1947 Ford Sportsman
1947 Ford Sportsman. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

Right after the Second World War, while auto manufacturers were busy preparing their new postwar cars, they kept interest in their old models alive by dressing some of them up to inject a little pizzazz — a process they hoped would reflect onto their more prosaic offerings. The goal of these glamour wagons was to lure customers into the showrooms, even if they did end up buying regular sedans and coupes.

One of the methods used by Ford was to combine the appeal of the convertible with the upscale cachet of the wood-panelled station wagon. The result was a kind of hybrid called the Sportsman, a convertible coupe with the trunk and body sides covered by mahogany veneer inserts, surrounded by maple or birch framing. And this was real wood, not the simulated plastic variety used in later years.

There was no shortage of the genuine article, because Ford owned a huge forest and sawmill at Iron Mountain in northern Michigan. It had been the source of the cladding for Ford’s “woody” wagons for a decade.

Ford wasn’t the only one to follow this recipe. Chrysler, which had made a woody model in 1941-42 called the Town and Country, carried the idea and the name over to postwar woody cars. Chrysler went even further than Ford, applying wood to both sedans and two-door convertibles. Nash also had a wood-trimmed Ambassador Suburban sedan from 1946 to 1948.

The Sportsman was the first new model introduced under the leadership of Henry Ford II, who was pulled out of the navy in 1943 to take over as president of the company when his grandfather, the original Henry, could no longer manage it. (The elder Henry Ford died in 1947.)

Henry II liked the Sportsman and had a direct hand in having it produced. It could be brought into production quickly because it was no more difficult to manufacture than the woody wagon; the wood panels could be attached directly to the stock steel body.

The Ford Sportsman – there was a companion Mercury Sportsman version, too – was introduced in 1946, but since it was the most expensive of Fords, only 1,209 were sold that year.

It cost some $800 more than the sedan and $500 more than the steel convertible, a lot of money at a time when a regular Ford convertible was running well under $2,000. There was also the matter of maintenance. Just like those wonderful old wooden launches, the woody convertible or wagon had to be periodically “hauled up on dry dock” to tighten up and refinish the wood.

The Sportsman was powered by the standard Ford 100 hp, 3.9 litre (239 cu in.) side-valve V8. This was an evolution of the sensational 65 hp V8 that Henry Ford pioneered in 3.6-litre (221 cu in.) form in 1932.

With its compact dimensions and sturdy construction, the V8 engine was easy to hop up for more power. It soon became the darling of the hot rod set, and gave Ford a performance image that Chevrolet and Plymouth couldn’t quite match.

Because the Sportsman, like other Fords, was virtually identical to the 1942 Fords, it rode on the same 2,896 mm (114 in.) wheelbase and used Ford’s rather old-fashioned solid front axle, with transverse leaf “buggy” springs front and rear.

Rivals Chevrolet and Plymouth had received independent coil-spring front suspension as far back as 1934, but old Henry Ford’s belief in progress seems to have stopped when he brought out the V8 engine. He made sure the company retained his beloved solid front axle, which remained in production until after his death.

Because the Sportsman was 45 kg (100 lb) heavier than the regular Ford convertible, its performance suffered somewhat. It was estimated, however, to have a reasonable 0 to 96 km/h (60 mph) acceleration time of 20 seconds and a top speed in the 137 km/h (85 mph) range.

Being at the top of the line, the Sportsman had such luxury touches as electric window lifts, vanity mirrors and leather upholstery.

It also had a Columbia two-speed axle that acted as a kind of overdrive, allowing highway cruising that was quieter and more economical, as well as being easier on the engine.

The 1947 version was a carryover of the ’46 model, and sales almost doubled, to 2,250. This was still very modest, however, with buyers generally avoiding it because of the high price and the extra expense of maintaining that wooden body, which contributed to rapid depreciation.

This would be, in effect, the Sportsman’s last year. Although a few were listed as 1948s, they were really renumbered 1947s.

In its two-year run, the Ford Sportsman’s sales totalled 3,487, a pretty small blip in the over-all scheme of automobile marketing. Production of the Mercury version, which was available in 1946 only, was an even more minuscule 205.

The Sportsman has, however, rebounded to enjoy a second coming much more popular than its first. It is now a very sought-after collectible worth many times its original price.

Connect with Autos.ca