Gone Autos Podcast #4 transcript

Geoff Hacker of ForgottenFiberglass.com
Todd Ruel
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(00:01) Geoff Hacker: See, Rick and I think the story of the fiberglass bodied American sports cars of the 1950’s is the best American car story never told.

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(00:11) Todd Ruel: You’re listening to a Gone Autos Podcast. Today’s guest looked around and saw that there was no one telling the story of the pioneers who built and sold their own fiberglass cars. So, what do you do when you want to share the histories of the ultimate automotive do-it-yourselfers? You do it yourself. Geoff Hacker of ForgottenFiberglass.com is next on the Gone Autos Podcast.

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(00:34) Ruel: But first, this is what Geoff should have been listening to on his AM radio when his 1957 LaDawri Conquest broke down on I-275.

[Vintage 1960’s AAA radio commercial]

(01:26) Ruel: Hi, I’m Todd Ruel, the top wrench here at Gone Autos. Joining me on the podcast today is a man who definitely lives the orphan car life. He’s dedicated many years to researching, finding, and restoring not only rare low volume cars but also the names and reputations of the men who built them. But these aren’t just any well-known classic cars. My guest collects, restores, and educates people about fiberglass bodied cars. Geoff Hacker of ForgottenFiberglass.com is on today’s Gone Autos Podcast.
Thanks for taking part today, Geoff.

(01:55) Hacker: I’m very honored to be here.

(01:57) Ruel: Let’s start with what is ForgottenFiberglass.com, and why did you start the website?

(02:02) Hacker: ForgottenFiberglass.com is kind of part of the whole idea that my good friend and partner in this, Rick D’ Louhy, and I ended up creating starting about 2006 or so. Rick and I have known each other since the early 1980’s. We actually met, I was 17, 18, somewhere in there. He was about 10 years older than me. And we met due to our mutual interest in this strange fiberglass car that had shown up for sale in Downtown Clearwater. Now, I didn’t know Rick at all at that time, but I had been tracking the car and it showed up in the Auto Trader, and when I bought it, Rick had contacted me and did provide info on that car. And that was actually our first research project we started working on, a little bit more than 30 years ago, 1980-81, somewhere in that timeframe.

We’ve remained friends for years but we kind of reconnected about 5 years ago, again another interest in strange and unusual 1950’s fiberglass cars. And what happened was, we both had found the cars we didn’t know much about, and when we started looking into them and doing research and finding families and history and such, we were looking to not just keep that to ourselves but also provide that same information back to people.

It wasn’t a goal so much - ForgottenFiberglass.com as a website - as much as it is a process of researching cars that people know little about in sharing it along with the information that we find from families and owners and such. And in such a way, to help legitimize what were often a homespun-small-cottage-industry-kind-of car companies that sprung up most often in the 50’s, lasting 1 to 3 years and then disappeared off the face of the earth. They didn’t disappear off the face of the earth. In fact most of these guys in the last 5 years were still with us, even though they were in their 70s, 80s, and in some cases, 90s. So, we’ve had a chance to do audio interviews and capture photographs and capture original scale models they built, and then start sharing that on our website, which ultimately will result in a book, you know, in honoring these guys.

(03:51) Ruel: Fantastic. Ah, I can appreciate that desire to sort of record that history firsthand. It’s always better than the sort of third person auto-historian recitation of history. So, I’ll tell you what, can you give us a brief history of fiberglass body cars? And tell us about some of the famous fiberglass cars so that car fans can understand that not all fiberglass cars are one-offs or two-offs.

