Vintage vehicles, Automotive history and stories from motoring's past. 

Fantasies in Fiberglass - the influential material in '50s cottage car design

The original three-wheeler, the Benz Patent Motorwagen which Karl Benz’ wife drove with her sons on an unauthorized journey around Germany.

Just after WWII, fiberglass was though of as a new wonder material. Lightweight, strong, corrosion proof, waterproof, easily cast in exotic shapes, it seemed perfect for limited-production car bodies. Detroit was quick to grasp its utility and soon began making styling studies and concept cars out of the new material. It wasn’t that big a leap for GM to take it a step further and introduce a new Corvette sports car made of the miracle plastic. 

GM wasn’t first to sell a fiberglass car body. That honor goes to Bill Tritt of Glasspar, a small Southern California fiberglass boat builder who introduced his Glasspar G2 sports car in 1949. Tritt was mostly interested in selling bodies rather than completed cars and only sold a few turnkey examples. Disneyland learned of his work and commissioned Tritt to build miniature fiberglass cars for its “Autopia” single-seater ride.

Located down the street from Glasspar, Robert “Woody” Woodill was a Willys dealer who fancied building a sportscar with Willys running gear. The Woodill Wildfire was developed from a modified Glasspar G3 body and Woodill presented it to Willys hoping they would build it as a factory sports car. But Willys was about to be purchased by Kaiser and had no time for such a venture. So Woody worked independently, building and selling fifteen complete cars and two hundred and fifteen kits. Wildfires were featured on the big screen as sports racers in the Tony Curits movie Johnny Dark. Nine factory-built Wildfires are said to exist today. 

Even earlier than the Glasspar G2 and Wildfire, visionary engineer Bill Stout, designer of the Ford Tri-Motor airplane and Stout Scarab car, built an experimental fiberglass sedan in 1946, but no production plans materialized. 

Henry Kaiser had no interest in building a sports car. He was having enough trouble building sedans to bother with a low production special. But his designer Dutch Darrin had other ideas. Excited to design his own sports car, he had a prototype built using Kaiser Henry J running gear and presented it to his boss. Henry Kaiser was adamant, saying he had no interest in the project until his wife spoke up, “Why Henry, I think that’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” They were newly married and Henry was smitten by his younger wife. He told Darrin to go ahead with production. Introduced for the 1954 model year, it beat the Corvette to market by one month, but only 435 Kaiser-Darrins were built for sale. It was underpowered, sold by a company with an uncertain future, and carried a high price tag, dampening interest in the swoopy two-seater. Sales lagged. Darrin ended up buying fifty that had been damaged in a snowstorm and selling them out of his California showroom. 

Chevrolet introduced its exciting new fiberglass Corvette at the Waldor-Astoria in 1953, causing a sensation. Public excitement was so great that GM announced the car would go into production later that year. The legendary Corvette went on to become the most successful fiberglass sports car of all, still in production sixty-six years later. 

A pretty roadster based on a Scaglietti design for an aluminum bodied sports racer, Bill Devin’s first fiberglass sports car was just the start. Building bodies from 1955-64, his Devin company produced a variety of different bodies for the street and track. Devin’s bodies were better quality than much of his competition and he brilliantly made his most popular roadster in differently-sized modular parts that could be combined to fit a wide variety of different chassis. 

When famed car magazine publisher Robert Petersen took his new Cistalia 202 coupe to a shop for repairs, enterprising So Cal car guys Bill Burke and Mickey Thompson enlisted George Barris’ help to pull a mold off it to produce a car they called the Allied Swallow, a nearly exact replica of the Cistalia with a wheelbase that matched the contemporary MG roadster. They later introduced a roadster version called the Falcon. They stretched the coupe body to fit American chassis and named it the Blackhawk. Around eight Blackhawks and twenty-some Swallows were built.

The 1952 Maverick was a large, imposing, luxury two-seater fiberglass roadster built on a Cadillac frame and powered by a Caddy V-8. Seven cars were built from 1952-68, just one is known to have survived.

Much later, Bruce Meyers, a visionary Southern Californian, invented a street-legal fiberglass bodied VW powered dune buggy he called the Meyers Manx. From 1965-71 over six thousand were produced, inspiring countless imitations. Meyers Manxes proved fierce competitors in off road racing and received massive publicity. No top, no side windows, no hood, but big fun, the Manx appeared in Elvis movies and the Thomas Crown Affair, driven by Steve McQueen. Bruce Meyers is still around and producing Manxes on a per order basis to this day. 

There were many other small time operators offering fiberglass bodies in back page ads during the 1950s including Victress, Allied, Almquist, LaDawri, Kellison, Byers, and Meteor. Today the www.undiscoveredclassics.com/forgottenfiberglass is the internet’s go to site for information on this often forgotten niche of automotive history.  Growing interest in these early experiments has led to many of the old hulks being hauled from barns and restored; makes sense they’d survive as rust is never an issue. 

By Jim Cherry