Classic Cars A to Z

History of Kit Cars

Article by Mark Trotta

Although they make up just a small part of automotive history, kit cars have 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.

Fiberfab Avenger GT

"Some assembly required"


What Is A Kit Car?

Generally speaking, kits cars are custom-made vehicles that the buyer assembles. They're often a classic sports car or specialty vehicle that would otherwise be too expensive to buy.

Kits usually include a body and interior, but no chassis or drivetrain. Many are designed to be fitted onto an existing vehicle's chassis and drivetrain.



Back in the 1970's and 1980's, popular 'donor vehicles' 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 known as fiberglass.

Glasspar G2

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.

early kit car history

Bill Tritt's sports car bodies are often sited as the first production fiberglass bodies built by an American manufacturer.

Woodill Woodfire

In 1952, '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.



Along with the hot-rodding craze, kit cars also became popular during the 1950's. The decade 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.


T-Bucket Kit Car

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.

T bucket history

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. It also made appearances on several popular TV shows, such as "77 Sunset Strip".

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.

history of the T bucket

By the early 1960's, the kit car market was in full swing.


Beetle-Based Kit Cars

Perhaps the most popular donor vehicle throughout the history of kit cars is the original VW Beetle. In production since the 1930s, the steel platform chassis featured all-wheel independent suspension, and a body that attached to the chassis with just 18 bolts.



The VW Beetle chassis was the platform for so many kit cars, including the Bradley GT, Sterling, Sebring, Speedster (Porsche 356), and of course, dune buggies.

Dune Buggy History

Originally built to drive on the beach or desert sand, dune buggies are generally light, roofless vehicles with a rear-mounted engine for best traction. They can be built by modifying an existing vehicle or custom-building one from scratch.

VW dune buggy built from a kit

Bruce Meyers and the Meyers Manx

Before the Meyers Manx, dune buggies were built purely for function and were considered 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.

history of the kit car

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Beetle-based dune buggy kits were produced in relatively large numbers. Large retail outlets such as Sears found them profitable enough to market a dune buggy kit of their own.


Bradley GT

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.

Bradley Automotive kit car

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.


Fiberfab Valkyrie

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.

history of the kit car

The Avenger GT was produced and sold from late 1966 through 1978.


Shelby Cobra Kit Cars

At least as far back as the 1990's, one of the more popular 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 too difficult to reproduce one!

history of the kit car

Many companies offer updated versions of the original Shelby Cobra, and are designed to be built with 1987-2004 Ford Mustang parts.



Back in the 1960's, 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. Unlike kit cars, Excaliburs were sold fully assembled.

Excaliber Series 111

In it's first and most successful carnation, the Excalibur featured a hand-laid fiberglass body was fitted over a Studebaker chassis and drivetrain. Power was from a supercharged 289 V8, the same engine available in the Studebaker Avanti.

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.


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, VW Kubelwagen, and others.



"Replicars" are never exact replicas. Aside from being inexpensive alternatives from the original, some offer improvements and upgrades.


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.

kit car history

The Mercedes Gazelle pictured above is powered by a six-cylinder Ford Mustang engine.


Historical Vehicle Replicas

The Military Kubelwagen was produced in Germany during the World War Two, and was based on the Volkswagen Beetle. Since prices of original examples are out of reach for the average enthusiast, several aftermarket companies began offering retro Kubelwagen bodies that attach to VW Beetle frames.



Are Kit Cars Hard To Assemble?

The overall complexity of each kit car varies greatly from one manufacturer to another. Some include detailed step by step instructions, while others may be lacking in coherence. Once purchased, it's up to the buyer to complete it.


Related Articles:

VW Beetle History
Excalibur Car History
Cars of the Fifties