This handsome Castilian sports...
This handsome Castilian sports an added hood scoop and the optional side vents. LaDawri promo photo.
Coupes are rare in the kit car industry, a result of the greatly increased complexity of providing decent weatherproofing, sound deadening, heat shielding, and ventilation (non-issues on roadsters). In the early '50s, only a few kit car companies took on the challenge. Bill Burke did it the easy way, splashing a set of molds off of a Cisitalia coupe ("Carchives," Sept. 2000) then passing the project on to Atlas (later Allied), who sold a number of them to fit MG-TD chassis. The next serious effort at a kit coupe was the creation of designer Merrill Powell at Victress Manufacturing. It was to become one of the most admired coupes in the history of American specialty cars.
Victress was founded in 1952 by William I. "Doc" Boyce-Smith, a former aerospace worker, who was anxious to apply the newfound fiberglass technology to sports car production. His first models were open roadsters, which sold well enough to allow hiring Bill Quirk, Bill Powell, Richard Russell and a few other part-time employees. However, it wasn't enough to cover his living quarters, so initially Doc slept in the shop! Hugh Jorgensen, a friend who helped out in his spare time, penned the S-1 (with Doc's help) and the S-4 roadster models. Merrill Powell was a young student at the prestigious Art Center College of Design when he began hanging around Victress as an unpaid helper. In 1954 Powell dropped out of school, bought 49% of Victress and went to work full-time. His first project (with some help from Jorgensen) was to develop a coupe to go with their roadster and convertible lineup.
Recently, we were lucky enough to obtain an exclusive interview with Merrill Powell, thanks to our fellow vintage kit fanatic Geoff Hacker. "It was tough at first. We sold brochures for 25 cents and each day we would wait for the mail to get there so we could fish out the quarters to pay for lunch! We always knew we were going to build a coupe ... it was just a matter of time," Powell says.
The new model was named the C-2 and it was designed to fit a 94-inch wheelbase chassis. In order to shorten development time they were able to obtain an Allied coupe body to use as a base for their buck. In fact, Allied had contacted Victress to arrange for the repair of one of their customer's cars which had been damaged. Victress agreed to fix the bodywork in exchange for the right to make a set of molds.
This LaDawri brochure shows...
This LaDawri brochure shows the Packwood Victress C-3 at top and bottom sandwiching a nice Sicilian. LaDawri promo photo.
Breaking The MoldA rough plaster and hemp splash was cast in the mold. Next, an adjustable frame was set up and tied into the plaster casting. "It telescoped front-to-back and side-to-side," recalls Powell. Once the plaster cast/buck was turned upright and set on blocks, Powell went to work with adding and subtracting plaster to the Cisitalia-derived buck to create a new design. "I used some pencil sketches at first, but I worked in 3D, not in 2D," smiles Powell. The result looked nothing like the Allied but retained the same wheelbase. The nose was changed to a lower rectangular grille, while the tail was extended and raked underneath. "We wanted a Ferrari-type grille, and we made several egg-crate grilles to fit. But then Doc came running in one day with a 1955 Chevy brochure. We realized their grille could be made to fit the C-3 as-is and the C-2 with some cutting. I laid the windshield back further. The Cisitalia was slab-sided and we wanted rounder contours," Powell adds. The new design was a striking shape that looked more '60s than '50s. Victress made two sizes of it.
The first set of molds pulled from the buck had the same 94-inch wheelbase as the Allied coupe. Next, the Victress crew cut the buck into sixths and loosened the setscrews in the adjustable frame underneath. Then they pulled it out 8 inches in width and length. They filled in the open spaces between the expanded body sections and pulled a second set of molds for a larger body (the C-3) to fit modified Ford chassis. Advance planning had made the difference.
The C-2 came out in late 1954 and the C-3 the next year. As with all kit cars, as many standard production parts as possible were used. The windshield for the C-3 was borrowed from a 1954 Plymouth convertible, while the C-2 used cut-down glass from a '53-54 Chevy. Headlights were based on '52 Buick, Olds, or Studebaker buckets. The side glass had to be cut from flat plate using templates supplied by Victress, and the winders were courtesy of the Nash Metropolitan. The back glass was '50 Dodge or Plymouth business coupe for the C-3. The '49 Cadillac fast-back rear window fit the C-2. The first bodies were hand-laminated, but later ones were sometimes built with primitive chopper guns. "They were more trouble than they were worth at first," laughs Powell.
The Packwood Castilian still...
The Packwood Castilian still looks good today. Note Boranni wire wheels. Rodney Packwood photo.
Victress bodies were pulled in one piece and then inner panels made from plywood were laminated in the door and hood areas. Finally, the doors and hood panels were cut out using an oscillating saw. "I had been in the Medical Service Corp in the military and had worked with these saws. They oscillated instead of spinning, which allowed us to cut very fine saw kerfs," Powell says. Bodies were sold in two levels of completion. The Basic Body was a bare shell with no cutouts for doors or hood. The Standard Kit included molded drain gutters for the hood, reinforcements for the hood and doors, pre-hung doors on hinges, a template kit for cutting glass, inner fiberglass panels from sheet stock, and a kit of resin and fiberglass supplies for mounting the body. The C-3 Basic Body retailed for $395, while the Standard Kit was $645. There was no dashboard, even as an option.
