TACOMA – It’s a lot of work, keeping alive this version of the California Dream. For each car, maybe 200 hours of sanding, precision sawing and handling mahogany pieces into a particular curve so they’ll fit just exactly right.
Over the past three decades, Rick “Mack” McCloskey has earned a national reputation restoring vintage “woodie” station wagons, known for their characteristic wood paneling, to pristine condition in his Tacoma garage. In car-restoration circles, the man professionally known as Rick Mack is considered a “real artist.”
“There are only a few of us around the country who still do this kind of arcane work, and fewer still who do it well,” he says.
For Mack, the cars hark back to a mythical world of sun-drenched days and perpetual youth, of grabbing a board early in the morning, loading up a woodie and heading out on a surfin’ safari.
But at age 73, he’s ready to call it quits and do something else with a direct connection to his youth: put out a book featuring his collection of 4,000 photos from his days car cruising in Van Nuys, California.
His customers, though, keep calling. There is always one more woodie that was found in a garage, or abandoned in some field, its panels rotting away. The 2-ton machines, with their distinctive paneling and miles of chrome, instantly transport you to a beach world made famous in songs by the Beach Boys or Jan & Dean, who sang, “I bought a ’30 Ford wagon and we call it a woodie / Surf City, here we come.”
Last week, Mack was driving his 1950 Ford woodie from his home in Lakewood to visit a friend, also a woodie owner.
The shiny car with its glorious paneling turned a corner, and there was this kid and his mom standing on the sidewalk. The kid went slack-jawed, pointing in excitement.
You then heard the mom explain, “Beach Boys surfing.” That’s all she needed to say.
Mack is used to that kind of response.
“I’ve been run off the road,” he says. “People start waving and honking, and let go of their steering wheel. They completely lose it.”
Mack bought the woodie he drove that day for $2,200 in 1985, and had it shipped from Cherokee, Iowa, to Maui, where he used to live, and eventually to Tacoma. It was in bad shape, with rust and wood paneling that was either missing or disintegrating.
Now it looks better than new, with wood paneling refurbished and fitted to perfection, the paint job a glossy, dark forest green similar to the original factory color. Mack has it insured for $75,000, typical for a renovated woodie.
Another example of Mack’s work — a 1951 Ford woodie — was in a 2014 Mecum Auction of classic cars. Said the auction material: “The crowning exterior feature, of course, is the glowing new woodwork that includes rare Curly Mahogany insert panels” by Mack. It sold for $75,000.
The early woodie wagons were part of the affluent slice of society of the 1920s and ’30s.”Well-heeled people bought them” for their businesses, says John Lee, editor of the Woodie Times, published by the National Woodie Club.
There was “the appearance and charm of the wood,” he says, and something else. The wagons had the room to haul visitors and their luggage from the train station to the resort.
Between 1929, when Ford produced its first woodie wagons, until 1951 (there were no woodies produced during the World War II years), when the last ones were made, some 200,000 of the vehicles were on the roads, according to car historian Lorin Sorensen in his book, “Famous Ford Woodies.”
But the labor-intensive woodies couldn’t compete with steel bodies. They ended up forgotten until the 1960s, when they were discovered by surfers.
Back then, woodies were selling for cheap. Surfers saw they could lower the tailgate to get surfboards to fit. They were wagons, so a bunch of friends could cram inside.
Mack graduated in 1964 from Van Nuys High School, 28 miles from his surfing haunts at Manhattan Beach.
He truly lived the endless summer.
“You didn’t tell anybody at Manhattan Beach that you were from the (San Fernando) Valley, make out like you were local, not talk to anybody,” he remembers. “They (surfers) were kind of territorial.”
He bought his first woodie, a 1940 Ford, in 1962 for $45, or $374 in today’s dollars. It took him six months to find the missing parts to get it running.
He began collecting woodies, and figures he ended up owning 14 of them in the 1960s.
Mack’s life took some detours before the woodies came calling again. He went into the National Guard, worked for a shopper newspaper, moved to Maui, etched glass mirrors and then began renovating woodies. He moved to Tacoma in 1992 with his long-term partner, Victoria Stanich.
In 1993, he opened his woodie-renovation shop, having a total of $500 in savings. Over the years, he was discovered by the community of collectors.
Mack describes the process of working on the panels with two words: “Tedious and exacting.”
He has to select wood with the most interesting grain characteristics. He uses a band saw for the basic rough cuts, then a router to cut them into exact pieces, followed by further refining, all requiring micro adjustments, he says. Nearly all of the wood pieces are curved, and often curved in multiple directions.
Mack no longer does the work on vehicles in his 2,300-square-foot shop. They take up too much space.
Instead, he only makes the panels, and only for the popular 1949 to 1951 Ford woodies. He boxes up the panels that sell for $13,000 to $18,000 a set, and the car owner then hires someone to attach them.
Lee, the Woodie Times editor, says of Mack: “He’s very highly regarded for his work. He’s been doing it for a long time, and he’s a real artist.”
It is his old photos, though, that Mack likes to talk about, all taken in Van Nuys in the summer of 1972 on Wednesday “cruise night.” The negatives sat in storage for 40 years. He’s working on creating a photo book with a German publisher.
“Perusing all of these images again after so many decades was almost a magical experience, transcendent really, as that entire world, that wonderfully vibrant cultural experience, which was so predominant from the beginning of the 1950s, all through the 1960s, and nearly through the end of the 1970s, had literally vanished. But, here it was, now replayed in damned nice black-and-white photographic images,” he says.
That too, in its own way, fits with the legacy of his woodie renovation work.
“Cruising was the other side of the California culture. We had the beach, and surfing in the daytime, and we were out on the boulevards at night. It is really all part of the same experience. Listen to the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean, all surfing and cars,” he says. “It was such a great time.”
That California Dream, it’s embedded in our national psyche. All it takes is a song and a car with wood paneling.