15 May 2014

Surf City Here We Come

For a while there in the mid-1960s, a powerful synergy existed between cars, surfing, and rock and roll. While “Mustang Sally” and “Little Deuce Coupe” were perhaps the consummate car songs — and “Surfin’ USA ” among the best surf tunes — nowhere were cars, surfing and music better meshed than in Jan & Dean’s 1963 chart-topping “Surf City.”
 
First penned by Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, the original lyrics honored a ’33 panel truck, but Dean Torrence of Jan & Dean, a dedicated beach rat and car guy, knew surfers favored station wagons. So he rewrote the song’s opening line to read, “I bought a ’34 wagon and we call it a woodie.” After Wilson gave Jan & Dean rights to the song, the duo finished the new lyrics and recorded it, and the rest is history. Almost.

Because, in reality, Dean Torrence, despite making the ’34 wagon famous in surf culture, never actually drove one. Until now. With us. In Huntington Beach, a.k.a. “Surf City.”

Lore of the Surf Woodie

In 1929, Ford’s original production “station wagon” was designed to haul people and luggage to and from train stations. But by the 1950s, they were just secondhand cars, cheap and roomy companions for surfers’ rambling trips along the coast. Film and song soon followed, and woodies and surfing were permanently intertwined.

We contacted Dean and asked if he would be willing to take a drive in a ’34 wagon — if we could find one. Luckily he said yes, but finding a drivable example wasn't so easy. Of the 2,810 V-8-powered 1934 Ford station wagons built, only 19 are thought to remain. The example here was expertly refreshed by Tim Krehbiel for collector Nick Alexander in 2003, and was robust enough to drive from Los Angeles to Michigan, where it won a Dearborn Award from the Early Ford V8 Club. Charles McPherson, Jr. subsequently purchased it, and graciously let Hagerty use it for a day. Our meeting place was the International Surfing Museum (surfingmuseum.org), located just a few blocks from the famous Huntington Beach Pier.

Some 51 years after rewriting Brian Wilson’s famous line, Dean Torrence opens the door to the ’34 wagon and finally slides behind the wheel - barely. Because at over six feet, Dean is certainly taller than the folks who designed and drove these wagons in the day. The cabin is small, and it’s a close reach to the steering wheel and dashboard.

Dean is perceptibly nervous about driving this rare car, but he needn’t be. He gently turns the ignition key, like he’s tuning a guitar string, presses on the floor-mounted starter button, and the old 221-cubic-inch V-8 engine slowly turns over. But it won’t fire. Familiar with the issue, owner McPherson drips some gasoline into the carburetor and tries different throttle and choke settings. Finally, the engine starts — idling almost silently — and we’re ready to go.

 The Ford has a non-synchromesh first gear, but Dean knows how to work it, engaging low with a minimum of noise. And then we set out. Slowly and deliberately, he engages the clutch and the woodie builds speed as he feels out the stiff steering, rod-operated brakes and long control motions. He does well at it all, and before long we’re humming south on Pacific Coast Highway.

Invigorating beach air swirls through the open cabin, the wood quietly talking to us as we encounter pavement ripples, and we have the slow lane to ourselves. “It feels like a tank — stiff,” Dean says, glancing around the cabin as we trundle along at 26 miles per hour. “This thing is about floored!”
Our speed climbs to nearly 40 mph, at which point the mechanicals are chattering and the wood vibrating. “You can’t be in a hurry,” he adds.

And if My Woodie Breaks Down on Me…

We reach Crystal Cove and its landmark Shake Shack and pull in to switch drivers. Remembering the earlier starting difficulty, we leave the Ford idling while photographer Joseph Puhy shoots some images. Little do we know, the ethanol-laced modern gas blend is busy vaporizing in the fuel line, a common Ford flathead V-8 problem.

It happens on the uphill leaving the Shake Shack, the woodie chugging slower and slower, until it can’t chug anymore. Now we’re stranded beside the Coast Highway, with Audis and Acuras zipping past at speed. Bad scene. With no luck re-firing the engine, I resort to bump-starting it backward downhill. This works, and the ’34 has just enough power to get us turned around and find safe haven in a nearby park. But the woodie’s day is over. “I think this has cured me of wanting an old car!” Dean says, laughing.

Oddly enough, another “Surf City” lyric has portended our current situation: “And if my woodie breaks down on me somewhere on the surf route/Surf City, here we come/I’ll strap my board to my back and hitch a ride in my wetsuit.” With the photo and video teams close behind, our rescue isn’t quite that dramatic, and we all safely return to the museum in modern cars, leaving the generous McPherson and his beautiful ’34 awaiting Hagerty Plus Roadside Service.

Adopting A Rescued Woodie

Aside from our concern for McPherson and his stricken Ford, we have another worry: What will this story look like minus its star car? Surfing Museum manager Cindy Cross saves the day by calling local resident Randy Lyford, who has owned a 1950 Ford Country Squire wagon since ’65. Although newer than the ’34 of the Jan & Dean song, it’s actually more like what surfers drove throughout the ’60s and ’70s as the pre-war cars disappeared.

While in high school, Lyford found it behind a squalid apartment building, missing its powertrain and wheels, with local teenagers leaping onto its roof from an upstairs window. He scrounged wheels and tires, towed it home and fixed it up; he has been cruising ever since. “My dad and I worked on the car most weekends,” he explains. “I’ve taken it surfing all over California, down to Mexico and up to Oregon.”

Lyford’s ’50 Ford is an entirely different animal from McPherson’s ’34, providing easy starting and far more robust performance. And with a mild chassis rake, vintage Torq Thrust wheels and Randy’s old Santa Cruz made Arrow surfboard on the roof, it also looks like the prototypical surf woodie.

Dean is no stranger to 1950 Fords like Lyford’s, though the hopped ’50 he had in high school wasn’t a wagon. It was followed by a ’32 Ford pickup with 20 coats of white lacquer and a series of Corvettes and Porsches during the Jan & Dean heyday. But the brief 1962–66 car/surf song period — culminating in "Surf City" and three other top-10 records about hot rods — has definitely left him nostalgic for McPherson's ’34 Ford woodie. "At the time we recorded that song, plenty of cars like that were still around, mostly unrestored, so it didn't seem important to actually drive that exact year and model, but now that I have, it's like finally completing the song."

For more information, photos and music from Jan & Dean, go to jananddean.com.

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