How the Coastline Craze Caught On

By Mark Yost
The Wall Street Journal
August 14, 2013

Huntington Beach, Calif.

If you’ve hung around the beach enough in the summer, you’ve heard someone refer to a surfboard as a “plank.” Come to this surf town about an hour south of downtown Los Angeles and you’ll learn why.

SurfThe International Surfing Museum occupies just one floor of a tiny beach house a few blocks from the pounding waves of the Pacific, but it’s full of great historical artifacts, among them a 9-foot-long, 4-inch-thick, 100-plus-pound surfboard made of redwood planks. According to a small display that explains the evolution of the surfboard, that’s what they used to be before we discovered polyurethane foam, fiberglass and epoxy resins. They were actually pieces of wood—the Hawaiians often used wood from native koa trees—hand-crafted and glued together with a decent amount of air space in them so they would float longer. They didn’t have fins, but a drain hole. Every hour or so you had to lug this board, which probably weighed close to 200 pounds by then, up on the beach, drain it and let it dry out. That’s why in the early days surfers were so buff. They had to be, to lug around these weighty monsters.

Many of these early wooden boards came from an unlikely place: Pacific System Ready Cut Homes, one of the largest homebuilders in the world by the start of World War II. The founder’s son, Meyers Butte, convinced his dad that making surfboards would be a good way to diversify the business. Pacific System was one of the first companies to mass-produce surfboards in the U.S., and if you bought one of their homes in Southern California in the 1940s it most likely came with a free surfboard.

Even as surfing became more popular, there were still many people who made their own boards, and the museum has one of the rarest: a 14-foot, 5-inch-thick redwood board that was probably built in the 1940s and then sat in an attic for five or six decades. It has the usual drain hole near where the fin is today, but it also has what the museum initially thought was a second drain hole on the top of the board closer to the front tip. When the curators asked about it, the original owner’s grandson said, “Oh, no, that’s where the sail goes.” The museum thinks it could very well be the first board made for windsurfing.

This is all well-told here, with a display of boards and informative plaques and panels that explain the evolution of the surfboard, some of them pioneered by guys who caught big waves right here. Guys like Corky Carroll, a five-time U.S. champion who’s considered by many to be the first professional surfer. He still runs a surfing school here, and some nights you can find him playing music at Duke’s Surf City, a popular bar named for the father of modern surfing, Duke Kahanamoku (1890-1968). There’s a life-size statue in the museum of the 6-foot-1-inch Hawaiian, who surfed here and promoted the first-ever professional competition with the 1959 West Coast Surfing Championships (now the U.S. Open).

Of course, anywhere there was surfing there was surf music. The museum also has on display guitars, gold records and posters, including one from the quintessential surfer movie, “Endless Summer” (1966). There’s also a vintage poster from “Battle of the Surf Bands,” a local annual concert that even in 1992 featured Dick Dale, widely known as the King of the Surf Guitar, and Jan and Dean.

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Oceanside, Calif.

About 50 miles south of Huntington Beach, tucked next to the military-surplus and barber shops that cater to the Marines from nearby Camp Pendleton, is the California Surf Museum. It occupies a traditional storefront that’s been remodeled and is about twice as big as the International Surfing Museum, and its collection is more extensive. And that’s appropriate, since surfing has continued to flourish in California more than perhaps anywhere else.

The California Surf Museum currently has a special exhibit, “The Magic of Windansea,” celebrating 50 years of one of the most eclectic surfing clubs on the California coast. So-called Plank Boys—including Lloyd Baker, considered to be one of the first U.S. surfboard makers—started surfing the waves off Oceanside in the 1930s. Initially, an ad hoc club of outstanding surfers formed. It was sometimes called the San Diego Surf Club but eventually became known as Windansea. In the 1940s, it started hosting the Windansea Luau and in 1948 hosted the first-ever Pacific Coast Surfing Championships.

The club disbanded several times and got back together over the years. But it was in 1963 that the group really made a name for itself. It put together a team almost on a whim, went north to the Malibu Surfrider International Surfing Tourney, to what many regarded as the surfing capital of the universe, and won most everything. That same year, a Windansea team also won what was then known as the West Coast Surfing Championships at Huntington Beach. The club has been legendary among hard-core surfers ever since.

The museum has put together a comprehensive collection of surfboards, photos, news clippings and memorabilia, including surfboards that belonged to famous club members. There’s also a brief history of “The Shack,” the small beach structure made of locally harvested eucalyptus poles and a date-palm thatched roof. First built in 1946 so that club members had a place to get out of the sun and stand up their boards to drain and dry, it has been rebuilt several times due to storms and sits 12 feet back from its original site because of beach erosion.

