The early 1950's saw the young B.R. (Robert) "Woody" Woodill become one of the most successful Dodge dealers in the nation. Following in his father's footsteps, Woody was able, in fact, to make his business so successful that he was allowed to add the Willys line, an almost unheard of move in the 50's. One thing that Woody had always wanted to drive as his own personal mode of transportation was a sports car. The sleek lines of the new Jaguar XK 120 had caught his fancy. He expressed his wishes to his mechanics at the dealership. The unanimous retort from those mechanics was to think again, as they felt the Jag to be a rather unreliable car and definitely hard to get parts for it. "Woody, she will be in the shop more than you'll be driving her," was the advice his chief mechanic gave him. He went on to say, "Too bad America hasn't made a real sports car yet. It would be so much easier to maintain." That evening Woody was relaying his problem to his over the fence neighbor, Howard Miller. Howard was very talented at making almost anything. "Why not build your own sports car using all American running gear?" Howard suggested.
What a great idea, Woody thought. The Willys had been proven to be a real little power plant by Brooks Stevens in his Excalibur J earlier that year. Woody, of course, had access to those motors, and everything else Willys, through his own dealership. He and Howard had also heard of a young boat builder by the name of Bill Tritt, who had just begun marketing a Vibrin fiberglass sports car body which you could affix to your own running gear. Unfortunately the affixing was a little above the layman's capabilities. What Woody wanted was a completed sports car that used all Willys components. That way he could sell it as a new car through his dealership. This would also bypass the shortcomings of the buyer, having nothing to do but drive the car off the show room floor. But would this body affix itself to a Willys chassis? After meeting with Bill Tritt over at Glasspar, he found that Bill, sometimes used a custom hand built frame, built by Harold ''Shorty'' Post, a noted hot rod builder of the day, with some Glasspars, where the buyer did not have his own frame to use for his project. The problem was solved, with the guidance of Tritt & Miller, by having Shorty Post fabricate the sturdy frame that would accept all Willys Jeepster suspension components and adapt itself to the Glasspar body.
Two of the Glasspar bodies were ordered initially with specific modifications to set them apart from the conventional Tritt model. First, the rear fenders were squared off with extensions to allow them to accept the Willys Aero taillights. Second, a fake scoop was affixed in front of the hood to balance off the tail lights. Finally, two beautiful humps were designed in place of the existing flat dash area, which gave the car the M.G., Allard look. These tiny changes gave an already beautiful design a more sporty elegance, unsurpassed for its time.
The hand laid Tritt bodies were of the highest quality, far surpassing the Kaiser Darrins and Chevrolet Corvettes which were to come later. Darrins and Vettes were pressed, similar to the way steel is formed. Too much of the resin was squeezed out of the glass, which led to premature cracking and warping. Once the bodies and frames were delivered, Howard Miller assembled the components and made the final adjustments. The little Willys engine was set far enough back in the car to give them an almost perfect 50/50 weight ratio. Cornering was superb and the car was proclaimed, with the addition of an optional hot cam, three carbs and headers, to be able to obtain speeds in excess of 120 MPH!
One of the tremendous talents of Woody Woodill was publicity. Once the first car was finished, it was photographed and featured in a press release. Arrangements were made to have it displayed in the upcoming 1952 Motor Trend annual Motorama held here in California. Woody & Howard also drove the car all over town showing it off at any events in the area. They hurried to complete the second car because Woody’s dream was to get Willys Overland to adopt this car as their future sports car. When the idea was presented to Willys, they showed enough interest in his project that arrangements were made to fly both Woody, his wife and the car back to Toledo. Woodill expressed to me the harrowing experience he had riding in the back of that cargo plane.
Willy’s officials were impressed with the car once they drove it. Because of the financial standing of the company in those tumultuous times of the mid fifties, they could not sign the deal until they were certain that building the car was feasible.
Upon his return to Southern California, Woody, the eternal optimist, jumped the gun and issued press releases stating the Wildfire was to be the Willys Wildfire. Unfortunately, several months later Willys Overland went into receivership and was subsequently merged into Kaiser Frazer Corp. Since K-F already had made arrangements with Howard "Dutch" Darrin to build his sliding door, sports car, there was no need for a second. Willys issued a retraction to Woodys statements, and the Willys Wildfire was history.
Woody then did a radical redesign on his car and manufactured around six complete vehicles. First, he eliminated the standard Glasspar grill for a larger opening that would accept the Willys one piece floating grill bar. This was done, according to Woodill, as a further identification with the Willys vehicle line. He redesigned the hood making the scoop functional. Dash humps were somewhat smoothed out, cockpit lengthened and the doors were completely changed in shape and style to allow standard door panels to be affixed, rather than the flocked fiberglass affect the Type One had. The biggest change was the addition of a deck lid for easier access to the trunk area. Woody had also added a continental kit to the car. He cleverly used the knock off spinner on the hubcap, attached to the spare tire, for the gas cap
With the disappointing news from Willys, Woody was down, but not out. He sold the completed vehicles as new 1953 Woodill Wildfires through his dealership and took orders for more. Realizing that someone of his financial size would have trouble selling the pricey complete cars, Woodill went back to the drawing board. Remembering the problems some Glasspar customers had completing their cars because of limited mechanical skill, he decided to produce a kit that had everything to bolt right onto a chassis. It seemed to him that Fords would work best for that. He designed all the parts needed for installation of his body straight to the 1939 to 1948 Ford chassis, the ones with the more efficient juice brakes. He also continued to sell the body with a Shorty Post frame to those who wanted that option, as well as still taking orders for complete vehicles, if the customer desired that option. Later, he manufactured his own box frame as a substitute for the Post one. On his own, he built one or two Buick based cars also, adding the type of Buick head and tail lamps for that product identification. It was rumored that he did the same for Cadillac also. Thanks to Bill Tritts input to GM, and later their own experience with the fledgling Corvette, General Motors had its own ideas so nothing happened with these cars.
Woodill went back to his publicity mode after the Willys breakup. He saw to it that the Wildfire was entered into three contemporary movies. Written on the Wind with Rock Hudson, Knock on Wood, a comedy, starring Danny Kay and, most notably, the Woodill starred in Johnny Dark. Here Johnny (Tony Curtis) starred as a young and upcoming car designer who built a sports car called the Idaho Special. To prove it was worth its salt to his boss, he enters it in a Mexico to Canada cross country road race. After many harrowing trials, the car wins! The car, of course, was the Wildfire. The movie also debuted many other glass cars of the time, but the Woodill stood far out in the pack.
As the larger US based companies began to produce their own sports cars, competition became horrendous. Woody built his last Wildfire in 1956, a fastback coupe. During that time he managed to produce a dozen or so factory assembled cars and over 200 kit packages. Although today it is rather hard to find an example that is exactly as Woody had designed it, his legacy will go on. Having spent time with him, I can say that right to the end his enthusiasm never waned. The fresh and original ideas that he brought forth were groundbreaking in the fiberglass industry. As agreed, almost unanimously, the Woodill Wildfire was the first production fiberglass sports car. Having also spent time with both Howard Miller and Bill Tritt, there is no doubt that Woody could not have done all he did without them. Both were at the top of their field. Unfortunately our story does not have a happy ending. Woody sold the prosperous Dodge dealership to work full time on the Wildfire. After he stopped all US production, he traveled the whole world, building various forms of autos based on the Wildfire concept. He ended up in Australia. In 1961 the Australian stock market took a hard plunge and Woodill with it. Two and one half years later, he came back to the states where he dabbled in several industries. Woody retired in Oregon, where he started a TV satellite business, which he worked in until his death ay age 73.
Frederick J Roth