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It came from outer space and landed in Detroit. But what is it?

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The latest Forgotten Fiberglass mystery car. Photos by author.

I’ve always been a fan of the space age era from cool plastic stereos and wild “biomorphic” designs. This interest crystallized when I was 18 (1980 or so) and found/bought my first “space age” car – the 1962 Shark “Tiburon” Roadster (featured in this episode of Jay Leno’s Garage), and my fascination hasn’t waned in the passing years.

So when I came across a space age car “find” from someone new to our group, Bob Cicerone of Detroit, Michigan, I was immediately intrigued and tried to help identify the car. We used Facebook to circulate photos, but after weeks of trying no one was able to identify the car so it stood idle. A mystery with no history.

Mystery space age car

Bob had bought the car via Craigslist and little was known of its history save what the seller had shared. The car had been owned by her husband who had passed away some time before – and that’s all she really knew and/or wanted to share.

Cimbria and mystery car

The Cimbria with the mystery car.

Time passed, and Bob and I talked a bit more about the car before we agreed to do some car swapping, trading our newly acquired, original-condition Cimbria (from the original owner and builder) for the unrestored mystery car. The bonus for Bob was that our Cimbria had been a favorite car of his for over 30 years, and this would be the first finished Cimbria he could drive and enjoy. Since the space age car is a favorite of mine, this appeared to be a situation where everyone wins.

Mystery space age car

We waited for warm weather to arrive before making the trek from Tampa, Florida, north to Michigan, returning home during the third week in July. Before we got home, fun things started to happen. Our friend Tom Cotter of Barn Find book fame was in Detroit, arriving the same day we were. He was there to work on his next book, on “Motor City” barn finds, so we shared our “Detroit mystery car find” with him before parting company. Ours would be the first car he and his collaborator and photographer friend, Michael Alan Ross, would shoot for the book.

Mystery space age car

But I’m a fairly impatient writer/historian “car guy,” so once we had the car loaded on the trailer and had some time to investigate it a bit more, I noticed that the build quality of several elements of the car were quite nice.  Bob had pointed this out, too, as he had previously examined the car.  So I started looking for history on this or similar cars.

Mystery space age car

Based on the design, I started with 1965 and searched through 1975 looking for the term “space age car” on the internet. Space age cars of similar design include the 1961 Covington Tiburon, 1965 CRV, Herb Adams “Vivant” and others, too. Within a short bit of time I found a car with some similar style elements to our mystery car – the 1969 Autobianchi Runabout by Bertone. This was a concept that ultimately led to the styling of the Fiat X1/9 in the early 1970s.

1969 Autobianchi Runabout

The 1969 Autobianchi Runabout by Bertone. Public domain image from Wikipedia.

The Bertone Runabout had many similar design elements such as the lower front light position, the shape of body and the style of body (especially up front and on sides), but was different as well – particularly at the rear of the car.  Some of our car is missing – there was something in the rollbar area, but whether or not it was similar to the Autobianchi Runabout is unknown.  Other interesting aspects of the mystery car include:

  • The frame of the car has been powdercoated – not painted. Much more like a special-built car than a home built, handcrafted project.
  • The lower red body half of the car (center between the wheels) is formed from aluminum – shaped perhaps with an English wheel. The upper half of the car is fiberglass.
  • Most of the bolt holes are countersunk in the chassis and structure– not just drilled.
  • The fiberglass is exceptionally done – built at a high level in composite and surfacing.
  • The door pivots/opens unconventionally – more like a concept/show car.
  • The inside finish was carefully done including a full fiberglass interior with pocketed doors. The texture and styling were carefully considered in creating this interior.
  • The drivetrain is a Chevrolet 283/350 with a front mid-engine design.  While the car shows signs that this is not the original engine, the front mid-engine design does look like its original design thus far with a careful design of the radiator and fan structure still in place up front.

1969 Autobianchi Runabout

There are many parts of the car that show a simple level of “finish.” The spacing for the engine appears to have been “hacked” into place suggesting a different engine (front-engine) may have originally been used. The back area of the cockpit was also “hacked” carelessly to remove whatever had been there before. The wheels/rims are clearly too large now – whatever had been installed originally must have been smaller and more in line with the design and size of the car. The last year of registration shows 1978 on the license plate, so we’re in the process of trying to trace this now (but it may be the second owner or not related to this vehicle either – you never know).

Mystery space age car

On location in Detroit, at the abandoned Packard factory.

So what is our mystery car?  Here are some working theories:

  • Perhaps this was designed and built as an “off-campus” project of one of the designer/builders working with one of the big manufacturers. This person would have had special knowledge of build techniques as well as friends in the right area to help with creating it.  They had probably seen the ’69 Runabout in magazines too.
  • Folks like Herb Adams (famed Pontiac chassis engineer) built cars in their youth like the Vivant – one of Herb’s designs. This mystery car has a similar look and feel, so perhaps someone like Herb designed and built it.
  • Maybe this was a converted dune buggy design – a rear engine body fitted to a custom built front engine car.
  • And countless other possibilities.

Mystery space age car Mystery space age car Mystery space age car Mystery space age car

So, as we did with our recent shoutout to Hemmings readers about the Ferber Motor Coach, the call goes out to Hemmings readers again for their thoughts and comments. What can you add to the car’s history?