(04:12) Hacker: Yeah, you can cut this in different ways. Fiberglass, it’s a non-metal material, so you’re looking at something that is an alternative to steel. And as such, it began being popularized as a material of the future in the 1930’s. In fact, there was a whole display by Owens-Corning fiberglass. It was 1939 New York’s World Fair. And they we promoting it, they had a display set up, and you can actually find on eBay little kinds of pamphlets and samples that they gave out during the time in ‘39 because that was the new wonder material, that’s what was gonna revolutionize industry and products and creations, not just initially in utensils and, well, tchotchkes and other stuff you could buy, but you could also maybe get dressers and furniture, and then ultimately car bodies. So, all that was being talked about kind of when the future was ahead of us in 1939. But think about ‘39 as well. You had World War II looming, you know, the war in Europe was about to start or already had started.

So, it was an interesting time, and not a lot happened around fiberglass and plastic, but Henry Ford did a fiberglass or plastic trunk for a ‘39 Ford, 1939, that same year. In ‘41, he built the first fiberglass plastic car as a way to show what cars in the future could be made out of in material. Then post war, we had some famous cars. Dutch Darrin did a car in ‘46, called the Darrin Sports Car, which was all done in fiberglass -- which by the way, when I say fiberglass, if you go back in the literature at that time, mostly they used the word ‘plastic’ and fiberglass was more of a trademark of Owens-Corning, but they’ll say ‘plastic’ automobile. So if you do a search in 1930’s or 40’s, you’ll see the word ‘plastic’ automobiles being a more relevant and accurate term than fiberglass materials, what we generally call today.

Some of your listeners might be familiar with the Stout Scarab from the 1930’s. Well, he did a Stout Scarab in the 1940’s. A very interesting innovative Monocoque design chassis, and the car still survives today, but it was not stylish in terms of what you’d think a car of tomorrow would be. Really it was focused on what the car of tomorrow could be made out of. And that was ‘46, ‘48 or so. In 1949, Frank Kurtis, who’s, uh, kind of the royalty of building race cars, came out with the Kurtis sports car. He made about 15 or 20, maybe a few more. And some of those Kurtis sports cars, which were the precursors or the, what eventually you and I would call the Muntz later on, Madman Muntz’s car. Some of those early Kurtis sports cars, people had the option of purchasing one with fiberglass front fenders, fiberglass rear fenders, fiberglass hood or trunk. So that was kind of your almost first production car that used fiberglass, if you can call it production cars, as only 20 or 25 being made.

In 1951, really, is the most important year for your listeners, and that’s what Rick and I always talk about. In ‘51, at the Petersen Motorama in Los Angeles, and Petersen Publishing was the one that did Motor Trend and Hot Rod, and those magazines. In their second annual, 1951 November Motorama, they introduced four fiberglass sports cars, or bodies, even a fifth one, I’ll mention here in a second, could be considered that same one. That was the Glasspar G2, which is considered to be the first fiberglass production sports car in the world. The, another one was, uh, Irwin Eric, uh, went to Lancer, which was just as famous at that time but virtually has been completely forgotten. And Rick and I are working really hard to get the pictures and history with the family back into the mainstream.

The third was done by John Wills. Uh, he did the car designed by Ralph Roberts called The Skorpion, and its prototype was called The Wasp, very similar car, both tiny little guys, 80-inch in wheelbases or something very small, 100-inch wheelbase for a standard sports car at the time, these were little guys.

(07:37) Ruel: Were those based on Crosley Hotshots or not?

(07:42) Hacker: Huh, let’s see, huh, Skorpions and Crosleys are closely aligned and most, if not all of, The Skorpions were built to be put right on not a Hot Shot chassis, per se, but a Crosley chassis. And some were on Hotshots and they had to go back in the detail. There was something called the Super Skorpion which I think were made for the Hotshots. Think about Crosley, how small they are. You know, it’s a different kind of animal. But still many people considered the first production American sports car in the post-war era where it could be the Crosley Hotshot. In late 1940’s, it was a small car used for racing and so forth. And I tend to think of sports cars as bigger and more powerful and breaking and so forth, but the Crosley, as a small little wheelbase car, was actually used as a production sports car for people who wanted to do such things in the Late 40’s when sports cars were few and far between.

