Forgotten Fiberglass

Story by Myles Kornblatt • Images Courtesy the Manufacturers

Fiberglass kit cars of the 1950s and ’60s hail from an era when daydreams could be affordably molded into reality. Many of them emerged from underdog companies looking to strike it rich by mixing inexpensive, mass-produced parts into a winning sports car recipe.

Those who got it right attracted racers and enthusiasts who couldn’t afford the true exotics. These owners were willing to put in the sweat equity at home to build and refine these creations.

Fiberglass-reinforced resin was the key ingredient of this new movement in car making. When it first appeared on the scene, it not only gave large companies like Chevrolet and Studebaker a new medium to sculpt, but it also allowed much smaller factories to make bodies–and even complete cars–in a space no larger than a suburban garage.

This sparked a small revolution in the industry, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the Brass Era. A surge of fledgling manufacturers entered the ring, armed with new technology and an enticing selling point: Their products could make exotic dreams come true for commuter-car money.

Today, the same holds true. Sure, some of these kit cars have achieved true collector status–Hagerty’s value guide says that a V8-powered Devin SS is now worth about $200,000. But the rest of the field is still as affordable as ever.

Case in point: our own limited-run fiberglass special, a 1958 Tornado Typhoon. We’re restoring and preparing the roadster for this year’s Amelia Island show field, but the project is only going to cost us rubber-bumper MGB money.

Britannia Leads the Way

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England laid the groundwork for fiberglass and kit sports cars as early as 1939. This was the first year of the 750 Motor Club–the name is a reference to the engine capacity of the Austin Seven.

“The Seven was cheap and readily available, and one-off specials were built using its running gear,” explains Richard Heseltine. He knows this industry well, and his book, “Specialist Sports Cars: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly From a Very British Breed” outlines the U.K. companies that chased a dream with very few resources.

“The 750MC became sort of a finishing school for budding designers, with the likes of Lotus’s Colin Chapman and Lola founder Eric Broadley among its leading lights in the ’50s,” he continues. “From this grew a tuning industry, with the 1172cc Ford side-valve fours eventually finding favor. The manufacture of glassfibre body shells was a natural progression.”

If that engine-and-body combination sounds familiar, it’s what powers our Tornado Typhoon. This roadster is just one in a long list of cool, small-batch fiberglass cars that never really left England in any organized manner. A visit to eBay’s U.K. site can turn up a few of these rare, nearly anonymous gems. Cars with names like Unipower, Piper and Rochdale can still be affordable after shipping and make for a truly unique sight on American roads.

But be warned: Cars built from whatever was lying around don’t always come with manuals to explain them. If one of these imports needs work, discovering the hodgepodge of parts that formed it may remind you of an autopsy on “CSI.”

There is a slightly easier route to a British sport special: Go after the cars that made enough of a splash in the U.K. that the ripples were felt on this side of the Atlantic. A Lotus is an obvious choice, but there are also candidates from companies like Marcos, Peerless and Elva. They all made the trip over by the handful.

They still pop up for sale in the U.S. at affordable prices. A rolling, complete 1958 Peerless GT–one of maybe 325 examples built–recently sold on wirewheel.com for about $10,000. While all these cars look like a lot of fun, they were products of an unstable industry that was ripe for mass manufacturing to knock it out. Even the ones that came fully assembled could be quite crude.

“What did in the DIY sports car was the arrival of the Austin- Healey Sprite and the Mini,” says Heseltine, referring to 1960s England. “Finance was now readily available, and a leaky home-built contraption suddenly didn’t seem too appealing. So demand for specials petered out remarkably quickly.”

The situation was not much better in the U.S. Although donor components from mainstream manufacturers meant replacement parts were available, dealer networks for these low-volume brands were nearly nonexistent. This made the cars a tough sell for companies like Marcos, whose 3.0-liter offerings cost as much as a Corvette.

TVR had its own strategy for weathering the storm. The marque teamed with New York-area Ford dealer Jack Griffith to create a V8-powered car in the vein of Shelby’s Cobra. Unfortunately, a shipping dock strike delayed the car bodies, which stalled payments to TVR. This sunk the entire cash-strapped company, but not all was lost. When the TVR name emerged from liquidation, the Ford V8 remained a popular feature. This wasn’t the only fiberglass-related flirtation between Europe and America.

