Everyone knows about the Chevrolet Corvette, the fiberglass dream car that wowed the nation, if not exactly the sales charts, 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 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”.
The Woodill Wildfire rode the lip of a wave sweeping over early 1950s America. Sports cars had been absent from the scene for too long, but that was about to change. The great makers of the classic era - Auburn, Duesenberg, Marmon and Stutz - had all been pulled under by the Great Depression of the 1930s. 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 at the time busy 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.
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, Woody 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.
That weekend, while hanging out with his neighbor, Howard Miller, the two were chewing on the garage men’s assessment of British sports cars. Miller, an expert metal fabricator, finally suggested that Woody should simply build his own car. Designing a frame would be a simple matter. Though his dealership 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 - a Willys style grill and tail lamps, a 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 who 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 to a dealer gathering at headquarters.
When they saw the Wildfire, the product people loved the sleek lines accented with Willys styling cues. The engineers loved how the car's low mass and 50/50 weight distribution brought their new F-head “Lightning” six-cylinder engine alive. Dealers loved the showroom traffic the Wildfire was sure to generate. 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, cash-strapped Willys Overland was forced to sell itself to Kaiser Motors, a well-financed automotive upstart that did not yet realize that 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 Kaiser-Darrin, they had no choice but to proceed. This was truly a shame. With its silly sliding doors, the Darrin 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.
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 his 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.
Wildfires were virtually hand built. As a result, each car could be made to customer specifications. Three of those first cars had the Willys six, while two ran Ford flat-head V8s. One car used a “nailhead” V8, along with headlight bezels, sourced from Buick (shown 2nd from left). Still another was Cadillac-powered.
Bill Tritt’s production process was of very high quality, far superior to the Corvette or the Darrin. But superior quality came at a cost. Priced initially at $3260, the production Wildfire was a money loser. Prices rose to $4500 in 1954 and kept going up from there. It wasn’t long before Woody Woodill saw that he was not going to be able to sell enough cars to make regular production economically viable.
But the Wildfire was too good a car - and Woody too good a promoter - to let a little thing like the economies of scale stop him. Instead of assembled vehicles, he shifted his focus to selling the Wildfire in kit form. Working with Bill Tritt, along with his metal fabricator neighbor, Howard Miller, Woody created a $1600 kit that included a body, interior, frame, everything your average backyard mechanic needed to put together his very own sports car. All a customer handy with a wrench needed to supply was a 1939-48 Ford chassis and the engine of his choice.
The kit was specifically designed with everything in place to easily attach to the Ford donner chassis, which were at the time cheap and plentiful. He promoted his kit as “The 14-hour car,” because it could be built over a weekend “with a buddy and a couple of cases of beer.” Motor Trend magazine ran an article that featured step-by-step photos of the operation. Woody even built a Wildfire on camera using time lapse photography for a TV show called You Asked for It.
With his proximity to Hollywood, Woody set about getting his car onto the Big Screen, too. He secured for the Wildfire roles in the films, Written on the Wind, and Knock on Wood, where one was driven by Rock Hudson and Danny Kaye, respectively. But the little roadster’s big break came when it got a starring role in 1954s Johnny Dark. Here the Wildfire plays The Idaho Special, a revolutionary new car built by an up and coming car designer played by Tony Curtis. The climax is a cross continental road race which, after many thrills and spills, the Idaho Special/Wildfire wins!
Alas, despite its Hollywood connections, the Woodill Wildfire didn’t get the girl in the end. The sports car market was growing more competitive as the 1950s progressed. Ford introduced the 2-seat Thunderbird, while Chevrolet gave its Corvette a V8 engine. The imports, lead by the MGA and Austin Healey, were getting better and cheaper. At the same time, the cost of the Wildfire kits kept going up. Fourteen-hour build times or not, buyers simply had easier ways of putting a sports car in their driveway. Before closing its doors for good, it is estimated that the Woodill Motor Company built as many as 300 Wildfires over 3+ years. Most of them came in kit form. The last one was a 1956 fastback coupe, likely the only one of this style ever made, that sported a 305hp Cadillac El Dorado engine. At least the Wildfire went out with a bang.
But Woody Woodill was not the sort of man to go quietly into retirement. He took his show on the road, peddling the idea of building a low-priced car based on the Wildfire in first Mexico, then Brazil, India and finally, Australia. There, he came very close to getting a slick new coupe to market before the Sydney stock exchange crashed in 1961, taking Woodill Motors, Pty with it. Woody returned to the U.S. to be a rancher in California, and later a satellite TV distributor in Roseburg, OR. He dropped dead suddenly at the age of 73 on a road trip to Texas. Here’s to Woody Woodill and his Wildfire.
Copyright@2018 by Mal Pearson
Sources and Further Reading
Fifties Muscle: The Dawn of High Performance, by Mike Mueller. Motorbooks International 1996 (Osceola, WI) p.77
Fanning the Flame: Woody Woodill and the Wildfire, by Michael Lamm. Collectible Automobile, October 2005
www.ForgottenFiberglass.com The source for everything you need to know about fiberglass sports cars
www.AmericanSportsCars.com Dedicated to the preservation of the true history of the 1950s American sports car