The Kellison J5R a Classic Piece of Forgotten Fiberglass

Pearl White 1959 Kellison J5R
1959 Kellison J5R in Pearl White. Photo by Mark Gittelman

In an upbeat Postwar America, fiberglass sports cars challenged the conventional thinking of large automobile manufacturers. Companies like Glasspar, Kaiser Motors and Kellison designed and built exotic looking cars from this strong, yet lightweight fiberglass material. As an example, take a look at the Pearl White 1959 Kellison J5R pictured on the left. This is a perfect representation of what is possible when you combine fiberglass and imagination.

In this article, we'll focus on three of the most innovative car companies whose automobiles now fall into the category of forgotten fiberglass. Finally, discover an event that you can attend that pays homage to these forward-thinking classic cars.

Fabulous Fiberglass from Kellison Engineering

Jim Kellison launched his car company in 1958. The former Air Force pilot would go on to design, build and drive some of the fastest cars in the world. However, he is often most recognized for his work on making the flexible dragster chassis faster and safer for drivers.

He personally designed and integrated safety features like breakaway engine mounts, modular front suspension and reinforced roll bars that would go on to save many lives. These improvements became SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) racing standards in the early 1960s.

Jim Kellison also had a passion for racing closed Coupe automobiles. In the late 1950s, he designed and built the J4R sports car so he could compete in sanctioned events. Jim managed to steal several wins away from team Ferrari running their factory Testarossas.

This J4R would go on to set a land speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats with famous racecar driver Bill Burke behind the wheel. In an interesting twist, Jim powered the car for free with a Chevrolet 327 fuelie Corvette engine on loan from General Motors. The General Motors Corp. saw this as an opportunity for performance and longevity testing of their high output small-block V-8.

The Kellison engineering plant built about 300 J4R sports cars. In the late 1950s, the J5R launched with a new quad headlamp set up and a few other minor changes. One of the big improvements was an increase in headroom. This allowed for a more comfortable driving experience without sacrificing aerodynamics or performance. It's believed that around 400 J5R sport Coupes sold in North America.

Glasspar Fiberglass Cars and Boats

When most people hear the name Glasspar they think fiberglass boats. And rightfully so, since the company began producing these classic seagoing vessels beginning in 1947. However, the company also dipped their toe into the automotive industry when they developed the G2 roadster body in 1949. The one-piece construction weighed in at only 185 pounds.

Many believe it was this automobile body that inspired Chevrolet’s design team to launch the Corvette in 1953. The G2 sports car is credited as being the first American built all fiberglass automobile. After a successful showing at the Philadelphia plastics exhibit in 1952, the Glasspar Company went public in an effort to raise capital to build more automobiles.

Unfortunately, only about 200 G2 sport roadster bodies would see the light of day. The Glasspar manufacturing company decided to withdraw from the overly competitive automotive industry and focus on its core market of building high-performance boats.

In the late 50s, they launched the 13'6" G3 fiberglass boat. Rated to carry up to 60 hp this 50 miles per hour boat became a best-seller in the flourishing water skiing community.

The Fiberglass Kaiser Darrin 161

The Fiberglas Kaiser Darren 161 is a one-year wonder. They only built the car in 1954. Manufactured by a company owned by the industrial giant Henry J. Kaiser, the automobile came to life thanks to American designer Howard "Dutch" Darrin. This two door roadster actually had two sliding pocket doors.

The first of their kind, the doors mounted on rollers and tracks that slid into pockets built into the front fenders. The 161 in the model name stood for the cubic inch displacement of the standard straight six-cylinder engine. Unfortunately, the motor only pumped out about 90 hp which led to less than stellar performance.

With stiff competition from similarly styled European automobiles like the Austin Healey 3000 Mk III, selling units became an uphill battle. Therefore, they only produced 435 total Kaiser Darrins. Kaiser continued to build cars but pulled out of the American market. Howard Darren purchased the remaining stock which he then sold out of his Hollywood California showroom.

However, he made some improvements like installing a McCulloch supercharger on the six-cylinder engines. This dramatically boosted performance. In fact, it gave the Kaiser Darrin Roadster a top speed of over 145 mph and knocked five full seconds off the 0 to 60 times.

The most valuable of these retail roadsters are the ones Dutch Darrin himself re-engineered to carry a Cadillac Eldorado V-8 engine. It's believed that only six of these Cadillac hybrids are in existence today. One of these rare cars recently sold at the Amelia Island RM auction event for $159,000.

A New Lease on Life for Forgotten Fiberglass

For the first time in 2007, the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance made room for these epic examples of automotive history. Since then the class for fiberglass sports cars continues to grow in number and in popularity.

In 2015 the field of cars displayed at the Amelia Island fairgrounds included vehicles that had not been seen in more than 50 years. If these fabulous cars interest you make plans to attend a future Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance event.