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Fibreglass car was cool enough for Gable

Glass-reinforced plastic, popularly known as fibreglass, was developed by the Owens-Corning Co. of Corning, New York, just before the Second World War.

Glass-reinforced plastic, popularly known as fibreglass, was developed by the Owens-Corning Co. of Corning, New York, just before the Second World War. It was marketed as "Fiberglas," but "fibreglass" eventually became a generic term for all glass-reinforced plastic. It was improved during the war, when the military used it for radar domes and other protective structures. It was impact-resistant, withstood wide temperature variations and held a high paint lustre.

Lightweight and strong, fibreglass was found to be an excellent boat-construction material. In 1946, California boat builder Bill Tritt was commissioned to build a 20-foot, high-performance fibreglass sailboat. It was so successful that four were made.

In 1949, hot-rod enthusiast Ken Brooks asked Tritt to build a fibreglass body for a modified car he had constructed using a Jeep chassis. His 1951 Brooks Boxer was shown at the Los Angeles Motorama show and generated favourable features in several magazines. This motivated Tritt to add car bodies to his boat business.

Tritt and his partners formed the Glasspar Co. in 1950, based in larger quarters in Santa Ana. Using the Boxer pattern, he produced the first Glasspar G2 sports roadster. Tritt was also commissioned to build a G2-based roadster for the Naugatuck Chemical Co. to publicize their new Naugahyde upholstery material. The car was called the Alembic I.

The Alembic was inspected by General Motors and almost certainly influenced them to use a fibreglass body in the Chevrolet Corvette. It was introduced as a show car in January 1953 and placed in production with a fibreglass body in June of that year. Fibreglass has been a Corvette hallmark ever since.

In 1952, Glasspar began production of its G2, a trim and handsome roadster in the genre of English sports cars like the Jaguar XK120 that were becoming popular, especially in California. Its wheelbase was 2,565 millimetres compared with the Jaguar's 2,591. The 862-kilogram weight was considerably less than the Jag's 1,247, and its $2,950 price was about $1,000 cheaper.

The tubular steel frame was designed to take 1939-1948 Ford running gear. Although almost any engine such as Cadillac, Chrysler, Lincoln, etc. could be installed, the majority of Glasspars came with Ford side-valve V-8s, usually modified for higher performance. The engine was set back in the chassis for 50-50 weight distribution, and this plus a 1,422-mm track (the Jaguar's averaged only 1,283 mm) and low centre of gravity gave the Glasspar good handling characteristics.

Tritt built 10 G2 roadsters, and gained publicity when they were bought by such celebrities as actors Rosemary Clooney and Clark Gable.

Glasspar also offered them as owner-assembled kits. From 1951 to 1955, when production stopped, Tritt produced more than 200 Glasspar G2s.

Glasspar also built cars for others, and made Woodill Wildfire bodies for Robert (Woody) Woodill, a Willys dealer in Downey, California. Woodill mounted them on Willys chassis and usually installed a 2.6-litre Willys F-head (inlet valves in the head and exhausts in the block) 90-horsepower inline six. Some Woodills were sold complete, but most came as kits. Total production was estimated at 200 cars in two series.

Another Glasspar project was the fibreglass-bodied Kaiser Darrin. After he left Kaiser-Frazer employment, stylist Howard (Dutch) Darrin built a sporty twoseater car on a compact K-F Henry J chassis. It was styled and built in Darrin's California shop, and its distinguishing feature was Darren's patented doors that were not hinged, but slid forward into the fenders. The Kaiser-Frazer Co. was impressed enough to adopt it as a production model. Prototype bodies were constructed by Glasspar and when K-F production began, Glasspar built the bodies in a K-F plant in Jackson, Michigan. Production is estimated at 435.

In the 1950s, Glasspar was commissioned to build bodies for the sporty Volvo P1900, forerunner of the popular P1800. Only 67 were produced before Volvo pulled the plug.

Another manufacturer who used fibreglass was Britain's Colin Chapman for his first production car, the 1957 Lotus Elite. Chapman went further than others by making virtually the whole car out of three large fibreglass mouldings that were glued together like a sandwich. This made it a sturdy, light, good-performing car.

When Studebaker launched its stylish Avanti in 1962, it used a fibreglass body. Although by then Studebaker was on the financial ropes, the Avanti was lauded as a very daring design.

Intermeccanica of Vancouver uses fibreglass for its replica Porsche 356 roadsters and Volkswagen-based Jeep-type Kubelwagens.

Although always a niche product, fibreglass continues to be used in a variety of applications.

While the Chevrolet Corvette is the patriarch of fibreglass cars, Bill Tritt of California became "the father of the fibreglass car" when he started it all with the Glasspar G2.

bvance1@cogeco.ca