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

America's first fiberglass sports car

The Woodill Wildfire beat Corvette to market by a year

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Young GIs who'd driven English roadsters while overseas wanted something sporting when they returned home after WWII. Robert "Woody" Woodill, a Dodge and Willys/Jeep dealer in Downey, California did too, so he decided to buy a sleek new Jaguar XK 120, the most exciting import available. Advised by his head mechanic that the Jag would spend as much time in the shop as it did on the road, Woodill wondered why there wasn't a reliable, American-built sports car. He decided to build his own.

Glaspar, a nearby fiberglass boat maker, had recently begun manufacturing kit car bodies. Woodill adapted Glaspar’s body for use under his own branding. As a Willys dealer, he had ready access to parts from their nearby assembly plant. Using a Willys engine along with a Jeepster bumper, tail lights and axle, Woodill mounted his creation on a steel frame fabricated by a local body shop and the Woodill Wildfire was born.

Woodill attempted to interest Willys in adopting his creation as their own, in-house sports car. The company showed enough interest to fly him and his car to their headquarters, but they were soon bought by Kaiser, a company that was producing its own fiberglass bodied sports car, the Kaiser-Darrin {{{Please make that a link to my earlier article}}, Woodill was forced to remain an independent maker.

Debuting at Petersen Publishing’s 1952 Motorama in Los Angeles, the Wildfire generated serious buzz, inspiring Woodill to enter production. Series cars were powered by Ford V-8 engines set back for a desired 50-50 weight distribution. An optional hot cam, three-carb set up with headers allowed the low-slung beauty to reach speeds of over 125 MPH, a blazing speed at the time. The Wildfire’s low curb weight of just 1,620 lbs. helped, too.

Credited as the first fiberglass production sports car, the Wildfire garnered massive publicity, appearing in Time, Newsweek, and Life magazines along with various auto periodicals. It also starred in the movies Johnny Dark, Written on the Wind, and Knock on Wood.

Just 15 turnkey Wildfires were built, with the lurking phantom of high cost killing Woodill's dream as it had done to many other would-be automakers. Wildfire prices climbed as high as $4,500, equal to the price of a new Cadillac. Somewhere between 100-300 copies were sold as kits that buyers assembled with various drivetrains. Soon Chevrolet’s new fiberglass Corvette appeared for 1953 while Ford's Thunderbird loomed on the horizon, dampening interest in small builders' sports cars.

Today, the nine surviving Wildfires are popular draws at car shows and remain a quirky footnote in America's history of postwar cars, reflecting both Southern California feverish car culture and American “can do” ingenuity.

By Jim Cherry