the post-war trend of moving out to the suburbs and leaving the hustle and noise of the big city behind. There was even a sort of back-to-the-land movement in the early ’50s, and single-story ranch homes built on large lots called ranchettes were popular with those who could afford them.
That trend was partly because many of the people raising families in the ’50s were fresh from the farm themselves, and though they did not miss the dawn to dusk backbreaking work, they did miss having a household garden, perhaps chickens or rabbits, and plenty of room to stretch out and enjoy life. These were actually the people who created the golden age of the “station wagon.” Ford understood this trend and called their mid-century offerings “Ranch Wagons” which – though a bit euphemistic – was a more apt description of the vehicle’s intended purpose.
Gene Hofmann from Downey, California, the proud owner of our feature car, fell in love with his old Bow Tie wagon and purchased it a number of years ago, and even though it was showing its age at that point, he saw its potential. He did much of the restoration himself, and acted as general contractor for the work he could not do such as the wood graining on the body.
Chevrolet diffidently made the transition to all-steel bodies and DI-NOC vinyl decals simulating wood graining in 1949. Actually, they built both woodies and “tinnies” that year, but few people purchased the woodies and only 600 were built. In fact, due to slow sales, the Hercules Body Company that made the wood bodies for General Motors was ordered to send the surplus bodies for use on Oldsmobiles and Pontiacs. It seems that by that time people were well aware of the attention wooden cars required to hold up and look their best.
Going to stamped steel made the cars lighter, sturdier, and easier— as well as less expensive— to produce, but it did take away some of the richness and warmth of the natural varnished wood. And it also compromised the comfortable heavy car ride to a degree. Of course, anyone who has ever owned a real woody, or a for that matter a vintage wooden boat knows that you have to sand and re-varnish them frequently to keep the wood looking its best. Also, the wooden bodies were glued and screwed together, and with the vibration in daily use they had a tendency to come loose over time and rattle and creak. That was also partly because the wood dried out and shrunk over time as well.
Di-Noc, a 3M self-adhesive product, lasted a long time, and gave the appearance of wood, but when it aged it checked and dulled. Replacing Di-Noc would not be that foreboding if it were still available in the correct pattern, but sadly there is no demand for it, so it is no longer produced. However Di-Noc is still being used to create the appearance of wood in dash panels, and to simulate carbon fiber and other textures for automotive and architectural applications. And there is a movement afoot to Di-Noc the whole bodies of cars in order to eliminate all the volatile organic compounds put into the air by spray painting.
But because the original, correct Di-Noc is not available for this application, that left Hoffman only one other practical alternative to preserve the car’s original look, and that was to wood grain it by hand, as was often done on the dashes of many cars before the ’50s. There are still pros that can do this work, but it is expensive. Many of them learned their trade doing caskets, so you can still find people who know how to do it, but to do an entire station wagon would be a challenge.
And to do the job, so the colors and graining look truly original and correct was even more of a challenge, but in the case of Hofmann’s wagon it came out beautifully. The interior window reveals and trim are still real wood, but the car’s body is all steel. Up until 1949, Chevrolet used Hercules bodies of white ash and mahogany for most of its woodies, and that is what is echoed on Hofmann’s wagon. But Ford used a lot of maple because Henry had his own maple forest.
A vintage station wagon is somewhat like a modern SUV, but the classics held a lot more cargo and people than what we have today. Granted, the classics were not designed to cruise at 80 miles an hour on the freeway, but our 1951 Styleline Chevy wagon will loaf along all day at 60 miles per hour, which was five miles over the speed limit back when it was built. And in a pinch you could push the thing up to 75 plus if your life depended on it.
The 216 cubic inch, Stovebolt six that came in the standard-shift Chevies of the era had a long development going back to 1929, and was rock solid, reliable and smooth. Their cast iron pistons and thick poured Babbitt bearings with splash lubrication were not intended for high performance. But within their design envelope they were long lasting and dependable. Incidentally, the Stovebolt nick name for Chevrolets venerable inline six came from the fact that many of the components of the engine were attached with what looked like ordinary wood-burning stove bolts originally.
Some people criticize the 216’s cast iron pistons as being too heavy, but iron pistons have a couple of advantages. One is that they could be fitted more precisely than aluminum pistons because they don’t expand as much in service; and the other is they wear like, you guessed it, iron. Oldsmobile also used them in 1942 because of the shortage of aluminum caused by the war effort.
