Having just graduated from West Virginia University, Ed Johnson was a graduate student at the University of Maryland when the crisis struck.
He needed to conduct field studies of fresh water in remote areas of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. After placing a telephone call to his father, a Ford dealer in Shepherdstown, W.Va., the problem was solved.
Transportation was provided.
It wasn’t used transportation or even just basic new transportation.
Mr. Johnson’s father delivered a brand new top-of-the-line 1951 Ford two-door station wagon. “I guess I had a good dad,” Mr. Johnson reminisces today.
That was the first of 40 years of what Ford designated “Country Squire” station wagon models. It was also the last Ford wagon to employ structural wood, since the next year all wagon bodies were steel with wood trim attached.
Mr. Johnson and his college lab mate built a chemistry lab that slid in through the tailgate over the two rear rows of seats.
By adding a trailer hitch they were able to tow a two-wheel trailer supporting a 14-foot wooden boat.
At 3,530-pounds the wagon was the heaviest Ford car in 1951. With the addition of the chemistry lab, the trailer and boat as well as their personal gear, the 239-cubic-inch, 100-horsepower flathead V-8 engine was pulling close to 5,000 pounds across hill and dale.
“We must have looked like a circus wagon,” Mr. Johnson said. As they crashed through the underbrush, they occasionally ran across backwoodsmen who seldom saw an outsider.
“I’m sure we passed by several moonshine stills, but nobody ever gave us any trouble,” Mr. Johnson recalls.
After graduate school Mr. Johnson married, turned the 1951 Ford wagon back over to his father in exchange for a 1952 Ford and went on with life. His father kept the flashy 1951 wagon and took it to Florida when he retired in 1958.
Before driving off into retirement Mr. Johnson’s father had the trusty flathead V-8 engine replaced with a new one. There was nothing wrong with the original, however, since it was approaching 70,000 miles, he wanted to play it safe.
For the next 20 years the 1951 Ford spent most of its time under a carport at least that’s where it always seemed to be whenever the younger Mr. Johnson visited his father. In later years the elder Mr. Johnson would spot rusty areas on the car and cover them with whatever paint he had at the time.
“It looked like a checkerboard,” Mr. Johnson said. Thankfully, the car was usually covered by a tarp.
In 1978 Mr. Johnson drove to Florida with a tow bar and pulled the old station wagon up the coast to Greensboro, N.C., where he had the car sandblasted and repainted. He selected the same sportsman green that was on the car originally.
Only a few splinters of the original wood remained. Mr. Johnson was within an eyelash of having a new wooden body hand built at an exorbitant price when he found a 1951 Ford wood body in 1980 in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. The owner had removed the wooden body and for decades stored it in a dry pig pen. Evidently, no pigs were present to protest.
Mr. Johnson had his 1951 Ford reassembled when he lived in Silver Spring.
In 1982, he retired as an oceanographer and engineer with the Navy Department and moved to rural Owings, Md. There he had time to put the old 1951 Ford wagon into better-than-new condition.
Ford built only 29,017 station wagons in 1951, each with a base price of $2,029. Since the redesign of 1949 the wagons had steel tops, which meant the interior ceiling had an upholstered headliner over the eight-passenger seating configuration.
From the fire wall back, the 1949, 1950 and 1951 Ford wagons were virtually identical. From the fire wall forward, the noses were as different as their sedan cousins.
Because Mr. Johnson’s wagon is an early 1951 the knobs on the dashboard are from the 1950 Ford parts bin. The steering wheel is 1951 vintage, although the dashboard itself was designed for a 1949 Ford and is wood-grained.
Even though 1951 was the first year Ford incorporated the starter and ignition switch, Mr. Johnson’s wagon still operates with a starter button on the 1949-style dashboard.
The spare tire on the tailgate is shrouded in metal. A taillight on either side of the spare is hinged so that, regardless of the tailgate position, the taillights shine toward the rear.
On the inside of the tailgate is linoleum flooring to match the original, almost. Mr. Johnson recollects the original linoleum was grooved, but since it isn’t available anymore, he’ll have to be happy with the plain, smooth version.
The Ford was well-equipped when new with:
Dual backup lights.
White sidewall tires.
Mr. Johnson has since added a sun visor and fender skirts.
The liftgate features a split two-piece rear window. The gravel pan is cleverly designed with a dip in the middle to accommodate the spare tire when the tailgate is lowered.
With the tailgate lowered the boards clipped to the back of the third seat are visible. They are to fill the gap between the second and third seat when they are lowered to form a flat floor.
The upholstery on the two rear seats is original. The front seat has been reupholstered in a matching fabric.
After a half century the Ford wagon just now has 73,000 miles on the odometer, and Mr. Johnson reports the second engine has only 5,000 miles.
Now that it has been restored, the last of the real wood wagons should be ready for another 50 years.