The Americas Rework Europe

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Volkswagens may have come from Germany, but North and South America took full advantage of what could be built from humble Beetle origins. The original VW floor pan has been the base for a range of replica kit cars–from nearly perfect Porsche Speedster imposters to oddly proportioned Mercedes-Benz SSKs–but there were also some unique creations. While the Meyers Manx and dune buggy clones are the easiest to find, the real prizes are the ones like the Puma.

Brazil’s high import taxes meant that performance cars were homegrown. So when Puma’s supply of DKW parts dried up in 1967, their fiberglass sports car was reconfigured to accept the widely available VW components. This created a winning formula that was in production for nearly two decades.

The South American cars had an Italian flavor: a coupe that resembled a Dino, and a droptop that could have fit in at Alfa Romeo. The attractive design did not go unnoticed farther north, as a few thousand examples entered the U.S.–both as complete cars and as kits that needed suspension and engine components.

Today, Pumas are genuinely desirable thanks to somewhat low production numbers, classically attractive styling, and a powerplant that’s simple to fix and inexpensive to upgrade. Still, the real kicker is the pricing. In today’s market, these lightweights struggle to command Miata money.

For those who were more serious about taking their VW power to the track, there were the American-made Devins. Bill Devin took the components of the Beetle and reworked them with a new suspension and a lightweight fiberglass body, creating a fleet of Porsche-killers. He built complete competition cars using a variety of components, from two-cylinder Panhards to Corvette V8s. But that’s not what made him a legend.

Devin’s California shop had 27 sizes of Ferrari-like roadster fiberglass shells to fit nearly every sports chassis available. Complete bodies cost $295–remember, we’re talking 1957 dollars–while versions missing only a drivetrain and wheels retailed for just $995.

Devin quickly became the first name in do-it-yourself kit cars in America. These attractive and affordable fiberglass creations were the go-to option for racers looking to shed weight, build performance, or just salvage a damaged sports car. So while Devin is a very American company, the name was often seen together with the ideal European machines of the day, such as MGs, Triumphs and Fiats.

Devin was far from alone in America during the 1950s and ’60s. Fiberglass car bodies took the West Coast by storm, as everyone from the local custom shop to resin/plastics mass manufacturers got into the game.

Glasspar used its knowledge of boat making to become one of the first producers of kit cars in the industry, while toymaker AMT used its experience in making model kits to produce a futuristic machine called the Piranha. In the ’60s, you couldn’t open a car magazine without seeing a Fiberfab ad.

Canada even tried to enter the scene near the industry’s twilight. Years before the infamous Bricklin SV-1 came to be, there was another fiberglass creation called the Manic GT. The Renault 10 was the basis for this small, Quebec-built coupe. The bad news is that only 160 were produced from 1969 to 1971, but for those who can locate one, the good news is that the whole car costs about as much as one service bill on an Italian exotic.

Few Surviving Names

If there is one recurring theme here, it’s that very few of these companies–whether they produced whole vehicles or just bodies–survived the last quarter-century. Safety regulations, unibody construction and miles of electrical wiring make it nearly impossible for a modern chassis to accept a new shell. A few of the classic names endure, but the spirit of the movement seems to be gone. “Those [British] companies that survived did so by moving upmarket and attempting to offer something mainstream manufacturers did not,” Heseltine explains.

Lotus still produces some interesting (and expensive) cars from fiberglass, but their affordable kits went to Caterham. TVR teases us with the occasional glimmer of hope for a new car, but nothing has hit the road for years. Ginetta continues to race in the U.S., but getting a road car kit imported is a bit pricy and tough. Plus, today’s home market is often more about building Cobra replicas or turning Fieros into Ferraris.

It seems the classic car world is where these low-volume fiberglass and kit cars really continue to live. Although most companies only produced cars by the handful, there are still plenty of examples out there.

The simple angles and fiberglass construction make restoring one of them a less scary home project than trying to recreate a tailfin or repair the fenders on a Jaguar. As we’re learning with our Tornado, the terms “precision” and “1950s fiberglass” should not be used together.

These unique classics tend to take less time, money and materials to maintain than just about any other type of vintage car. Basically, these specialist sports cars are like intramural sports: Anyone can play.