So, in ‘51 is really the harbinger or the bellwether. That’s really the year where if Todd Ruel, or Geoff Hacker, or anyone of the folks listening wanted to go out and build themselves a fiberglass sports car, or even buy one built by the guys who were building them, that’s when you could do it. Prior to that, they were really concepts, production, prototypes, what, things that could be, or in the best-case scenario, the Kurtis sports car which had panels on some of their cars that could be purchased in fiberglass.

(08:56) Ruel: Did all these guys whole built these cars, did they have dreams of being successful businessmen, or were they primarily driven by passion to make unique standout cars?

(09:06) Hacker: Every one of them that we found were building a business. They -- business might have been in their garage, but Boeing aircraft didn’t it start in a little red barn, and I think it’s famous for Boeing, and IBM, and, god, and Apple started in a little garage. So when we think in the year 2011, oh, they were starting in a garage, it’s too small, it wouldn't amounted to anything. Well, Boeing started in a little tiny barn, and Apple started in a garage somewhere in the San Francisco area, and these guys were no different. They were entrepreneurs, they were talented designers, often talented builders as well. They had dreams to make possible what Detroit wasn’t making possible at that time, which was stylish, European-influenced design, so sports cars, for the American public.

So, even if you take 1951, for those of your folks out there who could think of the early cars in the early 1950’s. What American car was out there looking stylish and sporty that you could buy, build, and drive, or buy and drive, and the answer is virtually nothing. So, if you wanted an American sports car, you really looked overseas, for the Jaguar XK120, Porsche came out somewhere in the late 40’s or early 50’s, there weren’t that many of them. Ferraris. How about American sports cars? Well guess what? You built ‘em. You basically built them from scratch.

So the fiberglass guys, when fiberglass started being used as a material where you could design a very attractive body, you could take a big piece of the puzzle out, because prior to fiberglass, if you wanted a nice stylish body for your race car or sports car, you were gonna build that out of aluminum or metal, and that’s thousands of hours to get something looking nice, or hundreds of hours perhaps for a company that can do it easily. And when you get down with one, it was another hundreds of hours to do the next one.

In fiberglass, you could pump out with a mold two or three bodies a week and even more if you chose to have a big production facility if the demand was there.. So you had, all of a sudden, opportunity to create bodies for people who wanted to build their own cars and finally have an American sports car.

See, Rick and I think the story of the fiberglass-bodied American sports cars in the 1950’s is the best American car story never told, because every car story in the 1950’s that ends with a production car starts with someone paying a bill, turning a key, and driving it away. If someone wanted to build or buy a Glasspar G2, they actually had to get involved either with someone who could design it for them or the designing and building of it themselves. How much more passion and enthusiasm could there be for the hobby of cars that you and I love than saying, “I like this hobby and interest so much, that I’m gonna build one from scratch and drive it.” A long time ago, I had a hard time just putting oil and doing all changes, let alone build the car.

(11:34) Ruel: Right. [laughs]

(11:36) Hacker: That’s an amazing thing when you put it up against a Corvette, a car that I love. My grandfather sold Chevrolets for nearly 50 years. I mean this is a car that I love, but every Corvette story starts off with “somewhere I paid the bill, and I wanted a dealer, and I turned the key, and drove it away.” There’s no Corvette story that starts with “we designed the frame and then we figured out we wanted a Bangert body, or a Venus body, a Chicagoan body, or a Victress body. Those choices were made by the factory. All of our stories start with a dream. Every single one of them. And Rick D’ Louhy and I are trying to capture as many of these stories told by the families or the people themselves and share them with the American public, because I can't think of a better car story out there, and we don't really think it’s ever been told in an exciting enthusiastic way to share with the public. All public.

(12:24) Ruel: All public.

(12:25) Hacker: Everyone on planet earth.

(12:26) Ruel: That’s what drives you to restore and collect these cars? Is it more of the history, or do you really want to get out there and rebuild these cars?

