cars and surfing

Surfers traditionally have had a function-first attitude toward cars. Surfboard transportation all but demands a big, roomy, essentially non-sexy vehicle, while the by-products of a surfing life—damp towels, sand, wax, moldering wetsuits, salt air—ensure that the surf car, unless looked after with the kind of obsessive care and concern that generally doesn't sit well with the surfing obsession itself, operates as a rolling model of disorder and decay. A few surfers have broken the mold. Boardmaker Dale Velzy recalled that he "stayed out of the water for two weeks" not long after World War II to work on his chopped and bored-out 1940 Ford Mercury; Mark Richards bought a new silver 911SC Porsche after winning his second world title in 1980; and from the 1990s forward, top pros, earning six- and even seven-figure incomes, have rolled out of all manner of high-end showrooms.

But as a rule, surfers have kept their automotive investment to a minimum. As vocal duo Jan and Dean phrased it in "Surf City," their 1963 chart-topper: "Well, it ain't got a backseat or a rear window/But it still gets me where I want to go."

The American-made woody station wagon was the first real surfing car, and the only one with any real cultural significance. The wood-paneled wagons, built mostly in the '30s and '40s and bought secondhand by surfers for as little as $75 in the '50s and early '60s, had room enough for a half-dozen 10-foot boards (with tails sticking out over the tailgate), and provided shelter during overnight surf trips. Originally regarded by surfers as more or less disposable, woodies were being restored, shown, and collected by the early '70s. Woodies aside, dilapidated older cars of any shape or form have always been popular with surfers; cultural statements of a kind were made in the '50s as surfers often added hand-painted flourishes to doors, hood, and trunk; pioneering big-wave rider Greg Noll decorated his '48 Olds with swastikas, "just to piss people off."

The 1960s also saw a brief high-gloss flowering of surf-themed custom cars, including the super-mini bright yellow "Surfite" by Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, and George Barris' wicked candy-apple red "Surf Woody," which came with a motorized surfboard.

While American-made vans like the Ford Econoline were popular among surfers in the '60s and '70s, the inexpensive and easy-to-fix Volkswagen was far and away the car of choice. The VW bus, just before to the late-'60s shortboard revolution, was omnipresent at surfing areas in America, Europe, and South Africa; when boards got smaller, the VW Bug became, as Surfer's Journal wrote in 2001, "the official staff car of 20th century surfing." (The Holden Wagon, the Chrysler Valiant Wagon, and the "panel van" were the preferred rides in Australia, while the Hawaiians came to favor jacked-up, open-bed, tinted-window pickups.)

No surf-car consensus emerged in the early '80s, as coastal parking lots were filled with wagons, pick-ups, post-Bug VWs, vans, and first-generation mini-vans. As surfing itself became more mainstream, surfers began making more predictable car choices, leading inevitably to board-carrying fleets of Ford Explorers, Isuzu Troopers, and sundry other sport utility vehicles. By the 2000s, the essential requirement of roominess was still the surfer's chief concern; a 2011 Surfer magazine survey revealed that 57% of respondents slept in their cars to be the first out in the morning surf.

Car manufacturers, meanwhile, have long viewed surfing as an ideal marketing tool. Surf-themed print or television ads have been used to sell dozens of models, from the 1960 Buick Opel to the 1975 Dodge Dart (a "Hang Ten" package was offered) to the 2001 Acura MDX, to the 2012 Kia Rio (the copper-toned "Rio Surf" model came with surf racks and a waterproof vinyl interior). Brochures for the 2006 Honda Fit touted the tiny car's ability to swallow an eight-foot surfboard. Renegade Malibu surfer Mickey Dora was featured in nationally aired TV commercial for the 1964 Oldsmobile F-85. Cars have also been used as a grand prize in surfing competitions, starting with the 1965 KHJ contest in Hermosa Beach, California, with winner Denny Tompkins receiving a new MG sedan, followed shortly by Nat Young winning the keys to a new Chevy Camaro for his 1966 world contest victory. In 2003, surfwear giant Billabong and French automaker Renault released the limited-edition, Europe-only Clio Billabong, backed with an ad campaign featuring top European pro surfers Tiogo Pires and Antoine Cardonnet. Cars and trucks were regularly given away to world tour pro event winners in the '80s—three-time world champion Tom Curren won no less than six automobiles in the early and mid-'80s.