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Doug Smith, owner of Toby Knoll Garage, and his Fabulous Hudson Hornet at the Franklin County Technical School’s Fourth Annual Cool Rides Car Show. (2013)

1953 Woodill Wildfire-Dodge Special

By 1952 Robert Woodill had become a very successful Willys and Dodge dealer in California. Despite his profitable businesses he lamented that America did not have U.S. built sports car. His discontent was driven by the amazing success of British and other European sport cars that G.I.s returning from Europe after WW II were bringing back with them. Woodill therefore contemplated building a sports car of his own design. At the same time Glaspar, a recently started company nearby in California, was experimenting with building a fiberglass two seat body that could be fitted to an existing chassis. Woodill got in touch with the company’s owner, Bill Tritt, and arranged for Glaspar to produce bodies for his sports car. Woodill’s creation would be called the “Wildfire”. 

The Wildfire was a somewhat restyled Glaspar drop-on fiberglass body and would evolve through two series. Only a few Series I cars were molded and each retained much of the Glaspar’s styling. The Series II cars were redesigned to have a higher belt line that included functional doors, a trunk, a functional hood scoop and a completely restyled nose. Woodill built several complete cars and convinced a few production companies to include or feature the car in movies. After promoting the car in magazines and ads, he switched production to “kits” which included a drop-on body and a bare frame or the body alone. His frames were built by well-known builders of the period including Shorty Post and MAMECO. The frames were designed to accommodate Ford suspension components and were updated periodically. Otherwise it was up to the owner to fabricate or adapt a frame to the body. The power plant choice was left entirely to the purchaser. Choices ranged from Willys own 6-cylinder engine to various V8 motors produced by the Big Three automotive manufacturers.

Robert Woodill had hoped that the Willys Corporation would adopt the Wildfire but it was not to be. Kaiser and Willys merged in 1954 and their decision for a sports car was “Dutch” Darrin’s design, the Kaiser Darrin. Woodill then struck out on his own, selling Woodill Wildfire kits until 1956. Ironically, the Darrin lasted only one year.

Because Robert Woodill assigned numbers to everything he sold it is hard to tell how many complete cars, bodies with frames, or just bodies were produced. A rough guess based on published articles and some production figures is between 150 and 200. My research identifies about 15 existing incomplete, unrestored or restored cars based on published articles and internet sales information. There are likely other unaccounted for examples in existence.

I purchased a 1953 Woodill Wildfire in 2011 as a body only unit. The car, #9919, had had a very harsh history. Although complete, the body was in very poor shape. Parts of the outer and inner front fenders were damaged. The floor and parts of the firewall were long gone and the trunk floor had almost completely disintegrated. The nose had been crudely separated from the rest of the body. Holes were everywhere, some simply chopped through the fiberglass. A complete chassis was purchased separately. It was largely “home-built” with a 1950 Studebaker Champion front clip and suspension attached and had at some point served another Wildfire.

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The body has been completely restored. The floor was repaired by modifying and installing a complete 1969 Corvette floor removed from a wrecked California car. The chassis has been largely re-engineered. It came with four lug hubs and was in need of strengthening. The Champion front brakes and hubs were upgraded to larger and stronger Commander components with five lug hubs. All the frame’s seams were re-welded and the rear springs were relocated to shorten the wheelbase 1.5”. The original spring mounts were replaced by much stronger brackets. The rear axle assembly was replaced by a similar make (Dana 23) but with a numerically lower ratio (4.10:1) and five lug axles. Traction bars and a Panhard bar have been added as well.

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The car will be powered by a 1953 Dodge 241 cubic inch Hemi engine. The engine has been modified and upgraded considerably. The block was bored 0.060 over stock, with ROSS 9:1 custom pistons. The heads were machined for larger 270 intake valves. A Chet Hebert camshaft was installed along with Sanderson headers. Electronics have been upgraded as noted in the Introduction to the webpage. The transmission will be an ’87 Camaro T5 5-speed utilizing a Wilkap© adapter.

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As of January, 2018, the car is nearly complete. It will be painted a deep British Racing green.

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It's done!!

The Wildfire was completed in October 2018.

TOBY KNOLL GARAGE

'50s Cars