Car of the Week: 1948 Plymouth Special Deluxe station wagon

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Story and photos by Brian Earnest

“How far am I willing to go to restore this car?”

It’s the same question that all restorers, or car owners looking for a restoration shop, have to ask themselves at some point. Exactly how much time, effort and — perhaps above all — money am I prepared to spend to breathe new life into an old vehicle?

Dr. William Haire of Omaha, Neb., knew the answer even before he wrestled with it. He was going to do whatever it took to make his 1948 Plymouth “woodie” station wagon looking, feeling and even smelling like new again. He was a 1940s Plymouth guy, after all, and he thought he had a pretty good idea what he was in for.

When all the sweat, tears and sawdust had finally settled, however, even Haire — a man with seemingly boundless enthusiasm, dedication and old car spirit — knew he had almost met his match with the venerable Plymouth. Few restorers will ever go to the extreme lengths he traveled to make a car the spectacular specimen that his Plymouth is today.

“In retrospect, I probably would have gone ahead and done it, but sometimes it’s easier to just see the bear running at you and deal with it than anticipate the bear coming for a year or so,” Haire chuckles. “I basically knew this was going to be a beautiful car and would be worth it for me to put the time and effort into it, and I honestly wanted to see how well I could do it. If you find something screwed up on this car, I’m sorry, it was the absolute best I could do. I couldn’t have done it any better [laughs].”

“I said up front I was going to do this right, which is why it took me a couple years to build a shop and garage to do it.”

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That’s right, Haire built a garage and wood shop just to restore his wagon. Just getting the shop set up was a major undertaking, even before he turned a single screw on the Plymouth. But when you are intent on re-creating every piece of lumber on an eight-passenger woodie station wagon, you better be equipped to do the job, particularly if you are a Plymouth-loving perfectionist. Actually, Haire didn’t re-create every single wooden piece on the car. There was one small block that he kept and reused, for kicks as much as anything. “The only piece of wood that is original to the car is the little piece of wood that the dome light mounts into,” he chuckles. “It was still in pretty good shape.”

 

Rebirth of a wagon

Haire’s wagon tale actually had its Genesis back around 1980, when he first began gravitating to 1940s Plymouths. It wasn’t part of a master plan, but more akin to choosing the lesser of two evils, at least at the time.

“I finished my medical training and was going out in practice and we had three children that were growing too big for the Pinto hatchback that we were driving,” he recalled. “We needed a bigger car, so the choices were: Get a bigger car that I couldn’t afford, and had no style either; or, I could get a big, black car with doors that opened from the center … I was picturing a Cadillac or something like that. Well, a couple weeks later I picked up a flyer from McPherson College [in McPherson, Kan.], and they were auctioning off their extra cars, the ones they didn’t need for restoration and study, and on the bottom was a 1947 Plymouth four-door sedan … So I went up and looked at it. While everybody else was out front looking at the Bentley, Rolls and so forth that they had, in the back of the garage under about an inch of dust was a 1948 Plymouth four-door sedan. I lifted the trunk and the spare tire had never been on the road, and it was one of the only ones I had seen with rocker panels that were intact, so I bought it with a sealed bid for 800 bucks.”

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The car eventually became Haire’s daily driver, and led to two more old Plymouths — a 1947 business coupe and a 1946 convertible. “After that, I told my wife, ‘I got a sedan, a convertible and business coupe, all I need is a woodie to complete the collection,’ and she said, ‘Sure, if you can find one you can afford.’ So I found one in Vermont in 1993 for $2,000. I bought it for $1,200, and I guess it was proof of the adage that you get what you pay for. There wasn’t much left of it.”

Haire said the metal on the body was shot, the floorboards were gone and the wood was a mess. The condition of the wood wasn’t critical, however, because Haire had the crazy idea that he was going to re-engineer all of it, anyway. “This is a personal philosophy with me and the woodies … If you are going to use original wood, with rare exceptions, the original wood is going to be, to some degree, stained and rotted … It’s not going to ever look new! You cannot put a coat of paint over it and make it look new … People go to the nth degree to restore the old wood that just doesn’t look right.

“I had [a huge ego], and I told myself, ‘I’m a good wood worker, and I can restore this wood. I can do this.’ Well, little did I know how much I was biting off there. But I wanted the wood to look new to go with the new car. It’s the only way you can get the wood to look new. You have to use new wood.”

 

The 1948 Plymouths

The 1948 model year Plymouths were almost exactly the same as the previous year. Company brass decided that few changes would be made to the 1947s, which in turn were almost identical to the ’46s.

Still, the Plymouths were pretty stylish and had plenty going for them, even without any updates. The Special DeLuxe Six was the top end of Plymouth’s two-tier lineup during that period — one stop above the base Deluxe Six. The Special DeLuxes were identified by their lettering at the rear corner of the hood and bright metal trim around the windshield. The one-step-up standard features on the Special DeLuxe included sun visors, glove box, dual windshield wipers and rear bumper fender guards.

Other base equipment included All-Weather ventilation, front sway bars, front coil springs, and a front four-bar grille that wrapped slightly around the fenders. The only engine was the familiar L-head 217.8-cid six-cylinder that used a one-barrel Carter carburetor to produce a modest 95 hp.

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A convertible and wood-bodied station wagon were available only as Special DeLuxes. The other models in the series included a two-door coupe, two-door club coupe, two-door sedan and four-door sedan.

 

The long road back

Haire was able to find a mostly rust-free donor sedan to help rebuild the metal parts of his wagon. Bodywork isn’t his specialty, however, so he did a lot of learning on the fly.

