Fibreglass is a product that many of us would associate with surfboards or uncle’s fishing dinghy, but not with cars.
Not a lot of Australians have owned a car made from Glass Reinforced Plastic (aka GRP), but many of the limited production vehicles made here and overseas used it for partial or complete car bodies.
The earliest commercial use of glass fibres was for heat insulation before the product was adapted to serve military purposes. Once World War 2 ended, ex-service people went looking for ways to use the material in post-War businesses; some building boats and surfboards, others creating new building materials and at least one using it to shape a car body.
The Glasspar G2 was designed during 1950 and displayed the following year. The body was an open-top roadster with cutaway doors, produced by the Green Dolphin boat factory.
The engine was a Mercury V8, so performance should have been reasonable, but only 200 G2s were made before the company became involved with production of bodies for other brands, including the spectacular Kaiser Darrin roadster.
At around the same time, Chevrolet was developing a sports car to stem the influx of British and European brands and it would use a fibreglass body as well.
In 1953 when the Corvette was first displayed, its shape and quality of the bodywork received high praise. Sadly, the ancient six-cylinder engine and two-speed automatic transmission didn’t.
Once Chevrolet’s brand new V8 engine arrived in late 1954, though, prospects for the Corvette brightened and it quickly became the world’s best-selling fibreglass-bodied model.
At the same time over in England a very different kind of fibreglass car was making its debut. Looking almost like a child’s toy and with a 350cc motorcycle engine, the Allard Clipper paved the way for a British ‘microcar’ industry that would see brands like Bond, Reliant, Scootacar and Berkeley fill the market with light, low-cost cars.
Not far behind the Brits were Australians including Nat Buchanan and Bill Buckle. Buchanan began his car-building career building fibreglass bodies to modernise T Series MGs before producing complete vehicles of his own design with MG or Holden mechanical parts. Buckle’s story is even more impressive
In 1955 he designed and built, around mechanical parts from a Ford Zephyr, a fibreglass-bodied sports coupe that was considered the equal of any from mainstream manufacturers. He then secured rights to build German Goggomobils in Australia using locally produced fibreglass bodywork.
In the late 1950s, Buckle would claim that his two-seat Goggo Dart to be the second-best selling fibreglass car in the world, behind the Corvette.
Elsewhere in the world, prominent brands were also taking an interest in the light, cheap, rust-free material. Kit car-makers Lotus made their debut as a manufacturer with the distinctive and beautiful Elite, which would be followed in 1963 by the even more attractive Elan.
Automotive body supplier Jensen happily made money by constructing steel structures for clients like Volvo and Austin but then used fibreglass to create the complex and distinctive shape of its own 541S coupe.
British based TVR used the material in a range of models, as did Marcos and the dozens of smaller manufacturers in the business of building racing cars and replica classics.
Over in Europe, Citroen from 1955 was using fibreglass for the roof panels of its DS19, Saab during the 1950s also developed its fibre-bodied Sonnet sports car, while in Brazil the Puma company was putting special fibreglass bodies onto Volkswagen floor-pans.
In the USA, a few low-volume manufacturers had a shot at challenging the dominant Corvette but failed. Chevrolet by 1974 was selling 37,500 Corvettes and was a huge GRP consumer. In addition to the amount used to build entire cars, GM was using thousands of tonnes of ‘glass’ every year to mould weight-saving bumpers and body embellishments.
Other brands used the product as well and among the most famous of US automotive accessories was the ‘roadster’ tonneau cover available on 1961-66 Ford Thunderbird convertibles. These made the cars appear to have only two seats and were supposed to be weatherproof, but just in case the convertible top could be fitted around it.
That left Australia and our remarkably active fibreglass manufacturing sector. In addition to boats, cars and car accessories like the popular J&S Fibreglass hardtops for MGBs, local manufacturers were building fibreglass caravans and truck bodies as well.
During the early 1960s the Victorian-based Bolwell brothers set up a business producing fibreglass kits which the home constructor could turn into a sleek, Holden-powered sports coupe.
By 1969 they had progressed to a sophisticated and factory built V8 coupe called the Nagari, which was slated for sale on the international market. However, changing regulations killed the project after fewer than 130 cars had been built.
During the 1990s came a proliferation of fibreglass-bodied ‘kit cars. Among the most popular were replicas of the fearsome Shelby-Cobra, using Ford engines and sometimes complicated rear suspensions lifted from wrecked Jaguar sedans.
One supplier whose activity spread well beyond the realms of Cobra kits was Queensland-based Denis Bedford. His DRB business created compact coupes with overtones of Ferrari Dino and mid-mounted Nissan or Subaru engines. There were also ‘tribute’ D Type Jaguars and near-exact facsimiles in fibreglass of the Le Mans winning Ford GT40.
Fibreglass has fallen from favour during recent decades and for a range of reasons. Its fibrous nature is a source of workplace health concerns and protecting staff adds to production costs. In the automotive sphere there are more rigorous regulations for new vehicles than existed during the ‘heyday’ period from 1950 until the 1980s.
Except for replica vehicles which under low-volume regulations don’t need to be crash tested, fibreglass bodywork now requires a stronger and more complex frame, with progressive crumple rates and trigger points for airbags. These add weight and cost and negate the reasons why the material gained popularity in the first place.
Many clients of Enthusiast Insurance own fibreglass-bodied vehicles and know that repairs must be entrusted to specialised workshops and experienced people. Enthusiast understands as well and for this reason offers car owners a choice of licensed repairers to ensure their vehicles’ high standard of finish is maintained.
Specialised vehicles rarely travel big annual distances and Enthusiast rewards owners who drive less with significantly lower premiums. Enthusiast also provides Laid Up cover for vehicles in storage, under restoration or that don’t leave home under their own power.
To compare Enthusiast’s rates and coverage for your vehicle, or one you might be about to buy, log into https://www.enthusiast.com.au/ and select Quick Quote.