by Mark Maynard / SignOnSanDiego / Originally published June 30, 2011
The Ocean Beach Hotel has a mascot that’s American as surfing and apple pie: a 1949 Desoto woodie wagon.
Owner Rich Grosch, 66, bought the seaside hotel at the corner of Newport Avenue and Abbott Street in 2003 and three years later he found the woodie.
“You gotta have a woodie with the beach hotel,” he said. He found the car online, listed at Hemmings.com by the owner in Santa Barbara.
He drove up to scout it out with his friend Woody from the nearby Sunset Garage. Grosch and Woody had planned to play good cop, bad cop in the price negotiations.
They test drove the car and put it up on a lift to get a closer look. When they returned to the owner, Grosch was ready to play the role and asks Woody, “So what do you think?”
“I think you should buy it,” Woody said.
End of negotiations. He paid $50,000, which included a parts car that his son-in-law got running after both wagons were trailered back to San Diego.
“It’s the most fun car I’ve ever owned,” said the retired computer-sciences teacher from the Sacred Heart Academy in Ocean Beach. In his spare time he also is the president of the community college board of trustees and district director for assembly member Marty Block.
DeSoto only produced the wagon model for 1949 and ’50, with Deluxe and Custom trim lines in ’49 and Custom only in ’50. In ’49, there were only about 850 nine-passenger Deluxe wagons built, according to “The Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1946-1975.” Grosch said of those only about 10 are still on the road. According to the research book, this car was built in Los Angeles, with other plants in Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, Canada. It weighed 3,915 pounds and sold new for $2,805, the most expensive model that year.
The engine is original, but a 127-horsepower Spitfire upgrade, which added 10 hp to the flathead six-cylinder. It runs well on premium unleaded, Grosch said. The burgundy paint is a stock color, but with a gold primer for some depth, he said. Otherwise the car is mostly original, but Grosch did add a radiator overflow tank to help keep the engine cool on hot days in traffic.
The engine is original, but a 127-horsepower Spitfire upgrade, which added 10 hp to the flathead six-cylinder. It runs well on premium unleaded, Grosch said. The three speed “fluid drive” transmission (a $127 option) is sort of a semi-automatic and the forerunner of the automatic. He calls it a “clunk-o-matic” because of the noise made when the driver lifts off the accelerator to engage second gear. Above about 30 mph, the clutch must be used to engage third.
Idling in traffic, the fluid-drive coupling is shaking you around so much, he said, you can mix drinks. But the car cruises comfortably at 55 to 65 mph.
“Heck, it’ll go all day at 70 mph, but parts start falling off,” he said with a laugh. The car also has a matching teardrop trailer that was assembled using plans from a 1945 Mechanix Illustrated. He is active in the local chapter of the National Woodie Club and shows his car at the world-renowned Wavecrest Woodie Meet at Moonlight State Beach in Encinitas, which this year will be Sept. 17.
It’s a driver, not a show car, he said. So far, he has had much of the wood redone — ash side panels with mahogany inserts — and some body work. The burgundy paint is a stock color, but with a gold primer for some depth, he said. Otherwise the car is mostly original, but he did add a radiator overflow tank to help keep the engine cool on hot days in traffic. Of course, he’ll never sell the car.
“It’s like fine art, he said, you don’t sell it, you will it.”
And he has a grown son and daughter and two grandchildren.
Grosch lives two blocks from the hotel and most weekend mornings his wagon can be seen in the parking lot, by the sign “Woody Parking Only.”