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July 15, 2008

Woodies of Basra — 'Iraqi girls don't want to ride in these'


Who knew?

Long story short: Basra, the second-largest city in Iraq, is home to about 90 woodies — 1959 Chevrolet Apache pickups (above) converted by local carpenters into buses used for public transportation.

They sell locally for about $2,300, though they'd bring about $25,000 apiece in the U.S. with minor refurbishing.

Iraqi woodie owner Ali Hussein Yacoub, unable to fathom a place across the globe in which his beaten-up relic is lionized as a babe magnet, told Charles Levinson in a story that appeared in yesterday's USA Today, "Our countries are very different. Iraqi girls don't want to ride in these buses."

Here's the article.

    Surfers can have them: Iraqis unimpressed by 'woodie' buses

    This is definitely not what the Beach Boys had in mind.

    Iraq's second-biggest city is the surprising home to one of the world's biggest fleets of "woodies" — the iconic wood-paneled vehicles that have for decades been an icon of California surf culture.

    In Basra, about 90 woodies — actually 1959 Chevy Apache pickups that were converted into buses — are used as public transportation.

    Their Iraqi owners are oblivious to the fact that their aging vehicles, considered unfashionable here, might be worth $25,000 or more to collectors in the USA.

    Then again, today's Iraq is a long way from the dreamy beach world chronicled by the Beach Boys in their 1962 breakout hit Surfin' Safari. "We're loading up our woodie with our boards inside," the song goes.

    The Beach Boys assured fans that inside every woodie you'd find "some honeys," turning the car into an expression of cool sought by nostalgic aging surfers and other car enthusiasts.

    What a weird country, says Iraqi woodie owner Ali Hussein Yaqoub, who can't fathom a place an ocean away in which his half-century old relic is lionized as a babe magnet.

    "Our countries are very different," Yaqoub says. "Iraqi girls don't want to ride in these buses."

    Basra's woodie fleet dates from the 1950s. Iraq's lone auto company imported the Chevy Apaches because pickups were cheaper than buses, Yaqoub says.

    Local carpenters were enlisted to build wood sidings to convert the trucks' beds into compartments suitable for passengers and cargo.

    The vehicles don't look exactly like the hardy station wagons the Beach Boys were singing about. But just about any vehicle with wood siding — whether factory-installed or added later — can be considered a woodie, says Manny Cool, a classic car dealer in Pompano Beach, Fla.

    Cool examined photos of Basra's buses and guessed he could sell them for $25,000 each after a little refurbishing.

    "These buses are a crude piece of history," Cool says. "Some rich surfer guy in California would buy it, put three surfboards on the top, put a hot blonde in the front and go to the beach."

    Iraqis pay 500 dinars, or 45 cents, for a trip on one of Basra's woodies. Instead of hula girls suctioned to the dashboard as you might find in a woodie in California, Yaqoub's woodie is decorated with pictures of the Imam Ali, the revered Shiite martyr.

    Though an estimated 150,000 woodies rolled off American assembly lines in the first half of the past century, according to Hans Halberstadt's book Woodies, there are only 10,000 woodies left in the world — not counting the ones in Basra. A woodie in mint condition can fetch well upward of $100,000 at U.S. car shows.

    There's a National Woodie Club that has 3,000 members and chapters across the USA, a monthly magazine called the Woodie Times, and dozens of woodie shows across the country including last month's Woodies on the Wharf in Santa Cruz, Calif.

    Despite their cult status, the vehicles went out of fashion in the USA because the wood was more difficult to maintain than steel-bodied cars. Similarly, police in Basra are pushing the old woodie buses off the streets because they lack seat belts and fire extinguishers.

    The expert wood craftsmanship needed to repair and rebuild the buses is a dying art in Basra. There are only three carpenters left who can do it, says Oday Hatem, another woodie bus owner and driver in Basra.

    A Basra woodie bus sells locally for about $2,300, depending on its condition, according to Yaqoub.

    That's not much more than the cost of a fake woodie kit American car owners glue on to their metal-bodied cars to give them the "woodie look."

    It's a fraction of the $20,000-$30,000 Chris Messano Woodworks in San Pedro, Calif., charges to restore a woodie's woodwork.

    Maybe it's time for Basra to come up with a new export other than oil: "If these were shipped to the U.S., I bet they would all sell," Cool says.

July 15, 2008 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


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