Kit Car History
Article by Mark Trotta
Although kit cars make up just a small part of automotive history, they've been with us since the beginning, and are still with us today. In fact, they're as popular as ever - a recent Google search revealed over 50 different manufacturers currently producing kit cars.
What Is A Kit Car?
Aimed at enthusiasts looking to build and drive something unique, the main part of a kit car is the body, which usually requires the builder to provide the frame, suspension, brakes, electrical, and drivetrain. Back in the day, popular platforms included the Chevy Corvair, Ford Pinto, and air-cooled VW Beetle.
Although examples can be traced back to the early 1900's, the modern history of kit cars begins after World-War-Two. Advances in technology were embraced by car builders, most notably the development of glass reinforced plastic, more commonly referred to as fiberglass.
Bill Tritt, who had a background in boats, began making fiberglass bodies for sports cars in the early 1950's. Working out of his California shop, he designed and manufactured the Glasspar G2, sold as either as a body/chassis kit, or the fiberglass body by itself. These are now recognized as the first production fiberglass bodies built by an American manufacturer.
In 1952, a gentleman named Woody Woodill commissioned Tritt to make fiberglass bodies of his own design. The new "Wildfire" bodies were sold by Woodill in kit form for several years. Although groundbreaking for it's time, annual sales of the Glasspar G2 and the Woodill Woodfire sports car measured in the dozens.
The 1950's saw dozens of small companies producing fiberglass kit cars, which came in various stages of quality and completeness. After the purchase, it was up to the consumer to assemble the various pieces into a functioning vehicle.
The history of the T-Bucket starts in California in the mid-1950's. A talented builder/artist named Norm Grabowski had built a home-made hot rod out of old Ford Model-T parts, mixed together with some modern parts. The bucket-shaped body shell gave the car it's name.
Grabowski's T-Bucket sparked a huge interest in the growing hot rod community, and was featured on the cover of Car Craft magazine in April of 1957.
By 1959, aftermarket companies such as Speedway began selling fiberglass T-bodies. Demand for T-bucket kits was high enough to warrant manufacturing tube frames and other parts. By the early 1960's, the kit car market was in full swing.
Read: Build A T-Bucket
Volkswagen Beetle Platform
One of the most popular donor vehicles throughout the history of kit cars is the original VW Beetle. In production since the 1930s, the steel platform chassis featured all-wheel independent torsion-bar suspension. The body attaches with eighteen bolts to the chassis which features a central structural tunnel. The VW Beetle chassis was the platform for many kit cars, including the Bradley GT, Sterling, Sebring, Speedster (Porsche 356), and of course, the dune buggy.
Dune Buggy History
Originally built to drive on the beach or desert sand, dune buggies are generally a roofless vehicle with a rear-mounted engine for best traction. They can be built by modifying an existing vehicle or custom-building a new vehicle.
Before the Meyers Manx, dune buggies were built purely for function and were quite ugly. Bruce Meyers designed and created a stylish open-top fiberglass body that was downright good looking. The body was fitted onto a shortened VW Beetle frame/drivetrain.
Although modestly stating he did not "invent" the dune buggy, Meyers did play a major part in creating the fiberglass body/dune buggy craze of the 1960's.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Beetle-based dune buggy kits were produced in relatively large numbers. Retail outlets like Sears found them profitable enough to market a dune buggy kit of their own.
With a background of manufacturing T-Buckets and dune buggies, Bradley Automotive of Minnesota introduced the Bradley GT kit car in 1970. The sporty two-seat fiberglass body quickly proved to be their most popular offering. An updated version, the Bradley GT II, was introduced in 1977 and featured gull-wing doors with frames.
In 1980, Bradley Automotive began production of an electric-powered version of their sports car kit, the Bradley GTE. Shortly after, amidst customer complaints and mounting legal problems, the company ceased operations in 1981.
Throughout the history of kit cars, the majority of offerings were (and still are) predominately performance oriented. An early example of this is the mid-engine Valkyrie, sold by the Fiberfab company starting in 1966. Inspired by the Ford GT40, the kit included a fiberglass coupe body and a steel chassis. Although the Valkyrie was designed for a small-block Chevy V8, a small-block Ford V8 could also be fitted by using a bell-housing adapter.
Fiberfab Avenger GT
A less expensive alternative to the Valkyrie was a similarly-styled rear-engine model called the Avenger GT. Two versions were built: The GT-12 was based on a Volkswagen Beetle chassis using a VW engine, frame, suspension, and transaxle. The Avenger GT-15 used a custom-built chassis designed for a Corvair engine, subframe, suspension, and transaxle.
The Avenger GT was produced and sold from late 1966 through 1978.
Unique vs Replica
Kit car designs generally fall into one of two categories. First are the unique, original bodies of a manufacturer, generally meant to slip over an existing frame/drivetrain. These kits were often inexpensive alternatives to high-priced performance cars.
Secondly, there are replica cars, designed to replicate a car too expensive for the average enthusiast to own. Examples of Replicars include the Excalibur, 1957 Ford Thunderbird (VeeBird), Ford GT40 (Fiberfab), Shelby Cobra, Lotus 7, Kubelwagen, and others.
"Replicars" are never exact replicas. Aside from being inexpensive alternatives from the original, some offer improvements and upgrades.
Excalibur Kit Car
Automobile designer Brooks Stevens conceived the idea of building a modern car in the image of a vintage car. He designed and built a fiberglass replica of a 1927 Mercedes-Benz body, originally mating it with a modified Lark Daytona convertible chassis. In it's first and most successful carnation, a hand-laid fiberglass body was fitted over a Studebaker chassis and drivetrain. power was from a supercharged 289 V-8, the same engine available in the Studebaker Avanti.
Read: Excalibur Car History
Excalibur was the first and most successful American Replicar company. At one time in history, the Excalibur was America's fourth largest American automobile manufacturer.
Replica Kit Cars
The replica kit car likely started when Excalibur-style bodies became available that mated with more accessible chassis and drivetrains. During the the 1970s and 1980s, several companies built fiberglass-bodied kit cars based on the Excalibur/Mercedes-Benz SSK cars. These were built on either one of several platforms; the VW Beetle, Chevy Chevette, or Ford Pinto.
The Mercedes Gazelle pictured above is powered by a six-cylinder Ford Mustang engine.
Shelby Cobra Kit Cars
One of the most popular performance kit cars is based on the 1963-1967 Shelby Cobra. Since the original was such a bare-bones sports car to begin with, it's not difficult at all to reproduce one!
Many companies offer updated versions of the original Shelby Cobra, calling for 1987-2004 Ford Mustang parts.
Historical Vehicle Replicas
The Kubelwagen was produced in Germany during the Second World War and was based on the Volkswagen Beetle. Since prices of original examples are out of reach for the average enthusiast, several aftermarket companies began to offer retro Kubelwagen bodies that attach to VW Beetle frames.