The Woodill Wildfire

The Woodill Wildfire rode the lip of a wave sweeping over America in the early 1950s. Sports cars had been absent from the scene for too long. The great makers of the classic era - Auburn, Duesenberg, Marmon and Stutz - were all pulled under by the Great Depression. The 1940s were pretty much consumed by war and its aftermath, with little energy remaining for the frivolity of sports cars. But as servicemen began to return home, they brought with them a taste for the fast, minimalist machines - Morgans, Singers, Rileys and Triumphs - they had on occasion flogged through the English countryside. Detroit was busy at the time filling America’s pent up demand for cars, any cars, with stodgy old sedans based on pre-war designs. By the late 40s a few British roadsters were being imported, namely MGs and Jaguars. But they weren’t really suited to American needs. By the dawn of the 1950s, the time became right for an all-American sports car. Everyone knows about the Chevrolet Corvette, the fiberglass dream car that wowed the nation when it debuted in mid-1953. Many credit the Corvette as being the first post-war American fiberglass sports car. Many are wrong. Predating the Vette by a more than a month was the Woodill Wildfire, a luscious little roadster that, had history taken a different turn, might have been the one known as “America’s Sports Car”.

B.R. “Woody” Woodhill owned the largest Dodge dealership in Southern California, and the one of the biggest in the nation. He was also the youngest, having bought out his father in 1948 at the age of 33. By 1952, he had added a Willys-Jeep franchise to the Downey, CA property. Driving a new Dodge or Willys every few months was nice, but being young, wealthy and full of spirit, it’s quite understandable that Woody Woodill wanted something a bit more fun.

He loved the Jaguar XK-120, with its scintillating performance and muscular feline stance. (Who wouldn’t?) Sitting down with some of the guys from dealership’s garage one afternoon, he asked them what they thought of the Jag. His mechanic told him how unreliable they were. His parts guy let him in on the difficulties of finding replacements for the bits that would inevitably break. His body man lamented on the horrors of straitening and fitting panels. “Too bad America hasn’t made a real sports car yet. It’d be so much easier to maintain,” one of them had said. Woody came away from the gathering with diminished enthusiasm for the Jaguar, but no less desire for a sports car. 

   
  
   
  
    
  
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    Woody’s inspiration ( www.classicdriver.com )

Woody’s inspiration (www.classicdriver.com)

That weekend, while hanging out with his neighbor, Howard Miller, the two chewed on the garage men’s assessment of British sports cars.  Miller, an expert metal fabricator, finally suggested that Woody simply build his own car. Designing a frame would be a simple matter. Through his dealer he had easy access to Willys parts. The body might be a challenge, but he knew of a boat builder down in Santa Anna who had recently begun making car bodies out of fiberglass. 

 

A few days later Woody was down at the Glasspar facility meeting with the man Miller spoke of. Bill Tritt had already made several fiberglass bodies for customers. They looked great, like an American translation of the XJ120’s svelte shape. Woody ordered two on the spot. 

For a platform, Tritt’s customers had used a frame designed and built by Harold “Shorty” Post at his nearby shop. “Sure,” said Shorty, when Woody asked him if he could do a frame that would accept Willys components. With a few modifications to the Glasspar body, like a Willys style grill, Aero-Willys tail lamps, twin power-bulge hood, and a passenger side door, and Woody Woodill had his all-American sports car.

When his 2 prototypes were finished, he took them to the Los Angeles Motorama, a custom car show produced by Motor Trend magazine’s Petersen Publishing. The Wildfires were a hit with not only the crowd, but with Willys’ West Coast regional manager whom Woody had invited. After news of the sports car reached Willys management, Woody got a call saying that he and his cars were booked on a charter flight to Toledo to present the cars at headquarters. 

 Wildfires decend on Toledo (  
  
   
  
    
  
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   www.americansportscars.com)

Wildfires decend on Toledo (www.americansportscars.com)

The product people loved the sleek lines accented with Willys styling cues. The engineers loved how the low mass and 50/50 weight distribution brought their new F-head “Lightning” six-cylinder engine alive. Dealers, who were there attending a gathering, also loved the Wildfire. Willys’ brass was excited too. But they delayed a final decision on whether to go forward with the Wildfire because mounting financial difficulties. Despite the uncertainty, Woody Woodill, the eternal optimist, may have jumped the gun a bit when he issued a press release announcing the new Willys Wildfire.

A few weeks later, Willys Overland was forced to sell itself to Kaiser Motors, a well-financed automotive upstart that did not yet know the jig was up for independents carmakers. Unfortunately for Woody Woodill, Kaiser was already planning their own fiberglass sports car designed by Dutch Darrin. Having committed to the Darrin, they had no choice but to proceed with it. This was truly a shame. With its silly sliding doors, it was more of a boulevard cruiser than a proper sports car. With questionable build quality and a nosebleed price tag, it was amazing that Kaiser managed to sell 435 of them. Imagine what they could have done with the better and cheaper Wildfire. Ultimately it didn’t matter. Two years later Kaiser was out of the car business in North America. 

 Kaiser Darrin: More show than go ( www.forgottenfiberglass.com )

Kaiser Darrin: More show than go (www.forgottenfiberglass.com)

Undaunted, Woody went ahead on his own. He sold his Dodge dealership and focused his energies on building and marketing the Woodill Wildfire. He set up shop near the Willys dealership, which he kept. There, he proceeded to build 7 factory fresh cars in 1953. These were the first “mass produced” fiberglass-bodied cars, beating the Corvette to market by a few weeks.