20 December 2009

Fiberglass Specials of the 1950s

The 1950s were the Wild West for sports car makers in the U.S. Virtually anyone with a dream and a few thousand square feet somewhere on the outskirts of town could become a low-volume automaker. For a brief period of time, companies like Bocar, Devin, Kellison, Cheetah and Woodhill flourished. Two things made this possible: the invention of fiberglass and an almost complete lack of government regulation.

Fiberglass was a wonder material invented in the U.K. during World War II to replace plywood in aircraft. It consisted of strong glass strands and a liquid plastic binder that would form a strong, easily repaired material when hardened by a chemical reaction. After the war, racers and boat builders found that it was cheap and easy to spray into a mold to form a car body or a boat hull.

A regulatory environment similar to that of Deadwood, S.D., in the 1870s didn’t hurt either. These were the pre-Ralph Nader days, before it had actually occurred to anyone to sue a manufacturer for supplying an unsafe or defective product. EPA, DOT, NHTSA? Forget about it. They were all 10-15 years in the future when most fiberglass special companies started.

Although they all look quite different, most of the fiberglass specials of the 1950s and ’60s have several things in common: First, most were built with at least some form of competition in mind. And all used numerous components such as engines, transmissions, suspension, brakes and steering from volume manufacturers; all of these major assemblies were too expensive for a chronically undercapitalized small company operating out of a semi-abandoned office park or a surplus WWII bomber factory to develop on its own.

Another thing fiberglass specials have in common is that many didn’t work so well as cars. The Big Three had tons of people employed as engineers, stylists and designers. As early as the 1950s, they had computers that would fill entire rooms working on things as seemingly simple as getting people to fit in a car and the ideal relationship between controls and the occupants. Fiberglass special makers generally had a guy with a tape measure. Try to get inside a Kellison Astra, drive it and actually see out of the thing and you’ll realize that designing and building a car is harder than it actually looks.

Occasionally, whether by luck or better engineering, fiberglass special manufacturers got it right. The Bocar is an example of one of the more successful designs. In one of the first televised races at Daytona, a Bocar came in second to a Jaguar D-type that had won Le Mans a few years earlier.

Bill Devin was another successful American fiberglass special maker. Devin’s cars were beautiful, well engineered and had a reputation for working well. Powered by everything from Corvette to VW motors, they won several SCCA national championships. Like most fiberglass specials, they were available fully assembled or in component form. Today, Devins, Bocars and several other fiberglass specials are highly sought after collectibles. As usual, cars with an actual documented period race history are worth the most.

 

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