17 April 2015

Time and Generations Converge on Two Woodie Wagons

There are plenty of people who say that young people aren't interested in old cars anymore. The older crowd that forms the bulk of attendees of many summertime car shows would certainly confirm that assumption. But there's at least one man who has 10 examples of why that isn't true.

Dave Westrate, a 72-year-old retired D.E.A. agent from Oakton, Va., has ten grandchildren between the ages of 6 and 17, all of whom are helping him restore his second 1939 Ford woodie wagon. He said he finished a 7-year restoration of the first one, a standard model, on his own about 15 years ago. This time, he has help, and they aren't just watching him do the work.

"Working on this car is a great way to interact with them," he said. "We split the car up and made assignments for all the grandkids to have a part in the process."

Mr. Westrate requested that the names of his grandchildren not be published, but he gave examples of what sorts of responsibilities he had farmed out to them. One grandson was assigned to the engine, transmission and paint; another to the car's rear end; two of the girls are responsible for the dashboard, instruments and clock; another of the boys has the steering wheel, horn and brake lights; two sisters are on grille, upholstery and window duty; and the remaining three of his apprentices are divided up among other parts of the car, including gluing finger joints between wooden body pieces Mr. Westrate made in his garage and at a wood shop across the Potomac River, in Maryland.

"They're all into it," he said, explaining their enthusiasm for the project. A couple of the teenagers even accompanied him, in the standard, to a car show in Fairfax, Va., over the summer. "They seemed to enjoy themselves."

The car Mr. Westrate and his grandchildren are restoring is a deluxe model 1939 Ford woodie wagon, and getting it to the same level of perfection as his standard wagon – which has won the Early Ford V8 Club's prestigious Dearborn Award every year since he started showing the car – has taken, and will take, a lot of work.

The most difficult part about restoring these cars, he says, is the woodwork. Most unrestored woodie wagons are in pretty rough shape. Mr. Westrate says that his certainly were when he bought them.

"When they sold these vehicles, Ford recommended that you sand and varnish the body every year." he said, "But who would do that? That's why there are so few of these vehicles left."

Unlike popular steel-bodied cars, where body parts can be ordered through a catalog, restoring wood-bodied Ford wagons has involved selecting the right wood – high in quality and properly dried – and custom-shaping each piece. Mr. Westrate stressed that every piece has to be worked patiently and carefully if it's going to fit correctly. The door posts and rear arches, for example, are complex pieces – finger jointed and curved. Any flaw would mean body gaps and doors that don't close correctly.

"You may have one flat surface to reference everything else off of, so it's extremely difficult," he said.

As the deluxe slowly takes shape in Mr. Westrate's garage, the gleaming standard sits next to it; a testament to the power of patience and attention to detail. When its doors are closed, the latches close with the sort of gratifying click that signals perfection.

Many restorers say to would-be inductees into their very expensive and time-consuming hobby that they should start with a car about which they are passionate. Losing heart mid-project is disadvantageous, to say the least, as the profusion of ads for low-priced, half-finished project cars can attest. They seem to scream, "My mistake, yours cheap!"

But Mr. Westrate said he sort of stumbled upon the woodie hobby about 20 years ago. He had been assigned to the D.E.A. Training Academy, in Quantico, Va., and wanted to buy a pickup truck for the 70-mile round-trip daily commute. It was while truck shopping that he and his wife saw the standard at a used car lot in Leesburg, Va.

"We both really liked the car," he said, adding that he had never been into classic cars or restoration before that. "When we went to get it and drive it home, the brakes on one side of the car stopped working."

That, he said, led to a peeling back of layers, so to speak, and his foray into the restoration hobby. It became less about the car than about the challenge of recreating something complex that had been built relatively easily in a factory decades earlier.

"Part of the fun of it was learning how to do that stuff; the mystery of it," he said.

The deluxe came a couple years later, when, already infected with woodie fever, he found the car advertised in Woodie Times magazine. A retired mechanic from the submarine yard in Groton, Conn., was selling the car along with a number of custom-made wood-cutting jigs and tools.

"That's where I got the tools to work on the standard," Mr. Westrate said.

Over the seven years it took to complete the standard, he said he accumulated a pretty robust network of parts sources. There was a hardware supplier named Ed Clarke, in New York, who called himself a "woodieologist." Mr. Westrate got his floorpan pieces from a Boston-area outfit called Precision Coachworks. There were others, of course, including the high-end wood shop in Chantilly, Va., that typically sold wood used to build gun stocks and musical instruments.

By the time he began work on the long-dormant deluxe, the age of the eBay parts hunt – which hadn't really existed when he began his first restoration – had reached maturity. But Mr. Westrate said he didn't use eBay to find parts for either car.

"I'm not opposed to it, but I've really never had to look there," he said. "Having done the standard, I already had the sources to get what I needed. But that's changing, because a lot of those guys are disappearing."

Ed Clarke, in his 80s, is retiring. The head of the Boston floorpan connection died this year.

But Mr. Westrate will press on, keeping his grandchildren involved every step of the way. Slowly, the deluxe, once a rusted hulk with a pile of rotten wood on top of it, is taking shape next to the already-finished standard. With the floorpan and chassis nearing completion, he has assigned each of the teenage boys in the group one of the car's five doors. Many of the wooden body pieces have been roughed out, fined-tuned, fit-tested and fine-tuned again. Others are still taking shape.

Over the winter, he plans to put the body together. By summer, he hopes to get to the mechanical components.

"You can't rush it," he said. "It all takes time."

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