Ed Almquist, founder of Almquist Engineering, is one of the pivotal figures in the history of hot rodding. His Almquist catalogs offered performance parts to rodders across the country in the 1950s, giving even small-town enthusiasts access to primo parts without having to travel to a big-city rod shop. In addition to selling parts, he also wrote some of the first books on do-it-yourself hot rodding that inspired a generation to transform their jalopies into jewels. Less well known is that Almquist also offered a line of fiberglass kit car bodies that were very popular in the '50s.
The Almquist kit body program started in '55 with a small Pennsylvania company called Clearfield Plastics that had developed a fiberglass sports car body to fit on Fiat Topolino and Crosley chassis. They got into financial trouble and sold the project to Almquist. Harry Heim was the production manager at Clearfield and moved to Almquist, where he and Ed designed and produced the Almquist bodies. "Harry was a very talented mold maker," recalls Almquist, "It was amazing how quickly he worked." Both men were fans of Italian design, and their early bodies had a European look
The first kit body, the Saber I, was a sleek sports car with a 72-92-inch wheelbase, a rounded nose, and an oval grille. The fenders tucked in behind the front wheels to provide ventilation for the brakes (a popular styling element on racing cars of the time). The back was rounded and the headlights were usually placed in the corners of the grille (they could also be fared into the front of the fenders with an optional kit). The $295 Saber I was a popular kit featured on the cover of Mechanix Illustrated in '57. The Saber II was a variation on the same basic body but fit longer 82-92-inch wheelbase chassis. Once again, either grille- or fender-mounted headlights could be used. The Saber 750 was a Saber body modified to fit rear-engined VW or Renault Dauphine chassis. The rear deck was higher to clear the tall VW fan shroud, and the 750 had a shorter nose than the Saber I. The VW and Renault versions had slightly different lengths and could use either Saber headlight treatment.
Bruce Glascock's Almquist...
Bruce Glascock's Almquist Saber body covers a rare Ford V-8/60 engine (photo courtesy Bruce Glascock).
The $495 Speedster kits that followed were very similar to the Saber bodies but were stretched to fit 94-116-inch wheelbases. The Speedster I was built on 94-106-inch wheelbases, while the visually similar Speedster II was stretched to fit 106-116-inch wheelbases. The Speedster III was a Speedster II with quad headlights molded in front. All Almquist bodies had lots of options regarding hood scoops, blisters, spare tire mounts, bucket seats, custom grilles, and trim. Various front glass arrangements were available ranging from short, sporty windscreens to more practical full-height, two-pane windshields. Almquist did not offer chassis for their cars, but the bodies could be adapted to fit almost any production frame. The Saber and Speedster were very successful designs, and Almquist says he sold 200-300 of them.
Almquist added an all-new body, the El-Morocco, to fit medium-size American sedan chassis with 106-118-inch wheelbases. It was a finned convertible with a rectangular grille and canted quad headlights. The rear deck dropped down sharply to the back and had an optional Imperial-type molded-in spare tire cover. The kit was designed to use the single-donor-car floorboards, inner fender panels, steering and running gear in their original locations to simplify assembly and reduce the cost. The El-Morocco body sold for $495, and Almquist financed for $29.27 per month. In the late '50s, Almquist estimated an El-Morocco kit could be completed (including the donor car) for $600. However, neither Almquist nor Heim were satisfied with the design. "It was a failure. We only sold about three of them and destroyed the molds," says Almquist.
The Glascock Saber is particularly...
The Glascock Saber is particularly nice from the side (photo courtesy Bruce Glascock).
In '63, the Corvette Sting Ray grabbed the attention of the sports car world. Almquist responded with the Thunderbolt, a Vette-inspired kit designed to fit medium-sized (96-116-inch wheelbases) American chassis. These were slightly larger than a Sting Ray, but Heim made a special shorter version for his own use, installing it on a cut-down Cadillac chassis. It won over 20 awards in custom car shows during the mid-'60s. This inspired a shorter Thunderbolt Jr. kit to fit 85-96-inch wheelbase chassis. Almquist recalls building about 1,000 Thunderbolts. "It was my favorite body," he says.
Almquist was also one of the first companies to note the disappearance of steel prewar bodies for use on hot rods. (With all the repro '32 bodywork available today, it's easy to forget they were once rare.) As the originals rusted away in fields and barns, Almquist introduced the El Deuce, a fiberglass '32 Roadster body for rod builders. The El Deuce body had no doors but did include a molded-in dash and rear pods for the exhaust pipes to poke through. It weighed 45 pounds and cost $175 in '60. Grille shells and windshield kits were also available. Almquist followed this with a fiberglass T-bucket body. Both models were very successful
This red Speedster with grille-mounted...
This red Speedster with grille-mounted headlights was used on an Almquist publicity postcard.
The Almquist bodies were reinforced with metal where needed and had molded-in dash panels. Although an assembly manual was offered, the Almquist, like most kits of the era, required serious welding and fabricating skills to assemble. Floors, firewalls, and inner wheelwells had to be fabbed from scratch from sheetmetal or fiberglass cloth. The radiators were cut down to fit the shorter bodies, and body-mounting outriggers had to be cut to length from steel tube and welded to the frame. The bodies were attached to the frames with sheetmetal screws, stove bolts, and fiberglass matte. "Only the Saber, Speedster, and Thunderbolt offered doors," Almquist adds. Since the Almquist catalog listed go-fast parts for all popular engines, buyers could outfit their kits with their choice of running gear and speed equipment.
Ed Almquist sold his company in '66, and the bodies were soon out of production. "The molds were starting to get worn by then," Almquist explains. He then developed a successful line of oil additives and has been acknowledged as one of the prime movers and shakers of the performance industry. Almquist recently wrote an excellent book on the history of the hot rod hobby called Hot Rod Pioneers that is available from the Society of Automotive Engineers (www.sae.org).
Bruce Glascock has one of the nicest Sabers around. He bought it from the original owner, who built it in '57. The chassis is a space frame mounting a '50 Crosley suspension, and the engine is a Ford V-8/60 flathead mounting Offy heads. With a weight of 950 pounds, it's an excellent performer. Glascock intends to race it in vintage events. It's a great-looking car from any angle.
Kudos to Geoff Hacker for his help with researching this article and for providing historic photos from his collection. Keep track of his upcoming book on kit car history at www.ladawri.com. Also, a special thanks to Bruce Glascock for photos of his Saber-Ford and to Ed Almquist for sharing his memories of his popular kits.
Here's a fancy Speedster with...
Here's a fancy Speedster with fender-mounted lights, which also sports a Continental spare tire kit.
Almquist publicity photos...
Almquist publicity photos (courtesy Primedia).
The Thunderbolt came in two...
The Thunderbolt came in two lengths to fit various chassis
The El-Morocco wasn't popular,...
The El-Morocco wasn't popular, but it was distinctive.
The Thunderbolt brochure featured...
The Thunderbolt brochure featured three views of the final Almquist design.
This Almquist brochure shows...
This Almquist brochure shows the Saber kit body.