(12:34) Hacker: I’m a researcher. That’s who I am. I’m a researcher, and when you look at a car, you say, “Who built this car?” And Rick and I had found several cars that we found two or three examples of, and no one even knows what it is. And that conundrum, that mystery, what’s the story behind this car, why does no one know what it’s called, what’s the story behind this Victress, who built it back in the 50’s.

The parts that I wanted to do, Todd, is to try to reconnect the cars and their history to folklore, you might say, and the stories back with the cars and the families themselves, the families that built them, the families that owned the companies, and all that has been in tiny little chunks across America for 50 or 60 years, not stitched together in a cohesive way. It’s a heck of a goal to try to do, but we’ve been at this for 5 years, we have I think about 250 stories on our website, totaling about half a million words already, on stories about these cars and the men who built them, and the women in some cases who built them.

(13:25) Ruel: Fantastic. So, really this is an automotive detective story for you.

(13:31) Hacker: For me. And I have gotten into building what you’ve been very generous in saying restoring cars. I think we’ve restored two in the last 5 years. Most of what Rick and I do is the research and the promotion of materials and information. And, and, when the project started out to be a book originally, we wanted to share this information, and we quickly realized that there were so many folks out there who had not been recognized for their own work, that if we put our emphasis into the book, it would delay having others learn about them and those same people enjoying getting recognized for the first time since the 1950’s. We didn’t shelve the book idea, we just continued doing the research and sharing on the website and working with Concours d’ Elegance groups such as Amelia Island, Palo Alto in California. One coming up in a few weeks is Milwaukee Masterpiece Concours d’ Elegance up in Wisconsin, and we hope to work with Glenmoor Gathering in Ohio in the near future, as well as Pebble Beach. Both are goals of ours to get but, uh, are not certain at this point, but I’m hoping that they’d find out you and what these stories and the cars offer to the American public, which is the heritage of American cars.

(14:34) Ruel: Tell me about your most current project at the moment. What are you working on right now?

(14:39) Hacker: Well, let’s see, huh, I’m a researcher by nature, that’s what, uh, I love doing, it’s fun. So, it’s not fiberglass, per se, right now it is in terms of these cars, this whole story hasn’t been told, but there are other areas that are in the car arena that I’m currently researching, working on now. This is some, probably, perhaps for a different discussion, but a current project that we’re working on, even as I speak about 20 feet from my head, is we’re working on the 1937 Gougeon Streamliner. That’s one of about five or six concept cars built in the 1930’s. And they’re big teardrop cars, most famous of which is probably the Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion, and I’m in the process of researching those cars and finding them and trying to bring a holistic kind of knowledge in sharing that as well through websites and hopefully books in the future, a book, uh, in the same way that we’re currently doing with Forgotten Fiberglass.

That’s what we’re currently working on, In fact, the engine got started for the first time yesterday. Fiberglass cars that I’m currently working on, I’m working on my Shark, the very first one, the one that I told your listeners about that, uh, when I was 17 or 18 that I found.

(15:41) Ruel: Uh-uh

(15:42) Hacker: And we’re just finishing off the fiberglass work underneath the chassis and every place that you can't see, from the floors, to the bulkheads, to the firewalls and all that. I got a new engine in it, and that’s going. I’m working on a Victress, one that was built to race in the 1950’s and never did. It was built for Riverside Raceway, and that one is nearly done and ready to go.

One I’m getting ready to start is the lost car called the 1954 Chicagoan, which was a sports car that debuted in the 1954 Auto Show up in Chicago. It was advertised and articles written about it, uh, in ‘54 and ‘55, and then disappeared off the face of the earth until we found it in a barn in Iowa. And that one is, if something is up next on deck in the hole, that one’s Number 3.

(16:22) Ruel: Wow. So, there is a concept or a show car that Joe Bortz doesn’t own. That’s great!

