By Brian Earnest
Woody Rutter figures as long as he has his 1949 Plymouth Special Deluxe wagon around, some of his favorite childhood memories will never be far from his mind. Even today, more than a half century after he spent summers with his grandmother, bouncing over the bumpy Nantucket Island roads, he can still sense those same familiar summertime aromas and enjoy the same good vibrations the Plymouth offered so long ago.
“I get in it, and it smells the same … You get in and all of a sudden your senses are triggered and your memory is triggered,” Rutter says. “It’s a Sunday afternoon and my brothers and sisters and I are riding with my grandma to go get an ice cream cone … or, of course, going to the beach in our salty swimming suits.”
Rutter, a retired private school headmaster from Beaufort, S.C., has had the big Plymouth since the late 1960s when his grandmother died, but he figures it will always be Grandma’s car. She was the one who bought it new and used it every summer for almost two decades. She had a driver who took her places in the wagon, and a grandson who loved the car as far back as he can remember.
“She was from Baltimore, and she had a summer place on Nantucket Island,” he said. “She had a neighbor across the street who was a car dealer in Youngstown, Ohio, and she ordered the car from him. He drove it to Baltimore, and she drove it to Nantucket. It was in Nantucket the whole time. It was her summer car — a beach wagon out on the dirt roads and so forth.
“Oh, I always loved it. I got my driver’s license with that car. I’ve always loved cars and loved waxing it and polishing it when I was kid. Plus, I really loved my grandmother and I loved driving around with her. She had a chauffeur, so the car was chauffeur-driven by a little old guy named William, and she’d let him take it out when he had days off on Sunday and Thursday… I remember one time he had an accident in it and he knocked a piece of wood off it!”
When his grandmother passed away in 1967, Rutter’s family bought the car from her estate and he has had it ever since. For many years, he’s been the guy nicknamed Woody who actually drives a “woodie.” “And with a name like Woody, you’ve got to have a sense of humor,” he jokes.
The “new” 1949 Plymouths didn’t actually arrive until March of that year — earlier models were actually left over from 1948. The Special Deluxe was again Plymouth’s top offering and by far its most popular for 1949. About 61,000 of the bottom-tier Deluxe models were produced compared to about 370,000 Special Deluxes. Only 3,443 were four-door, eight-passenger woodie wagons, however.
By that time, wooden wagons were an endangered species. Late in the 1949 model year, Plymouth launched its new steel-bodied Suburban wagon in the Deluxe series, and it was immediately more popular than the wooden holdovers. The following year, only 2,057 Plymouth woodies were produced, and for 1951 they were banished from the lineup.
The Special Deluxes were called the P-18 series and all four body styles — station wagon, four-door sedan, two-door coupe and two-door convertible — used wheelbases that stretched 118.5 inches, which was 7.5 inches more than the Deluxes. They all used the inline six-cylinder that had been introduced in 1932 and would last until 1959. The 1949 engine displaced 217.8 cubic inches and was rated at 97 hp. All models came with a three-speed manual.
Standard equipment on the top-end Plymouths included bright metal windshield and rear window trim moldings, mahogany-grained dashboard and garnish moldings, richer upholstery fabrics, and “Special Deluxe” front fenderside scripts.
The big eight-passenger wagons were the most expensive cars on the menu at $2,372. They had an optional third seat and “leatherette” seat upholstery. The second and third row seats were both removable. U.S. Steel & Forging Co. constructed the bodies with an all-steel roof. The upper hatch and roof pillars were made of wood, as were the doors. The panels were either Honduras mahogany or maple plywood. The frame pieces were built from white ash.
The spare tire enclosuse was integrated in the tailgate and the wagon bumpers were a combination of three pieces, with the middle piece hinged so it could drop down when the tailgate was open. Options included an electric clock, one of two push-button radios, turn signals, sun shades, bumper and grille guards, heater and defroster.
“It’s very well engineered, I think. Very well engineered,” Rutter said. “It has that old flathead six that Chrysler used for years, and it’s very reliable … The suspension is good, it’s very comfortable. It doesn’t corner very well, of course, but it’s a very heavy car, so it sways a lot when you turn.
“It doesn’t have power steering, of course, and it’s got a large steering wheel with a horn ring in the middle and so if you’re not moving, it’s pretty hard work, but once you’re moving, it handles very well. I just lubricated it and changed the oil and rotated the tires and it’s running well … It drives very comfy. I’m sure it goes faster, but I try not to take it over 60. I wouldn’t hesitate to take it on the interstate, although I don’t do it very often.”
Rutter said the car was a true “family” car for years after his grandmother’s passing, serving three families when they visited Nantucket from “1967 until about 1980. Then I decided I needed to slowly put some money into it. I was a teacher and I drove it from Nantucket to Salsbury, Conn., and I had a local mechanic do little bits and pieces. We did the radiator, brakes and some other things. I didn’t have a lot of money to spend on it, so I had to do it kind of piece meal.”
After he retired, Rutter decided to spruce the old Plymouth up a bit further. He had the car’s aging woodwork re-done at a shop in Ocala, Fla., the rusting floors fixed and some of the body repainted. “But I don’t think the roof has ever been painted,” he noted. “The wood panels were pretty stained and cracking. Otherwise, the wood, which is all ash, is all very sound. It doesn’t look like a new car, but it looks in great shape.
Rutter said he finally “broke down” and had the leatherette upholstery re-done last summer. “The original interior had a hole in the driver’s side, but otherwise it was amazing,” he said. “We used exactly the same material.”
The car doesn’t have seat belts or turn signals, and aside from the seat upholstery and headliner, not much has changed inside. “It has the lovely faux woodgrain dashboard, which is quite elegant for what was an economy car back in those days,” Rutter noted. “It does not have a third seat. It’s got a heater, defroster and radio. It’s got the original ivory Bakelite door knobs for window cranks …. It was the top-of-the-line Plymouth in those days, but it was certainly not a Chrysler Town and Country.”
Rutter laughs about the odometer — it was broken for about 30 years, and he isn’t sure how many miles the car has actually traveled. “It has 72,000 miles on it. After I had the odometer fixed, I’ve probably added another 10,000 miles. It doesn’t have too many miles because Nantucket is not very big.”
“Woody and his woodie” are having more fun than ever these days in their car hobby activities. The car has twice been a visitor on car club day at the Hilton Head Concours, where it has won an award, and the pair are die-hard members of the local Low Country Oyster and Motorcar Driving Society. In spite of the trophies, Rutter has never tried to pass his Plymouth off as a show car. He likes being able to go cruising anytime he wants without fretting about getting it dirty or piling up more miles. He keeps the car running and in nice shape so he can drive it. The car has always been the family beach wagon, and Rutter intends to keep driving it in the same spirit.
“But when I go to shows, I love parking it next to the Rolls-Royces and the Morgans and Maseratis,” Rutter chuckles. “Hilton Head is a pretty spiffy place and there are a lot of nice cars.
“But mine is usually the only woodie!”
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