The 1947 Pontiac Streamline started on the first crank. John Yarbrough gritted his teeth to make a hard left-hand turn and headed toward the beach.
You need muscles to drive this old car. It weighs about 5,000 pounds, and there is no power steering. I sat in the backseat and enjoyed the view — that is, the interior that features the original rich wooden roof slats and ribs.
The AM radio still works. I could imagine the Beach Boys' Surfer Girl coming from the tiny dashboard speaker.
We could ride the surf together
While our love would grow
In my woody I would take you everywhere I go.
John and Lynn Yarbrough have a lot of fun with this beauty. Last month they parked it in front of Richey Suncoast Theatre in downtown New Port Richey where their children were performing with the cast of Li'l Abner. As you can imagine, it attracted a lot of attention — and not just for its wooden body and wide whitewall tires.
This car once belonged to Al Capp, one of the greatest cartoonists and satirists of all time — and, of course, the creator of the comic strip Li'l Abner that inspired the Broadway musical. Li'l Abner ran in newspapers throughout the country from 1934 to 1977. Capp died two years after retiring the strip.
He kept this 1947 Pontiac woody at his estate in Riverbank, Maine. Eventually it made its way to the Mitchell Corp. Automobile Museum in Owosso, Mich., which also had Capp's 1949 Buick Roadmaster Estate woody. The museum agreed to sell the Pontiac in 2001, and Yarbrough snapped it up for $32,000.
It hadn't been driven in 25 years, so Yarbrough had to replace brakes, pumps and other mechanical gear. But the flathead six-cylinder engine and its single-barrel carburetor worked fine.
"This was much more than a car," said Yarbrough, a senior vice president for global sales for a software company. "It was a piece of art."
And an investment. Yarbrough figures its value has tripled in eight years. The car has 85,000 original miles on it, and the Yarbroughs add only about 400 a year — counting the roll into their Gulf Harbors garage where they protect this baby from the humidity in a big inflatable plastic bubble. Their major adventure in the woody came last March for the annual wooden boat show in Mount Dora, which included a wooden car rally.
Sales of woodies peaked in the early 1950s. After World War II, steel was plentiful and hand-crafting car bodies with maple, ash and mahogany no longer made good business sense. Compare that to the boom period for woodies when Ford grew its own forest in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
When woodies fell into disrepair, surfers in California made them popular again because they could pick one up for $100. The Beach Boys and other surfer groups sang about them, put pictures of them with surfboards on their album covers. Suddenly they were cool. Today the National Woodie Club has some 3,400 members. It estimates there are 10,000 woodies still out there, with 6,000 of them registered, mostly in California.
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John Yarbrough's love affair with cars came naturally. His dad was general manager of the Lincoln-Mercury dealership in Santa Monica, Calif., and helped John find his first car at age 16: a 1964 Italian Innocenti. Many years later, his dad passed along his prized 1970 Lincoln Mark III two-door, which he restored in 1985.
Yarbrough bonded with his own son through a 1964 Ford Falcon, which they restored together for two years before the boy, also John, took ownership at age 16. "You take out the motor and rebuild it. You learn everything about cars," the father said. "And you spend a lot of time together."
The son is now 32 and living in California. Yarbrough said he used that Falcon as a down payment for his first house.
Now Yarbrough's youngest son, Jesse, is 14 "and already bugging me about finding him a car," Yarbrough said. "I'm looking forward to it."
Lynn, a manager of training for a software company in Orlando, is also quite an actor and recently was honored for her performance as Anna in the King and I at Stage West in Spring Hill. Their twin daughters, Megan and Brooke, are about to turn 16. All three kids attend Gulf High and are active in community theater.
For now, their transportation mode is fairly conventional: Mom's 2007 Chrysler SUV.