Something I feel has been missing of late is the feeling of, "Whoa!" when a vehicle is featured here. That's my fault, of course, but then again please forgive me for not having many Powell Sport Wagon-like vehicles to talk about.
Once mass production had been in force for a number of years, enthusiasts, repairmen, and customizers alike had a steadily-growing inventory of parts from which to draw from. Ford rear end in a Chevy? Chevy motor in a Ford? Like Lego, a lot of people only find things fun once they've disassembled what came in the box and tried to make something of their own with the pieces at hand, and that's what the hot rodding ethos embodied.
Ground zero in hot rods? Los Angeles. Kustoms? Los Angeles. Fibreglass? Los Angeles. Movie cars? Los Angeles. In practice, this meant a lot of people had a lot of skill in putting things together and making the bits work.
And so as it turns out, put all this together and: the forerunner of our crossover SUVs targeted at spiced cinnamon soy latte-clutching moms was designed and assembled in the city of Compton, Los Angeles, California.
Our Compton, or at least the one formed over the last few decades, is markedly different than the one that Powell would have set up in. Predominantly a racially white city until the late '50s, over the next few decades the town began to change as so much of the U.S. did at the time. Whether or not city officials recognized that white flight, the erosion of the city's tax base, and other things that would lead to a tumultuous ride for Compton, I can't say.
But, oddly, with a bit of wordplay both the revolutionary, Compton-formed hip hop group N.W.A. and the Powell Sport Wagon were "Straight Outta Compton"—the former was from there, the latter (with some '50s punctuation), "straight, and out of Compton" as the most slab-sided vehicle I've ever seen.
Powell? Remember? OK. I mentioned interchangeable components earlier because that's pretty much all the Powell was. The company started building radios, then scooters, motorcycles and, finally, in 1954—the Sport Wagon.
In either wagon or truck form, Powell wanted to capture the recreational market and had a pretty sound strategy for making that happen: sell cheap, dependable, easy-to-repair utility vehicles. But without a manufacturing base of its own, what was the company to do?
Scour junkyards for 1941 Plymouth Q-Series cars, taking their 117-inch chassis and engines, reconditioning them, fitting a jig-made steel body, fibreglass front end (to protect against parking lot damage—and yes, the chrome is fibreglass, too), and wood (or aluminum) bumpers. As for options, its pop-up camper was neat, but I prefer the standard-fit, long, pull-out storage tubes for fishing poles and—these days—party-sized submarine sandwiches.
OK, so it was pretty basic—sliding side windows are exactly that—and it wasn't exactly fast, but it was sure cheap: initially on sale for less than $1000 U.S. with all the options checked you'd be out the door for about $1500. Today? That's about $13,000.
Why did this amazing idea never take off? Well, they literally ran out of donor '41 Plymouths…and that was that. Little more than 1,300 trucks and wagons were made in total, and few survive today.
Hmm. Someone should try this again, but with, like, Toyota Corollas. They'd never run out! Want to see a Powell Sport Wagon? One is at the AACA Museum right now—go see it!