 

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Comments
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wspohn
wspohn HalfDork
7/26/17 10:56 a.m.

I'm a fan - own or have owned Jensens (which didn't get a mention), TVR, Buckler and my American bodied MG http://www.rhodo.citymax.com/f/Jamaican_Article.pdf

Trans_Maro
Trans_Maro PowerDork
7/26/17 12:20 p.m.

We've got a Marcos 1600GT in the shop at the moment.

alfabeach
alfabeach New Reader
8/9/17 10:47 a.m.

I know everything about fiberglass from my 1954 Motor Trend Manual of Building Plastic Cars.

sir_mike
sir_mike New Reader
3/20/20 6:11 p.m.

And the GSM Dart and Delta from South Africa...Really want a GSM Delta.

wspohn
wspohn Dork
3/22/20 12:11 p.m.
Trans_Maro said:

We've got a Marcos 1600GT in the shop at the moment.

Early, or late production?  I'd be a bit worried about the early ones that had wood chassis, although  friend used to vintage race one. Dry rot could ruin your whole weekend....

I'll nominate the Lotus Elite as the most attractive fiberglass car (the suspension subassemblies were bonded into the GRP shells. Used to have a passel of them in my class at Laguna Seca - to be competitive they had to be pretty highly tuned, so the fastest ones were most likely to DNF, but they could be quick while they ran.

 

Tim Suddard
Tim Suddard Publisher
3/23/20 11:38 a.m.

Sir-Mike, that is a sweet looking book that I have never seen.

 

ShawnG
ShawnG UltimaDork
3/23/20 11:55 a.m.

In reply to wspohn :

Wood, it's long gone from our shop but it was plenty strong.

As long as it's not left outside in the elements with no glass in it and parked in tall grass, it's probably no worse than a similarly abused steel chassis.

DartHollywood
DartHollywood New Reader
3/23/20 1:53 p.m.

As long as we are speaking of lost/forgotten marques of fiberglas production, there is the remarkable story of Intermeccanica of Italy which at the commission of Philadelphia radio personality, Ed Felbin, produced 50 of the classic SQUIRE SS100 Roadster from 1971-1973.  Intermeccanica still exists in Vancouver, BC producing Porsche Speedster recreations.

The SQUIRE SS100 is an almost exact, full size replica of the 1937-1939 Jaguar SS-100. Bodies were all hand-laid fiberglass with a ladder type steel frame. Modified Alfa torsion bars suspended the front Ford Mustang A-arms with leaf springs &  cylinder shock absorbers in rear. Power was the Ford Mustang/Maverick 250 c.i. (4.1 liter) straight Six hooked to either a C4 auto or 4 spd manual, 25 copies of each version.

I love showing my bit of the non-restored raggedy dog at different venues in Las Vegas and homestate VA where it's always a welcomed oddity.

Dart Hollywood

MadMac
MadMac New Reader
3/23/20 5:16 p.m.

Forgotten Fiberglass forgot the Saab Sonett.  Mine was the same year and color as the one featured in this October 10, 2019 Car Catcher feature:

https://classicmotorsports.com/news/car-catcher-this-saab-sonett-iii-alternative-swedish-sports-car/

Gary
Gary UltraDork
3/23/20 8:07 p.m.

Deserter GS/GT

These are probably the best Deserter examples in existence today. I think the maroon one belongs to Alex Dearborn, "father" of the Deserter going back to the Autodynamics days, and is pretty close to original intent. Beautiful vehicle. Mike's GS, the red one, is a heavily modified, mid-engined and well re-engineered screamer. Internally it doesn't bear much resemblance to the original Deserter GS design, but externally it looks the same as an original GS. Mike did a great job. Both are great cars!

Mike's GS (with body)

Mike's GS (sans body)

Tim Suddard
Tim Suddard Publisher
3/24/20 7:25 a.m.

Got a letter yesterday from a new reader, who picked the magazine up in Canada. he sent a picture of what I think is a Falcon English Ford based special, that he built when he was a kid.

Tim Suddard
Tim Suddard Publisher
3/24/20 7:27 a.m.

And of course, we still have our English Ford based special, the Tornado Typhoon.

Tim Suddard
Tim Suddard Publisher
3/24/20 7:28 a.m.

