American kit and specialty cars are just now getting the attention they deserve by the classic car community. They were honored a few years back when the prestigious Monterey Historic Races featured home-brewed American racing cars in their annual track event. This year the esteemed Amelia Island Concours had a special class called Fiberglass Sports Cars 1951-1960 just for classic 'glass.
Unfortunately, due to a series of mix-ups by an unnamed airline (hint: starts with A, ends with n) I was unable to get from Texas to Florida for the show, but my friend and fellow specialty car historian Geoff Hacker was able to make it across state from his St. Petersburg-area digs to bring us back the story. In fact, he was one of the guests of honor for trailering his sporty red 1957 LaDawri Conquest to the show. He also brought along his partner in crime, Jon Greuel (linchpin of www.LaDawri.com), and a handful of surprise guests.
In addition to the Conquest, the class included Jim Robinson's famous Bonneville racing '53 Victress S-1a, Fred Roth's '52 Maverick Sportster, Al Wiseman's '51 Glasspar G-1, Alex Quattlebaum's '58 Devin SS, Neil Huffman's '54 Edwards America, John McCrea and Ron Strapel's '51 Kaiser Darrin, Mike Fisher's '59 Bocar XP-5, Chuck Walder's '54 Corvette, and Ele Chesney's '54 Plymouth Belmont concept car. What a lineup!
One of the things that made this event special was that some of the main players from the early days of the fiberglass car industry showed up to visit with their fans. Doc Boyce-Smith and Merrill Powell started Victress in the early '50s. This year Merrill and his wife Gerrianne were joined at the show by Pat Boyce-Smith (widow of Doc) to visit with Jim Robinson and his wife, Lee Anne. Robinson recently completed a comprehensive restoration of the Guy Mabee Drilling Special, which set the absolute sports car record at Bonneville in '53 at 203.105 mph-this was with a Chrysler Hemi lapping up nitro!
Victress built an extensive line of kit sports cars and racing bodies in the '50s. The S-1a was a lovely roadster with an elliptical nose that fit a 99-inch wheelbase. A shorter version, the S-5, was sized to fit MG chassis. The S-4 was a handsome convertible to fit full-size American sedan chassis. The C-2 and C-3 coupes were more practical, yet were still used on racing cars. Victress also built dragster bodies. They sold their molds in '61 and closed the doors.
The LaDawri fans were also treated to a visit from founder Les Dawes' widow, Joan, and their daughter, Debbi. Until Geoff Hacker contacted them, the surviving Dawes had no idea of the devotion many collectors have for the many lovely cars Les built in the '50s and '60s. One of the class judges was legendary customizer George Barris, who fondly remembered seeing an original LaDawri in one of his car shows in '58 and said he really liked the looks.
LaDawri was one of the most successful kit car companies of the '50s. The Conquest was featured on the cover of Road & Track in '57. It was soon joined by the Quest GT, a shorter version that fit European chassis. The Conquest had twin grille openings, and a second version with a single, wider grille was called the Daytona. It also had a shorter sibling called the Sebring. LaDawri also built a number of coupes and racing car bodies before closing the doors in the late '60s.
Fred Roth's Maverick is the only known running example, although there are rumors that one or two more may exist. It featured a smooth, sculptured fiberglass body mounted on a full-length '52-54 Cadillac chassis with stock or modified Caddy mills. The Maverick was created by engineer H. Sterling Gladwin. They were built in the early '50s. Roth's dark green Maverick was judged Best in Class at Amelia Island.
The Edwards America was a limited-edition sports car built by wealthy sportsman Sterling Edwards. The first two cars were for racing only, but then Edwards switched to street auto production. Fiberglass coupe and roadster bodies were mounted on cut-down Ford chassis with Lincoln V-8s. Only about six were sold in the mid-'50s. Neil Huffman had a lovely example at Amelia.
