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Car of the Week: 1938 Pontiac woodie wagon

Rare 1938 Pontiac woodie still shining after lengthy barn sentence.

Photos by Brian Downey

Car of the Week 2020
In the 1930s, station wagons morphed from simple cargo and people haulers into stylish symbols of success. This 1938 Pontiac wagon, which belongs to George Gereg of Connecticut, was beautifully restored nearly four decades ago and still looks great today.

In the 1930s, station wagons morphed from simple cargo and people haulers into stylish symbols of success. This 1938 Pontiac wagon, which belongs to George Gereg of Connecticut, was beautifully restored nearly four decades ago and still looks great today.

According to George Gereg, all it took was a little family squabble to help him land his treasured 1938 Pontiac woodie wagon. Gereg had tried to buy the retired wagon out of a barn from a local farmer near his home in Bethel, Conn., but had been rejected.

“He said he had some kin that wanted it and he didn’t want to sell it,” recalls Gereg. “Well, then he calls me about a month later and says he’ll sell it to me. He got mad at somebody because they didn’t invite him to a wedding or something. He was [ticked] and didn’t want them to have it, so he sold it to me.

“So I gave him $600 and had it towed to my house. That was in June of ’78.”

Some 42 years later, Gereg not only still has the ’38 Pontiac, it has probably never looked better. The wagon was restored not long after Gereg dragged it home, and the car is still winning awards and dropping jaws all these years later.

“It’s kind of a funny story,” chuckles Gereg. “Back then, in 1978, my father was buying rhubarb from a farm for many years. The farm was located only about a mile from my house. Well, the guy needed some plumbing work done and I was going to trade school at the time and doing that kind of work… When I was there doing some work for him, I asked if he had any old cars for sale … He said he had one and we go to this barn, and it’s all sunny outside and we go in this dark barn and sitting there I could see this old Pontiac body.”

The decades old restoration still looks great today!

The decades old restoration still looks great today!

Gereg wasn’t quite sure how big of a project the Pontiac would be, but the wagon grabbed his interest. The problem was he didn’t have a lot of money to spend and the seller wasn’t all that eager to send it away. “I decided to offer him $500 and he asked if I could go a little higher than that.

“I gave up hoping when I heard he had kin. It was just my luck that they didn’t treat him so nice. He got [ticked] off and sold me the car!”

At the time, the Pontiac’s odometer showed 110,000 and it apparently had not been registered or driven since 1967. The 11-year slumber hadn’t done anything to help the car’s condition, but it was still pretty much intact and in the same shape it was when the family parked it. “They told me they drove it all over to New York and they were going all kinds of places in it,” Gereg says. “I know they got a lot of use out of it. They had bought it in 1939, I guess, when it was like new. They were the second owners, I guess you could say, so now I’m the third owner.”

THE WOODIE REVOLUTION

Pontiac certainly isn’t the first name that comes to mind when the conversation turns to “woodie” station wagon, but the company threw its hat in the ring and followed the trail blazed mainly by Ford beginning in the late 1920s. Model T Fords had been the earliest “woodies” when various entities — and individual owners — began building depot hack bodies that could basically turn any vehicle into a “working hualer.” Ford decided to jump into the fray with both feet in 1929 with its first factory station wagon.

Station wagons soon took a big leap forward in both looks, functionality and status. The stately oak, mahogany and maple bodies used by various manufacturers evolved into handsome family vehicles in the 1930s. Advertisements of the time always seemed to show off the vehicles on some fabulous fly fishing adventure, ski trip in the beautiful snow, or holiday retreat.

It's all about the wood!

It's all about the wood!

Pontiac’s debut into the wood-bodied wagon market came in 1937 with the arrival of the six-cylinder Deluxe Series wagon that carried a price tag of $992. A year later, Gereg’s ’38 wagon was built, wearing a handsome Hercules body and lovely metallic Elk Skin Brown paint. Production numbers are fuzzy, but the ’38 Pontiac wagons are definitely rare. It’s almost certain that fewer than 1000 were produced, and only a relative handful remain. Gereg says he knows of four others that exist. One has a transplanted straight-eight motor in it. One of the other three is being modified by the owner.

The 1938 Pontiacs came in either six-cylinder (Series 26) or eight-cylinder (Series 28) varieties and used the same body as previous models. Wide, horizontal bars characterized the new grille design. On sixes there was a “6” emblem at bottom center. Chrome ribs ran along the top of the hood and down the center of the radiator grille. There were vertical hood louvers with the Pontiac name between chrome bars near the radiator on the Six. The six-cylinder hood ornament was a long, low Indian head.

A look from the rear

A look from the rear

In addition to the wood-bodied wagon, the Deluxe Series included a two-door coupe and sport coupe, two-door cabriolet, two-door sedan and touring sedan, four-door sedan and a four-door convertible sedan. All rode on the 117-inch-wheelbase chassis and carried the 222.7-cid inline six-cylinder engine rated at 85 hp. The Pontiac eight-cylinder lineup carried all the same models, except the station wagon, which was only available with the six.

The station wagon bodies were all wood from the cowl back. They were offered in either Golden Brown or Wenonah Maroon in ’37, and Wenonah Maroon with red stripes or Elkskin Brown with cream trim the following year. They featured leatherette upholstery inside with rubber floor mats in front and thick carpeting in back.

For 1938, Hercules Body double-framed the door panels and only one horizontal brace ran across the exterior of the doors. Wenonah maroon and Carteret red stripes or Elkskin brown with Tacoma cream trim were the paint choices. Both years there were no cowl tag style numbers for these woodie wagons. Perhaps the biggest improvement for ’38 was the arrival of the column-shifted transmission. Rear seat passengers also saw new foot rests.