We also still have our Meyers Manx, although the Deserter is a way cooler looking buggy.

wspohn
wspohn Dork
3/24/20 10:13 a.m.

You've seen this from me before, but it seems a logical place to add my GRP kit car, Fiberfab Jamaican (in this case on an MGA base with 93 Camaro V6 driveline).

 

frenchyd
frenchyd PowerDork
3/24/20 10:36 a.m.

In reply to The Staff of Motorsport Marketing :

In 1958Jack Baker took molds from Don Skogmo's  D type Jaguar and birdcage Maserati  ( still regionally competitive  race cars)  then put the results on a shortened Jaguar XK150 and created the Black Jack Special. 

When  I found the car post Vietnam it had been  beaten up so badly it was far simpler to just make a mold and start with fresh pieces. 
 

I did the same thing for a Devin. (De Mar mk 2)   That one the body shop guy had charged the owner over $5000 late 70's dollars  to straighten and paint it leaving it up to me to remount is.  Then when at top speed on the front straight at Elkhart Lake the front bodywork pulled apart and went flying over 30 feet in the air.  My pants got soiled.  ( I was sorting it for the owner )  the replacement body taken from a mold off the pasted back together body weighed 118 pounds less. Since it was made from cloth rather than a chopper gun it was massively stronger too.  
 
I also made molds from my XKE series 3 V 12 roadster ( except the rear tub ) In General it took me about a day to smooth out and triple wax the body part to prepare it to make a splash mold off it .  A day or two to cure and then another day to wax and coat with PVA ( a release agent that washes off with water) 

Had  I kept all of those molds I'd be pumping out race cars like pop corn. 

Adrian_Thompson
Adrian_Thompson MegaDork
3/24/20 10:48 a.m.

I've posted this many times before.  This wasn't just my DD for a couple of years, but the only car I had running.  Heater?  Nope, de-mister? Nope, Seats? Well yes but I used to take them out and sit straight on the monocoque floor to save the one inch seat thickness for headroom.  

Gary
Gary UltraDork
3/25/20 10:06 a.m.

In reply to Adrian_Thompson :

Might this be you "back in the day?"

stu67tiger
stu67tiger Reader
3/25/20 12:25 p.m.

After seeing the Deserters above, I decided to see what Google could dredge up.  I knew they were built on cut down VW frames, and were built in nearby Marblehead, but not much else.  Imagine my surprize when a familiar name popped up in the post Marblehead period of Deserter history.   Care to comment further, Gary?

BoxheadTim
BoxheadTim MegaDork
3/25/20 12:42 p.m.
ShawnG said:

In reply to wspohn :

Wood, it's long gone from our shop but it was plenty strong.

The original guys behind Marcos had worked on the DeHavilland Mosquito, which was one of the fastest piston engined planes of WW2 and mostly built out of plywood. They had plenty of experience of building lightweight and very strong structures out of plywood.

Gary
Gary UltraDork
3/25/20 1:28 p.m.

In reply to stu67tiger :

My role was primarily as caretaker of the molds for a few years after Autodynamics and Formula Automotive in Marblehead, MA, pulled out of the business in the mid-seventies. Late seventies and early eighties were difficult years for kit car manufacturers. Although during my years with the molds we pulled a few bodies and other miscellaneous parts for people. In the mid-eighties I transferred everything to another caretaker in Ohio, who I think subsequently passed everything on to somebody in California. I heard there was talk about reviving the marque a few years ago, but don't know how that worked out. To my knowledge, Dearborn Automotive (Alex Dearborn) owns the rights to the name Deserter.

Adrian_Thompson
Adrian_Thompson MegaDork
3/25/20 2:56 p.m.
BoxheadTim said:
ShawnG said:

In reply to wspohn :

Wood, it's long gone from our shop but it was plenty strong.

The original guys behind Marcos had worked on the DeHavilland Mosquito, which was one of the fastest piston engined planes of WW2 and mostly built out of plywood. They had plenty of experience of building lightweight and very strong structures out of plywood.

A lot of the DeHavilland Vampire was also wood.  The Vampire was the second jet aircraft to enter service for the RAF, and the first with a single engine as the Gloster Meteor was twin engine.

Vampire 3 (cropped) copy.jpg

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