Guy Dirkin is leading the effort on challenging us at “Forgotten Fiberglass” to answer the following question:
“Why has Forgotten Fiberglass…..been Forgotten?”
Most recently, he posted his first salvo in the “comments” area at the bottom of the story on a “Lost Chuck Manning Publication.” Click here to review this story and his comments at the end of the story. We are in the process of expanding on his initial comments and creating a story posted for all to read (and comment).
Kudos to Rick Feibush, friend of fiberglass and consummate automotive writer and historian, to help us delve into the many and varied reasons why the phenomenon of building your own sports car changed from the 1960s forward. Today’s story is an extension to Guy Dirkin’s thoughts
No longer did you see the same enthusiasm and volume of cars being designed, built, and driven in the 60s. The hobby changed for a variety of reasons, and would never be the same as those initial years in the ‘50s when designing, building, and driving your own sports car was just a dream away.
Let’s have a look at what Rick had to say about those times and why they changed.
Take it away Rick!
Whatever Happened To The Homebuilt Sports Car?
By Rick Feibusch
The reasons that building your own sports car fell off the radar was simply because reasonable and usable second hand sports cars became available in the late 1950s shrinking demand considerably. While T-series MGs were somewhat fussy and fragile and XK series Jags were not only fussy and fragile, they were expensive to maintain. By the late 1950s, sports cars had become dependable, varied in style and reasonably priced, once they were a few years old.
Except for the prohibitive insurance, especially for the younger people who wanted them, who didn’t want a Corvette??? Fast, pretty and made most of girls melt instantly. I had a number of friends who bought Triumph TR3s. MGBs and even a few 356 Porsches. Fun, relatively easy to self-maintain, freeway friendly and affordable to a college student with a part-time job.
Then Detroit decided to cash in on the youth market. I remember, as a freshman at Westmore High School in Daly City, CA, on the first day of classes, Coach Herkenrath rumbling in to the car park in his new 1961 Impala SS 409 coupe. About half of the boys who saw it arrive ran to feast their eyes upon it. All of a sudden, I realized everything had just changed. Who needed to build a car when one could buy one at your local Chevy agency? Then came the big-block Fords, MoPars, and then the GTO.
And if sheer horsepower was not your “thing,” the Corvair brought all of the exciting and challenging handling of a 356 Porsche to people who liked to go around corners fast, smoke pipes and wear flat caps. As an urbane high school senior who had just discovered jazz, folk music and ascots-for-ties, I traded my triple-carb, twice-piped, Ford for a two-year old-Monza. Bruce Meyers brought back the kit car – One of the guys in my sports car club, The Foothill Touring Association, became the Manx distributor for San Jose, CA, and started rallying and autocrossing his little yellow bomb. And, you were able to drive on most California beaches at that time. You know all the songs the Beach Boys wrote about California in those days…. They were true!
And don’t forget the Japanese motorcycle craze started my ge-ge-generation on two wheels with Honda 50s, then graduating up to 250 and 350 Scramblers, providing people who might have built cars at one time, with the same amount of open road excitement at a fraction of the cost…..
As we look back on the early postwar era, there were a number of reasons that home built specials flourished then, became unnecessary, and now the few remaining are to be venerated and restored, rather than updated. These unique machines are magnificent folk art from an era that was populated with fellows who had either been to war or were designing and building the weapons of war, who came home with loads of recently acquired and practically applied knowledge and skills, that allowed them to build well-designed and credible machines.
Mainstream auto manufacturers were just getting production up to speed and the smaller firms were having financial problems, limiting upgrades and new products and eventually forcing many to merge or fade away completely. It took Ford and GM until the mid-1950s to take a whack at the market, with products that were way too expensive and not really sports cars. Boulevard cruisers for movie stars, astronauts, and advertising execs..
By the late-Fifties everything was different. The vast population of Baby Boomers were raising children, hosting barbecues and driving station wagons. It was easier to buy fun, and building your own car became a pastime for engineers and hot rodders.
Thanks again to Rick Feibusch for answering the initial call to this question and explaining, from a ringside seat, what some of the factors were that led to a shift away from building your own sports car.
In future articles in this area, we’ll discuss additional issues that contributed including:
- The high cost of building your own sports car in the ’50s in labor alone – it took 2000 hours (and often much more) to build your own sport car from start to finish. This represents nearly 1 year (50 weeks) of 40 hour weeks, with 2 weeks off for good measure and rest
- The emergence of kits in the late ‘50s that were much more complete. We call these “Generation 2” fiberglass sports cars and include Kellison, LaDawri, Devin, Fiberfab, and more. People who wanted to build their own cars now could – and did- more easily
- The shift from designing your own uniquely styled body to building a “clone” of a famous sports car – predominantly the Ford GT and the Mercedes classic style – best embodied by the company called “Gazelle”
All of these contributed to – or resulted from – the point by point analysis neatly laid out by Rick Feibusch above.
To support this line of discussion here at Forgotten Fiberglass, we have created two new features:
- A “Must Reads” page of articles that are essential to learning about the Forgotten Fiberglass era and / or best represent the highest level “builds” and issues that impacted those building these cars. Click here to review this page.
- A new category of stories called “Must Reads” which can be accessed in the category drop down list at the right side of our website, and include articles about these critical issues – such as the one here today – and others like it we’ll be writing in the future. Thanks to Bob Peterson for suggesting this idea Click here to review these articles.
In addition, we’ll be reviewing another article posted along these same lines called “What Happened To American Sports Cars?” This was published in 1967 in Automobile Quarterly and addressed all American Sports Cars – not just our fabulous favorite fiberglass variety.
Hope you enjoyed the story, and until next time…
Glass on gang…
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