The thick, poured Babbitt rod bearings were not easy to replace (you usually just replaced the entire rod) but they had permeability, which was important years ago because back when poured Babbitt bearings were commonly used, oil filters were the less effective by-pass type, and most cars only sported a filter if the buyer paid extra for it at the dealer, or added it as an accessory, as was done with Hoffman’s example. Thin-shell insert bearings could not absorb the contaminants that would get into your oil, so they would score and ruin the crankshaft. But the thick, poured bearings were soft, so grit would embed in them rather than score the crankshaft.
The engine’s splash lubrication supplied plenty of oil to the rod bearings in normal service, and only became a problem if the engine became low on oil and you put the car into a very fast turn, which might cause the oil to slosh away from the dippers. Hudson also used splash lubrication until the 1950s, and they won stock car races routinely back then.
Chevrolets of this period also had closed drivelines, which kept the back axle aligned, and avoided spring wrap up, but that made the driveline a bit more difficult to work on. Otherwise these cars were very easy to service and maintain, and they gave years of dependable service if cared for properly. Chevy station wagon chassis were set up just like the rest of the line except they came with one extra leaf in the rear springs to compensate for cargo, and that made the back end a bit firmer.
Our station wagon is equipped with a standard transmission and a 4.11:1 rear end, but a two-speed Powerglide automatic was also available, and in that case the car would have been powered by the 235 cubic inch Blue Flame inline-six that had been designed for use in trucks originally.
Because the Powerglide transmission only had two speeds, the differential for Powerglide equipped cars was 3.55:1, which made for leisurely acceleration, but allowed for a decent top end. For those who own a 1949 through ’54 Bow Tie, who want a better top end from their standard shift Chevy, they can swap out differentials. In doing so, you won’t win any red light races, but you will be able to cruise at freeway speeds without over-revving your old Stovebolt.
At 3,500 pounds, and with the same 115-inch wheelbase as the other Chevrolet models for 1951, the car is not overly big and heavy, but it will easily accommodate eight people in reasonable comfort, or five people and enough camping equipment for a trip to Yellowstone. It was just the thing for family outings, as well as to haul groceries, gardening supplies and mulch.
It is interesting that while the station wagon concept goes back to when they were actually used as station wagons, such cars weren’t big sellers until the late 1940s and ’50s. As an example, Chevrolet built just 800 wagons in 1939, but by 1955 they were producing 161,000 of them. I own a 1955 Bel Air Bouville wagon, and though it was designed to meet the same family utility vehicle needs as the 1951 model, all pretense of a wooden body or even decorative wood decals was dropped. And I must say that ’55 Beauville Bow Tie wagon is by far my favorite car for tours because it is roomy, comfortable, and dead on reliable.
The golden age of the true woody was the 1940s. Chrysler built a number of station wagons, convertible coupes, and fancy sedans using wood. And Hudson, Packard, Nash, Pontiac and Oldsmobile also built some handsome woodies. But Ford and Mercury sold more woody wagons, sports coupes and convertibles than anyone else, though Chevrolet had a respectable segment of the market during the swingin’ years too.
We still called them station wagons, but they had morphed into something completely different by the mid-’50s, and I doubt if most people even realized what the name meant. But from the station wagon the concept evolved further into Econovans, Greenbriers, minivans, and finally, SUVs. In fact, the basic design concept was so successful that even Porsche and Cadillac are now offering them. And for a while, the Plymouth PT Cruiser, a retro looking small SUV, could be ordered with Di-Noc imitation wood side panels. It seems we have come full circle, even though few people need a lift to the train station anymore.
Our spin in the park reminds me how simple, solid and pleasant these classic utility vehicles were, and how life itself seemed simpler back then too. In 1951, people routinely took long-distance family vacations in such cars, and just to brag about all the places they had visited, they purchased small decals and put them on their side windows. Nobody flew anywhere back then unless they were wealthy, and nobody took vacations without the family to accompany them.
The sun is starting to set, and it is time for us to get back to now, our photographer and I have the Hofmann’s drop us off at my Saturn Vue SUV, that I would trade for a ’51 Chevy tinnie in a minute, even though it wouldn’t have air conditioning, turn indicators, a CD player or an onboard tele-nanny to tell me to turn left, then turn right in a quarter of a mile . . .