What vehicle really made the sport-utility craze happen? If you guessed the Ford Bronco, International, Willys, or Jeep, you’re right. The sport-utility vehicle’s genetics are pretty fuzzy, and really have only been defined by the clever marketing-driven auto execs of the 1990s.
But the template for the modern sport-ute began to emerge in lockstep with the modern automobile. More than 40 years before the term was popular, this 1946 Mercury woodie wagon was transformed into one of the first sport-utility vehicles, used for off-road expeditions by nature photographer Don Bleitz.
The ‘46 woodie features Marmon-Herrington badging on the dash. The button between the clock and the radio activates the electric pump to operate the water spigot.
Bleitz, often referred to as the 20thcentury John James Audubon, was known for his bird photography published in popular magazines including the Saturday Evening Post. After purchasing the vehicle in 1946, he first had it outfitted with a Marmon-Herrington four-wheel drive system and then took it to Coachcraft of Hollywood for further modifications for camping.
The woodie, now owned by Southern California science teacher and surfer Dave Holmes, was one of seven with a Marmon-Herrington system and the only Mercury that Coachcraft ever "camperized." After selling his ’42 Ford woodie and ’59 Corvette, Holmes purchased the unrestored vehicle in 1990, knowing only that it had once been owned by Bleitz. In the last seven years that he has shown the car, Holmes has slowly pieced together the history of this rare Merc.
The stainless steel, cork-insulated icebox is located in the rear floor.
By Holmes’ figuring, Bleitz ordered the wagon from Ford for $2200 and had it shipped straight to the Marmon-Herrington factory in Indianapolis, where it cost another $1800 to have the four-wheel drive installed. Herrington, known as the inventor of the constant-velocity hub, partnered with Marmon in the mid-1930s to manufacture their own trucks, only to discover that it was more profitable to customize Fords. The company frequently customized Fords for off-road use for geologists and other explorers in places as far off as the Middle East. Nearly doubling the purchase price, the customization was very much a niche market.
Bleitz and his wife Joyce picked up their new vehicle at the Indianapolis factory, driving it back to California in 1947. Less than a year later, he took it to Coachcraft to be "camperized," which included modifications such as a built-in ice chest for film and food, a folding aluminum cot that stores against the inside of the roof and an 11-gallon water tank with an electric pump and spigot. A roof rack, which was occasionally used as a platform for photo shoots, was reinforced with six extra interior roof ribs and had folding metal steps on the rear for easy access.
After its modifications were complete, Bleitz used the woodie until the late-1960s, traveling off-roads throughout the western United States. His assistant, Worth Randle, who was a trained naturalist, most frequently piloted the car. Bleitz usually traveled behind in an air-conditioned limousine, transferring only to the wagon when the terrain got too rough for the limo.
Don Blietz, on location in Arizona in 1951.
Upon careful examination of historic photographs of the woodie, Holmes was able to determine that the birch framing on the vehicle is original. Holmes, who spent nearly three years on the restoration, replaced the mahogany panels and installed a 350-cubic-inch Chevy engine. The vehicle came with a 283-cubic-inch Chevy engine, which was installed in 1961. Holmes opted for the dependable Chevy 350, since the original flathead had disappeared.
A rarity even during Bleitz’s time, the vehicle garnered copy in the Saturday Evening Post, which wrote in 1957, "Bleitz’s bird-shooting trips entail something more than loading his camera and packing a bag. The basic piece of equipment on such expeditions is a large, specially-built four-wheel-drive station wagon equipped with oversized, heavy-duty tires. Bleitz claims that large trees and perpendicular cliffs are the only obstacles which he can’t surmount in this vehicle."
If only Bleitz knew the terrors of the mall parking lot…