Kit Cars and Homebuilt Vehicles of the Past

The photos in this entry are from one of my favorite massive copyright lawsuits waiting to happen websites, Modern Mechanix, a huge and fascinating archive of scans from old Popular Mechanics and other classic tech culture magazines. There are many automotive entries, with a great number dedicated to homebuilt, kit, and other DIY cars… I thought I’d take a moment to show you some of these vehicles from the past, since most of what I post is current (or at least from the seventies).

Nicely streamlined, this vehicle built in the late 40s is incredibly sleek, standing only 39″ high (about the same as a Manta Mirage, and lower than a Lamborghini Countach) and built on a pre-war 20hp Jaguar chassis. The builder and designer, L. Leston, was a used aircraft parts dealer, and apparently the entire design of this car came from a moment of inspiration he had after finding the side/door windows on an old reconnaissance plane! I’d love to see this one in person — given how incredibly low it is, I’m sure the pictures don’t do it justice.

In the late 40s builder Neslon Beck put together this car using the frame of a 1934 Ford, along with a junkyard driveline. He constructed the body out of scrap lumber, two boxes of screws, a scrap windshield and grill, and some aircraft bits… The car gets a claimed 40mpg at 55mph.

This very cool vehicle is “The Box”, which debuted in 1970 as a design project of Dan Hanebrink and Matt Van Leeuwen. It’s a monocoque design made up of a fiberglass tub and a balsa and fiberglass body (a la the layup technique of RQ Riley’s designs), fully waterproof and capable of amphibious running if paddle tires are mounted. Power comes from a 500cc 65hp motorcycle engine which drives both the front and rear wheels via a belt drive, with a centrally mounted brake. Performance was excellent with a 100mph top speed and a 13.5 second quarter mile at 95mph. The two seater was accessed via the front window/door and driven with foot controls which steered all four wheels, and levers controlling throttle, brake, and shifting. Production was planned but I don’t believe it ended up happening — a very cool looking car with some interesting technology, even by today’s standards.

This funny streamliner is called the “Trailmobile” and was built in the mid-30s by Charles Christman and Bill Quiggle around a 35hp engine which the article claims drove the rear axle directly (ie. a single-gear transmission of some sort).

It’s no Aztec GT (more of a bubble-top beetle), but it does share the simple flip-top design — still, it doesn’t look very easy to get in and out of. This was built in the early fifties by German mechanic Gustav Weinert. At only 770 pounds, even with only a motorcycle driveline it must have been a lot of fun to drive.

Another streamliner, reminiscent of the Auto Union racers and slightly less hilarious looking than the Trailmobile above, this “Push Button” car (so called because the doors and top were electrically opened at the push of a button) of the mid-30s was powered by a supercharged V8 capable of pushing it to 120mpg, with a fuel consumption of only 18mpg (sad how little we’ve improved since then) at 60mph.

Also aircraft design inspired (a common story both with homebuilts of the time and production cars of the time), Jack Norvell built this car with aircraft parts around a Chrysler driveline in the mid forties. He reached 131 mph in his early tests of the vehicle.

An ugly duckling no doubt, but with a certain charm, a Chicago mechanic built this vehicle, “a turtle on wheels” as he put it, out of corrugated metal and junk parts. He claimed it would do 45mph, and that it cost him about $25 to build it in the early 30s.

I’m a fan of this streamliner built over two and a half years by Norman E. Timbs in the mid-forties, especially of the rear clamshell which gives access to the mid-mounted Buick engine. It’s a big whale-like 2300 pound car, seventeen and a half feet long with a 117 inch wheelbase. Build cost was about $10,000.

The most obvious of the airplane designed cars in this set, this “Aerocoupe” mid-engine trike was built by Richard Crossley and capable of hitting 75mph.

Charlie over at Modern Mechanix asked, “am I the only one who thinks this looks a bit like the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile?” Yeah, I think he’s right… although built in the mid fifties, really, it’s the other way around. Sigvard Berggern, a Swedish carrot juice maker, built this streamlined sausage car on a ’38 Dodge chassis with a Ford V8 engine. Planned engine upgrades predicted a top speed of 140mph.

And finally, this cute little aerodynamic microcar was made by Bill Rousch in the late forties, with a tiny 6hp engine capable of driving the car at 35mph. Bill put it together for an investment of about $300, which he says more than paid off in money saved in fuel costs.

Be sure to visit Modern Mechanix for lots more stuff like this, automotive and otherwise.

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