The museum also has its own collection tracing the evolution of surfboards, from a 1923 finless redwood board that weighs 67 pounds to a 1966 foam-and-fiberglass Magic Sam model that’s also 9 feet long but weighs one-third as much.

Both museums are worth a stop this summer to learn where surfing began, how it has changed, and who were some of its most famous pioneers. You might even run into one of them.

Mr. Yost is a writer in Houston.

To Love a Nomad

By Mark Yost
The Wall Street Journal
July 31, 2013

Itasca, Ill.

Nomad 1If you think about America’s love affair with the California beach culture of the 1950s and ’60s, one of the iconic images that comes to mind is Gidget. She first appeared in a 1957 novel by Frederick Kohner, based on the Malibu Point exploits of his teenage daughter, Kathy. Sandra Dee brought her to life on the movie screen in 1959; “Where the Boys Are” came out a year later; and in 1961 the Wilson brothers first teamed up with their cousin, Mike Love, to form the Beach Boys. But before all of that, there was the Chevy Nomad.

The slant-roofed, limited-edition two-door station wagon that for many is the definitive car of the surfer era made its first appearance a long way from the California coast. The Corvette Nomad was a prototype that General Motors showed at its 1954 Motorama in New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel. Its unique features were such a hit that GM engineers applied the styling cues to the Chevrolet Bel Air and created the 1955 Chevy Nomad.

GM produced fewer than 25,000 of the original Nomads over just three model years. Despite its limited production run, the Nomad still has legions of fans, including about 500 die-hards who recently celebrated the Chevrolet Nomad Association’s 25th anniversary in this Chicago suburb.

Paul Miller Sr., from nearby Prairie View, Ill., has two Nomads, both ’57s. His pride and joy is the Nomad 2fire-engine red one, which he painstakingly restored “$10 at a time over about 10 years.”

When he found the car on Chicago’s West Side, it had no brakes and no interior. He did what car guys call a “frame-off restoration,” meaning he took the car down to its bare bones.

“I’d guess I have somewhere between 30 and 40 thousand dollars into it, and a lot of late nights and long weekends in the garage,” said Mr. Miller, who runs the public-works department of a Chicago suburb.

While some collectors strive for all original parts, that’s hard to do with a car whose limited run ended more than 55 years ago. So Mr. Miller’s orange ’57 has a 427-cubic-inch Chevy big-block engine instead of the original 283. His green ’57 Nomad, what he calls his “basic car,” has a 350-cubic-inch tune-port engine out of a 1990 IROC-Z Camaro.

“I could get in it and drive it across the country without lifting the hood,” he proudly said of the green car.

Nomad 3He’s done that, driving to the CNA convention in Sacramento, Calif., last year, and plans to drive to the annual get-together in Chattanooga, Tenn., next year.

Because the Nomad is all about the look for many collectors, some don’t even have GM parts. Vance Long, who owns one Nomad from each model year, drove his ’57 more than 1,700 miles to this year’s gathering from his home in Queen Creek, Ariz. Under the hood is a 350-cubic-inch fuel-injected Corvette engine, and the transmission is a GM 700r4 overdrive automatic. But the rear axle is a 9-inch Ford and the wraparound back seats are out of a ’68 T-bird.

Why a Nomad?

“A friend had one in high school,” Mr. Long said, giving a common response.

Marvin van Blericom, a contractor from Battle Ground, Wash., just thought the Nomad looked cool. He bought his first one on Father’s Day in 1991. He attended a Nomad show in Bend, Ore., that year, went home, and tore down his ’56 Nomad to the frame.

“I saw the competition and knew what I had to do,” he said.

He bought the car for $6,500 and put an additional $35,000 into it over the next year. The car, which was originally copper and cream but is now metallic teal, was recently appraised at $65,000, he said.

Perhaps the most interesting Nomad story comes from Ron Gruel of Linden, Ill. He’d never seen a Nomad until he found a ’57 sitting in a dairy barn in Clinton, Iowa, in 1968. He bought it because the wide liftgate and spacious back end were perfect for Mr. Gruel, who was a Keebler cookie salesman. He did a little engine work and painted it Keebler red.

Mr. Gruel has since become an even bigger fan of the classic care and now has one Nomad from each model year. His current project is to refit the car that everyone called “the cookie box” with all original parts. He’s completely redone the car, including a new paint job in the original black-and-white color scheme.

The car currently has a 350-cubic-inch engine from a ’74 Chevelle, but Mr. Greul said he has found an original engine and transmission that he plans to install this winter.

“Come to our show next year and I’ll have one of the few all-original Nomads,” he said.

Mr. Yost is a writer in Houston.