Sold!Despite its svelte looks, the Victress coupes didn't exactly leap out the door. Powell estimates less than 50 were sold, although the other Victress models did very well in the late '50s. Victress was also making good money from "job shop" work on fiberglass projects for the military and industry. "We even made the Olympic rings for the Squaw Valley Winter Olympics," says Powell. But by 1961, job shop business had dropped drastically due to competition from struggling boat companies. Powell and Boyce-Smith were forced to sell Victress to the LaDawri kit car company. Powell switched to the aerospace industry for the rest of his career.
LaDawri was a successful kit car company in its own right, having been started by Les and Joan Dawes in 1956. They also had a line of open-top kit cars and were happy to add the coupes. The C-2 was renamed the Sicilian and the C-3 became the Castilian. LaDawri re-engineered the bodies to accept doors that were molded separately with fiberglass inner panels. Doorjambs and inner liners were included, which made the bodies stiffer and better finished. A number of dash and interior options were offered, which gave the LaDawri models more of a professional appearance.
The Packwood car was sold...
The Packwood car was sold after its racing career but has recently been found and is being restored by the current owner. Rodney Packwood photo.
By the '60s, the styling of the coupes came of age-120 to 150 Castilian and Sicilian coupes were sold. LaDawri added lots of options, including gullwing doors, a wood-grain dashboard, tunnel console, side vents, and upholstered front and back seats. LaDawri even added a hatchback variation on the Castilian called the Sports Wagon. It featured a large, hinged Plexiglas rear window and a flat, rear floor area for increased luggage capacity.
LaDawri also offered two rear window options for the standard Castilian. One featured a wrap-around rear glass pirated from a '51-52 Plymouth sedan, while the other back glass was the same as a Victress C-3. LaDawri continued selling the coupes until they shut the doors in 1965.
Coupes In CompetitionThe Packwood Special was one of the nicest C-3 racing cars built. It was started in 1957, when Steve Mulholland had a special racing frame built. He also acquired a Chrysler Hemi, Jaguar gearbox, and a set of lovely Borrani wire wheels. A Victress C-3 body was added, but the project was sold in disassembled form in 1959. Bill and Rodney Packwood, who raced the fearsome silver beast in West Coast road racing events, assembled it. It did well, including a Second at Las Vegas and a Third at Palm Springs. It was also run in drag events, where it turned 111 mph in the quarter-mile. Despite a hard life after its racing career, the Packwood Special is still around and awaiting restoration to racing condition.
Gerianne and Merrill Powell...
Gerianne and Merrill Powell proudly pose with their Castilians. Merrill Powell photo.
Clifford Clark, who made fuel injectors in the '60s, campaigned a Sicilian-bodied racer at Bonneville. Powered by a 354-inch 1951 Chrysler Hemi, it ran over 155 mph. More recently, Colin Brown has built a Victress-bodied nostalgia dragster in Canada. It runs an 8.50-second quarter-mile powered by a big-block Ford engine.
Another form of competition took place on the car show circuit, where custom cars competed for prizes and glory. One of the nicer show cars of the 1960s was "Katsass", a metallic lime green Castilian with a nailhead Buick, Corvette front suspension, and Chrysler wire wheels. It was started by Paul Wharton and finished by Jack Grondin, a master mechanic from Ohio. His son, Dino Grondin, now owns it.
His Own Coupe At Last!Merrill Powell certainly styled a classic car, but he never owned one of his own in the day. Recently, kit car historian Geoff Hacker, who rekindled Powell's interest in his automotive creations, chased him down. Now Merrill and his wife Gerianne each have a "project" Castilian awaiting restoration. Then they can experience a slice of history they helped create in the first place!
Thanks again to Geoff Hacker for help with this article. Keep track of his and Rick D'Louhy's upcoming book on kit car history at www.ladawri.com. Our old friend Jon Greuel runs the LaDawri site.
The Castilian was a dramatic...
The Castilian was a dramatic shape. LaDawri promo photo.
"Katsass" was a custom Castilian...
"Katsass" was a custom Castilian with a drawing of the appropriate part of feline anatomy on the back. Dino Grondin photo.
Colin Brown assembled this...
Colin Brown assembled this unique Victress C-3-bodied dragster in Canada. Colin Brown photo.
This Castilian was shown in...
This Castilian was shown in LaDawri literature but the grille has been altered from the original rectangular shape with an added dropped section at center. LaDawri promo photo.
Pieter Kanitz is restoring...
Pieter Kanitz is restoring this lucky Victress C-3. It sports an early Corvette chassis with a 327ci engine. For more, check out his Web site at: victressv8.spaces.live.com. Pieter Kanitz photo.
The Castilian looked good...
The Castilian looked good from the back as well. Rodney Packwood photo.