COMEBACK FROM THE BARN

Gereg didn’t think much about the wagon’s scarcity when he bought it. He isn’t quite sure what attracted him to the dusty old woodie, other than maybe the challenge of getting it running again and driving something he hadn’t seen on the road before.

“There was something about it,” he says. “It was all complete … It was in a section of the barn by itself and had cardboard in the windows so people couldn’t look in. The tires were all flat and needed air. It was all dirty. It had been sitting for 11 or 12 years.

Pontiac offered both six- and eight-cylinder engines in the late 1930s, but the station wagon was only available with the inline six in 1938. Gereg had to replace the block in his wagon four decades ago, but the 85-hp engine has been going strong ever since.

Pontiac offered both six- and eight-cylinder engines in the late 1930s, but the station wagon was only available with the inline six in 1938. Gereg had to replace the block in his wagon four decades ago, but the 85-hp engine has been going strong ever since.

“I liked it because it was different. I had never seen anything like it. My dream was to get a ’56 Corvette and not a station wagon, but there was something about it that I was attracted to. It was just different and I liked it.”

Gereg’s first goal was to get the original six-cylinder engine unstuck and see if he could get the car to run. He hadn’t worked out in his head what he was going to do after that, but just turning the ’38 into a decent driver would be a victory.

“I put it in the garage at first and I wanted to see if I could find any other pictures of the car anywhere. And wouldn’t you believe, I found in a bookstore a Pontiac encyclopedia book from [Old Cars contributor and former publisher] John Gunnell and in there was a picture of my car before it was restored. It even had my license plate on it!…

“The engine was seized and I used Mystery Oil to free that up. I got it road worthy and I was taking it to shows .. but the paint didn’t really look too nice and the wood, that varnish turns really dark … I said I need to think about what I want to do. I can’t keep it like this. So I decided it to have it restored. I wanted to get it painted and I wanted it restored, but when you get into a job they find this and find that … I ended up getting a lot more work done.”

Gereg ended up turning the car over to restorer Ken Bain and his shop, Automotive Restorations, in Stratford, Conn. The shop did extensive work on the wood body, replaced or rebuilt all the car’s running gear and helped Gereg bring the Pontiac back to like-new condition from bumper to bumper.

Dealing with the wood body, of course, was one of the most important tasks, and the most time consuming. “The wood was all original,” Gereg pointed out. “The outside panels are birch veneer and they had started to lift up, and you can’t replace just one panel. They wouldn’t match up. So we had all the panels replaced. They did all the wood, clear coat, sanded it and did body work. They did the paint — the Elkskin Brown Metallic.

“We took the body off, painted the frame … I did all the front end and everything, I went though the brakes and everything. … Once you start, you gotta do it all. You can’t just leave it or things don’t match. We started it in 1980 and finished it in 1981.”

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Gereg wasn’t out of the woods after he got the car back from the shop, however. The inline six had been rebuilt while the rest of the car was being restored, but he ran into a problem not long after he got the car back.

“I was going to take the car to Niagara Falls to the Pontiac-Oakland convention and show it there, and I was going to do an oil change before I left,” he says. “So I dropped the pan and noticed it had antifreeze going into the oil. Well, long story short, the block was cracked. They said they magnafluxed everything, but this crack didn’t show up… We found another block out in Iowa Falls, Iowa, and had that block put in.”

It took plenty of time, money and effort to get the Pontiac woodie on the road and in such good condition, but some of the pain and investment was offset by a bonus that Gereg wound up getting in the deal.

“When I got that car, the old man was 83 years old and I got to know him pretty good,” he laughs. “He was quite the farmer and when he died, inside the barn was a 1950 Chevy pickup. His relatives put the contents of the barn up for bids, and I wound up buying the barn for $2500 and the truck was in the barn. I got all my money back and got the truck basically for nothing, because behind the barn was 10 tons of scrap metal. I had a sale and got all my money back, and I got the truck!

“I wound up with the Corvette, too, so now I have my three vehicles.”

Gereg has had the Pontiac in plenty of big shows and concours events and it’s always done well. He’s proud of the awards, but the fun of driving the car still trumps the hardware.

“I really like driving it. Yeah, I do,” he says. “The farthest trip I went from my house … was to a Pontiac-Oakland meet in Sturbridge, Mass. That’s like a two-hour trip. It really handles nice. It’s got independent suspension on it — the knee-action. It’s got the shifter on the column. The antennas are under the running boards. It’s got the Deluxe radio speakers. It’s got another really neat feature, a volume levelizer. Most people don’t know what it is. It’s a little box that mounts just behind the radiator. There’s a little stop on the end of the box and what that does … is when you’re going at highway speed and got the radio on, it will give you maximum volume. It’s automatic compensation for road noise. It’s pretty neat and most people don’t know what [it is].”

Gereg says he drives his Corvette more than the ’38 woodie these days, but the wagon is still his baby. He insists it runs and drives as good as it ever has, and he’s had it so long now it would be too painful to part with. He admits he’s had some hefty offers to sell it.

“Just the story and everything with it. It really took me five years of my free time to get it like this. I just have to keep it.

“It’s been since 1981, almost 40 years that I got it restored, and it’s still winning awards. It got ‘best of show’ a couple years ago at Newtown [Conn.], and even at Lime Rock, I was in the concours and got best in my class as well. It’s doing well for a car with an older restoration, and a lot of that is maybe because it’s unique.”

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