SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1952 Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon
Number Produced:12,791 (1952 Roadmaster wagons: 359)
Original List Price:$3,977
Tune Up Cost:$150
Chassis Number Location:Left front hinge pillar
Engine Number Location:Pad directly beneath the cylinder head on the block
Club Info:Buick Club of America

This car, Lot 552, was sold for $44,280, including buyer’s premium, at The Branson Auction on April 20–21, 2012.

The wood station wagon era was all but over by 1952. While some still considered their styling upmarket, to others they were a reminder of the gloomy years of World War II.

Wood wagons came into prominence on the home front for carpooling — to the point that individuals and companies (the most famous being Monart Motors) would convert late-model sedans and coupes into nine- to 12-passenger wood-bodied wagons, scrapping the remaining body for the war effort. By 1952, woodies were old and done; modern all-steel wagons were the next big thing.

Chevrolet, Pontiac and Oldsmobile went to all-steel wagon bodies in 1949. Packard was a flash in the pan from 1948 to 1950. Other independents didn’t have wood; the ones that built wagons were all steel. Willys and Crosley went so far as to mimic the look of a woodie, but were also all steel.

Even Ford — one of the last manufacturers to use at least some wood in their wagons, and the industry’s largest producer of station wagons — went all-steel for their all-new 1952 models. The last woodie stalwart was Buick, which used Ionia bodies.

Ionia and Buick

The first cataloged Buick station wagon was the 1940 Super Series 40B Estate Wagon (along with Oldsmobile, which used the same body for their Series 60 that year). Biehl, of West Reading, PA, built the bodies for this introductory year only.

Hercules was awarded the body contract in 1941, and they also provided wood bodies from 1946 until 1948. Before the war, the Evansville, IN, company provided limited-run woodie wagons to a diverse range of customers from Packard to International Truck.

The first Buick station wagons transferred from the predecessor company to Ionia (Ypsilanti Reed Furniture Company) were 327 bodies for the 1942 model 49 Estate Wagon.

Most Chevrolet — and all Pontiac — woodie wagons were Ionia-sourced after World War II, but when the GM “A” and “B” body wagon went to all-steel construction — built in-house at the Fisher Body Division — Buick contracted with Ionia for the wood wagons built around their new post-war styling for 1949. Ionia was known for excellent build quality, and the company was diverse enough to handle large and small production runs.

To say Ionia was well-versed in wood wagon manufacture would be putting it mildly. Not only were they second only to Ford’s Iron Mountain, MI, plant for volume of wood-wagon bodies built overall, but they also had a history of manufacturing wooden and steel automotive body components going back to the forerunner company in the 1920s. In addition, when Ford and Mercury went to a steel wagon with decorative wood insert panels for 1949 through 1951, Ionia built those bodies under contract. By 1951, Ionia was the wood wagon 800-pound gorilla.

The Buick wagons were something of a hybrid in construction. Starting with a floor pan and cowl with windshield frame, Ionia constructed the wood framing, doors and tailgate upon the steel. Once the bodies were varnished and cured, they were fully trimmed on the inside — and had the vinyl roof and all glass installed. As such, they were trucked to Buick Main in Flint, MI, for final assembly on a chassis.

Buick finally discontinued wood wagons at the end of the 1953 model year, but the company kept on with Ionia — to the point of awarding Ionia the contract for the all-steel wagons for Buick from 1954 through 1964. Ionia also got the contract to build steel wagon bodies for Oldsmobile when they reintroduced that body style in 1957 — after a seven-year wagon-free hiatus — until 1964.

Also in 1953, Ionia Manufacturing became part of a newly formed company called Mitchell-Bentley. They continued being an OEM component supplier to most of the automotive manufacturers. The company’s products ranged from trim to the bodies for the Lincoln Continental Mark II.

In the late 1950s, Ionia started working in plastic, specifically Fiberglass and molded composites. In 1964, they were purchased by A.O. Smith, and shortly thereafter started production for what would be nearly half of the fully trimmed bodies used for the C2 Corvette. After the Corvette contract, they were contacted by Ford and Shelby America to convert Mustangs into Shelby GT350s and GT500s from 1968 to the end of production in 1969. The Ionia plant is still in use today as part of GenTec’s polymers group.

Investing in wood

Although woodies were some of the most expensive cars in the model range when new — our featured car was more expensive than the Buick Roadmaster convertible by $524 in 1952 dollars — their value sank like a rock as used cars because of the additional maintenance for wood upkeep. It was only in the past couple of decades that woodie wagons really started to challenge drop-tops as the most valuable body style.

Woodie wagons — in addition to the Chrysler Town & Country and Ford / Mercury Sportsman convertibles — are cars where the axiom “buy the best one you can afford” really holds true.

If you get a bad one — or try to resurrect a dead one — you not only have to be a mechanic, welder, and body man — but also a cabinetmaker. While pre-war, wood-framed, steel-skinned bodies can hide a number of woodworking sins, all is laid bare on a woodie. Using the old parts for patterns is a truism. Aside from the more popular Ford wagons, repop wood does not come ready to assemble — you have to make it.

Folks who like to putter around in their garage’s wood-working corner and who take the challenge of a rotten post-war woodie wagon often find themselves in over their heads — and the smart ones will acknowledge it and seek professional help. Or move it out.

Woodie wagons took some “market correcting” when the overall collector car market took a downturn in late 2007. While they didn’t nosedive like some segments, woodies did go from being a “no-brainer” at $50k to using your melon and possibly taking or paying $40k. Today, they seem to be generally on an upswing, but this is for stellar examples without excuses or termites.

I covered this Branson Auction, and my initial impression on our subject car was that it made good eye candy — and the wood was going to need some attention (what woodie doesn’t?) in the not-too-distant future. However, there was nothing that scared me about it either.

This car isn’t a concours lawn ornament or a rotten plank. It’s a middling 1950s cruiser wagon. That impression was likely what those with bidder’s paddles also had, as the selling price reflects it being in the range of a cruiser/driver, rather than an investment piece or fancy truck. However, if it were to surface again to be flipped at Branson’s auction in October and is bid in this territory, it would likely be worth putting one’s hand in the air.

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