One of the big things he learned is that woodies and conventional metal bodies are definitely not built the same. “The metal body cars are of monocoque design, meaning the strength is in their shape,” he said. “The woodie is not nothing more than a fence with four fence posts: an A pillar, B pillar, C pillar and D pillar. And then stuff is hung from those fence posts. And like a fence, those corner posts need to be massively braced in two directions. So the cowl, inside the skin of the cowl, is basically 1/8-inch battleship steel that braces those A pillars in two directions, and those are not there in the metal cars, so I found out that the cowls for these cars are basically wood-specific.

“So in essence, I had to learn metal-working techniques to rebuild the lower half of the cowl, and then dissected the floorboard out for the four-door [donor] body and placed it in its original place in the station wagon cowl, and then basically started building the wood.”

That meant fabricating all the braces and joints from ash, and building all new panels from sapele. “Sapele has been used for the last couple hundred years as a mahogany substitute,” Haire noted. “It looks like mahogany, works like mahogany. For most people, I just say it’s mahogany because that’s what they’re familiar with. Virtually all woodie bodies are made of ash. You could order the car with either plywood in the maple, or plywood in this mahogany. Most of them seem to have been made with the mahogany substitute just for the color.”

Haire closes his eyes and begins rubbing his forehead when he describes all the mind-bending mathematical gymnastics he had to endure to figure out all the angles, curves and intricacies of the Plymouth’s wooden parts. The amount of trial-and-error, fitting, re-fitting and re-calculating tested the outer limits of his patience.

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“The doors are put together using finger joints, which are unique to the carriage-building industry, at least finger joints of this size,” he says. “I was lucky enough to find somebody who had a finger joint cutter that he had built to produce some parts for his [Chrysler] Town and Country. He had this huge, very expensive cutter head that he was willing to sell and I wound up adapting it to my table saw.

“The further you get into this, the more you realize there are hardly any right angles to this car. The front of the front door is canted in at about an 11-degree angle. The back of the door is canted in at about a 7-degree angle. That door has to twist, and you have to cut your joints in such a way that they are not 90 degree joints, they are 79 degree angles, or whatever. The back angles are, like, 74 degree angles [laughs]. Believe me, there are many of these things that have made my head hurt, and so many of the original parts were so rotten you couldn’t use them as a guide for precise angles. Then you had to figure out the angles and how to make them without a jig. Most of these things wound up being made with traditional cabinet making techniques using hand tools.”

When he was done, Haire had a car with wood every bit as good, and perhaps better, than the car had when it was new. Certainly the Plymouth didn’t get as many coats of shiny spar varnish back in 1948 as it wears now.

The donor car didn’t have fenders, but Haire was able to buy NOS sheet metal to go with the car’s new wood. That turned out to be a good news-bad news proposition. “The advantage to that is there is absolutely no rust to it. The disadvantage is that, No. 1 they were never attached to another part, and No. 2, I’m told they were almost always factory rejects. There was something wrong with them. The NOS body parts didn’t fit exactly on the donor body, and at that point I knew I was in way over my head.”

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He hired a body shop to help do the bodywork, panel fitting and paint. He also farmed out the upholstery, which has been redone in leather. “The original one had painted canvas — you know, the vinyl of the day, if you will,” Haire said. “Leather was available at extra cost. Once I went to this much trouble, I wanted something nice under my arm.”

The steering column and dash are original. The interior metal and windshield frame have been repainted and woodgrained to look new, and all the car’s trim pieces have been re-chromed. Haire had the car’s original six-cylinder engine and three-speed manual transmission overhauled and reinstalled. “And I was able to find an original rear seat and tailgate hardware,” he noted. “Most of the other stuff is brand new out of the box.”

He added a clock, which was optional but not originally on the wagon.

 

A car with history

Haire has done plenty of research on his car to retrace its roots, and it turns out the car has some interesting provenance. It was once owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt’s great-granddaughter, Florence Sloane, who bought the car new when she was 75 years old. She had the car until her death in 1960, when the Plymouth went to her son, W. Douglas Burden, a famed silent film maker and explorer who led an expedition to Komodo Island and brought back a collection of Komodo Dragons to Western Civilization in 1926. The expedition to the remote island is said to have inspired the original “King Kong” film.

After 1966, the car’s whereabouts were unknown until Haire found it in Burlington, Vt., in 1993.

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A bright, shiny future

Haire said he still drives one of his 1940s Plymouths almost every day that the weather allows, but he isn’t taking many chances with his station wagon, at least for now. There were only 12,913 built, and it’s a fair assumption that there are none remaining that are any nicer than Haire’s car. That means there will be no trips on any busy roads for a while.

“I’m going to show it until the ‘new’ wears off and then it will be a cruiser for beautiful days — no wet, no threat of wet! It will be just reserved for beautiful days,” he says.

“I suppose this is America and everything has a price, but it will take somebody with a very deep pocket to even get my attention. No, this will go on to my daughter and my grandson, hopefully. My daughter grew up in Plymouths. She learned to drive in these cars and she has an affinity for the cars and she lives in California where everybody seems to have an affinity for the woodies.”

Even with all the money, sleepless nights and sweat equity he has invested in the car, Haire still considers himself profoundly lucky.

“I was thinking, I don’t know if there is anybody alive that has ridden in a factory-fresh woodie like this,” he concludes. “Most of the folks who rode in a new one aren’t with us anymore … I’m one of the few people who gets to experience being in a ‘new’ woodie.”

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u2240-1Old Cars Weekly Restoration Guide: Advice and How-to Projects for Your Collector Car

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