Al Wiseman's Glasspar was a terrific example of a car built by one of the pioneer firms in fiberglass production. Glasspar founder Bill Tritt was a success in the car business, and even more so in the 'glass boat biz. The G-1 was a lovely kit body that fit on a Ford chassis or on a special chassis built by Mameco.
Bocar was one of the few companies building road-racing cars in America in the '50s. From their Colorado base, the Bocars fanned out to run all across the country. Builder Bob Carnes designed and built eight models from '58-62, but the best of the lot was the XP-5, which featured a box frame, Chevy power, and VW front suspension. Michael Fisher brought out a stunning red example set up for vintage racing with a fuel-injected 283.
Howard "Dutch" Darrin talked failing auto company Kaiser into building a fiberglass-bodied sports car in '52. It was a beauty, with doors that slid back into the fenders and a tiny grille. They were built on a Henry J (an economy car built by Kaiser) chassis with a six-cylinder engine (a supercharger was optional). Kaiser foundered in '54, leaving the last 150 cars in the hands of Darrin, who installed Cadillac engines and sold them as Darrins. A fantastic Kaiser-Darrin was on hand to show what stunning cars they were.
Devin was another kit car giant of the '50s. In addition to their kit bodies, Devin built a finished car called the SS, and Alex Quattlebaum had his striking red example on the field, along with a small children's version called the Devin Jr. The SS had a ladder frame, DeDion rear suspension, and a Chevy V-8, while the Jr. was built on a go-kart chassis.
The Plymouth Belmont was a futuristic one-off styling project for a Chrysler division built in '54. It was built using a '54 chassis and engine. Ele Chesney bought her pride and joy to Amelia Island.
Obviously, the most successful of any marque represented this year was the Corvette, and a nice white '54 model was on display by owners Chuck and Karen Walder. Although the Corvette initially lagged behind the T-Bird in sales, it was later vindicated by becoming the longest-lived American sports car of all time.
At the end of the weekend, a parade was held on the show field. Only one class is chosen each year for this honor, and with over 300 magnificent Ferraris, Maseratis, road racing cars, classic luxury cars, and other exotica on hand, it was certainly not a given that the Fiberglass Sports Cars class would be chosen, but luckily it was. Each car was driven across the field in front of thousands of spectators while the driver and passenger waved. The last car across was Hacker's LaDawri Conquest, driven by Greuel with Debbi Dawes in the passenger seat. Joan Dawes was introduced to the crowd and made a speech about the car.
It was a magic moment, and the Dawes family was so taken by it that as soon as they got home they started looking for a LaDawri of their own. You can guess the ending. Son Patrick Dawes has recently bought a Conquest with a frame and suspension custom-built by his father. The Dawes once again have a LaDawri of their own. And not to be outdone, Merrill Powell couldn't resist picking up a Victress C-3 of his own. So once again two of the pioneering families of the kit car world have examples of their own handiwork.
A special thanks goes to Geoff Hacker for providing the details for this column and arranging with friends to take photos to share with us. Hacker was able to help coordinate some of the cars that attended in this class, as well as arrange for the special visitors who attended. Lastly, thanks to Amelia Island founder and chairman Bill Warner for inviting these frequently overlooked fiberglass sculptures to his fantastic celebration of the automobile!
The Edwards America convertible...
The Edwards America convertible is a rare beauty.
Fred Roth emerged victorious...
Fred Roth emerged victorious in the Concours judging. His lovely Maverick was a favorite with the judges.
Merrill Powell, Jon Greuel,...
Merrill Powell, Jon Greuel, Geoff Hacker, Debbi Dawes, and Joan Dawes gather behind Hacker's Conquest.
The Mabee Drilling Special...
The Mabee Drilling Special was a very quick Victress. Left to right: Owner Jim Robinson, Gerrianne, and Merrill Powell.
The Kaiser Darrin joins the...
The Kaiser Darrin joins the fiberglass cars on the lawn.
Bocars were potent performers...
Bocars were potent performers on the track and street. This one is set up for vintage racing.
This Devin SS is one of about...
This Devin SS is one of about 18 built.