(16:27) Hacker: Well [laughs] Joe has done more to benefit the hobby and recognize show cars and have people get excited about them. than anyone I can think of. Never met the man, but I’ll tell you, the kinds of cars that Joe celebrates and the American public celebrates are fantastic. Those are the Motorama show cars that were General Motors made famous years ago, and we enjoy.

The kinds of cars that Rick D’ Louhy and I and my group celebrate were debuted at another Motorama which was as famous, if not more famous. And that’s the Petersen Motorama that was in Los Angeles which has been virtually forgotten. They were both held in the same arenas, most often the Pan-Pacific Auditorium. They featured cars of the future, sports cars of custom design. Most of your guys who would have been to one of those shows in the 50’s in Los Angeles where the Motorama was held for General Motors would also have gone to the other Motorama, and because they both used, in most cases, the same word ‘Motorama,’ we all in the American culture think of them as the same show and they weren’t.

The Petersen Motorama showcased the best and talented original designs from across American in Hot Rod Magazine and Motor Trend. Auto Speed and Sport, I think, was another publication, it was a third one, they had or fourth one. In all those kinds of cars, Joe Doakes or John Smith or whoever built the car and designed it, he could display his concept car, his vision, to the American public and feature in those magazines at the Motorama.

The reason I went through this whole explanation is just because the show cars that Joe has, which are outstanding, the Motorama show cars, are no different than all of these cars, from the Sorrell, the Grantham Stardust, the Meteor, the Byers, the Venus, Glasspar, the Woodill Wildfire. All these other show cars that we study in our group heads are the same cars that would have appeared at the Petersen Motorama, they’re America show cars, General Motors show cars, Harley Earl’s vision, “one man and one company.” Fantastic.
Petersen Motorama showcased America’s vision of what the future could be and what the current state of cars was now. Not just one company or one future, but every person who had a dream, who had a skill and could make that happen, and who can bring it to share with the American public. So, America’s show cars fell in the Peterson Motorama. Harley Earl/General Motor show cars fell in one show called the Motorama. Two different shows, like I said, The Chicagoan show car, (chuckles) the Chicagoan show car appeared next to so many show cars in Chicago at the same time, and of course all those still exist, and until we found this one, it was missing.

America show cars have been lost and forgotten. The GM show cars have been celebrated, and hopefully down the road, some of the things that the guys did back in the 50’s at the Petersen Motorama will be celebrated in the same way.

(19:04) Ruel: Fantastic. Well, to wrap this up, Geoff, tell us how people can follow your progress and learn more about the history of fiberglass cars.

(19:11) Hacker: The easiest way to do is visit the website that we have: ForgottenFiberglass.com. And that’s stories about myself or stories from other people that contribute and that we share photos and history and vintage articles and, in some cases, audio recordings and video as well. So, that’s always available, it’s on there, and like I mentioned, it’s been building, it’s been out there for about 2 years now. Prior to that, the website had evolved from the originations of my good friend, John Greuel on LaDawri.com, but that website now is expanded to become Forgotten Fiberglass as of about 2 years ago. So, ForgottenFiberglass.com is the best way to learn more.

(19:45) Ruel: Well, my guest has been Geoff Hacker, the owner and operator of ForgottenFiberglass.com, as well as many rare and unique fiberglass body cars. Geoff, thanks for the 411 on fiberglass.

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Hacker: Thank you for inviting me.

(19:59) Ruel: Thanks for tuning in to the only fiberglass bodied Gone Autos Podcast ever produced. You can find this one-off and other tools for living the orphan car life at goneautos.com. That’s G-O-N-E-A-U-T-O-S dot com. You can also subscribe to our podcast channel on iTunes. If you do, please take a second to write us a review. We love the throaty exhaust note, of positive feedback. If you need some more tools for living the orphan car life, check out the Gone Autos Book Store and the T-shirt Store.

(20:47) Ruel: This podcast is copyright 2011 by Ruel The World Media, Inc.

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