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If the idea of Seagrave building a compact car does not compute, that’s because it didn’t

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photos courtesy Worldwide Auctioneers.

The concept of the assembled car—one built of off-the-shelf parts bought from a host of suppliers—died out in the 1920s. One of those suppliers, however, just couldn’t let the idea drop even 40 years later, and one of the three resulting prototypes, a fiberglass-bodied compact car that fire apparatus company Seagrave built, will soon come up for auction.

The idea of building a fiberglass-bodied compact car, to be clear, did not originate with Seagrave. Aside from a few prototypes for fire chief’s cars in 1914, Seagrave, then based in Columbus, Ohio, had been building firefighting equipment and only firefighting equipment since 1881. That made the company’s January 1961 announcement of a high-quality “under-$3,000” compact car surprising, if not highly suspect.

“Three cars have been built and are running, but production details were still in flux at this writing,” a brief writeup in Sports Cars Illustrated noted. “Body styles includes (sic) a convertible, a two-door four-passenger coupe and a two-passenger coupe. Powered by a four-cylinder 65 bhp Continental engine, top speed is 75 to 80 mph. Options will be offered in choice of transmission—either automatic or manual. Two of the existing cars have been built of fiberglass and one is aluminum.”

The writeup went on to note the car’s 1,700-pound weight, 93-inch wheelbase, 58-inch tread, 13-foot length, 11-gallon fuel capacity, and 19-cubic-foot trunk. Oh, and that Seagrave acquired the plans and rights to the car “from a Detroit corporation.” Which corporation exactly, Sports Cars Illustrated didn’t elaborate.

And then, nothing. Today’s automotive journalists, were they covering the Seagrave sports car, would simply yell “vaporware!” and move on to the next press release. The contemporary writers at Car Life magazine, however, decided to dig a little and in the June 1961 issue of the magazine published some of their findings:

With a wheelbase of 93.5 inches, the car is far short of being a compact; it is actually very similar in size to American Motors’ Metropolitan—a small car with the body molded completely in fiberglass. It is very nice looking and the scale effect is excellent, thanks to 5.50 inch tires mounted on 12 inch wheels.

An overall height only half an inch over four feet keeps the scale, but severely limits head room. Overall width is a surprising 67 inches (with a wide track of 58 inches) and there is room for three passengers in front. Behind the front seat is a pair of molded fiberglass buckets which can seat two in an emergency. The windshield, by the way, is from a two-passenger Thunderbird.

Mechanically, we find a special box-section frame of normal design with conventional A-arms and coil springs in front and semi-elliptic leaf springs at the rear. The engine is a 4 cylinder Continental F-162 slightly modified to increase the rating to 65 bhp.

The single plate clutch is a Borg and Beck, and the 3-speed manual transmission is a Warner Gear unit as supplied to Studebaker. Likewise, the rear axle is a standard Dana-Spicer assembly, the brakes are Wagner, and the steering gear is a Gemmer.

They also determined that at least one prototype did indeed exist, and they discovered that the Detroit corporation previously mentioned was “a now-defunct firm called the Detroit National Automobile Company.” Why exactly the project stalled out, Car Life‘s editors weren’t able to say, and in the decades since some have claimed that the lack of a V-8 engine under the car’s forward-tilting hood made it difficult to sell to the American public.

Obviously, whoever came up with that theory never saw how much empty space the Continental four left between the frame rails.

Not until two of the prototypes—both four-passenger fiberglass hardtops, one with a blue roof and interior, the other with a red roof and interior – emerged from hiding earlier this decade did the actual story behind their birth and demise come to light. As reported on Forgotten Fiberglass, according to Seagrave’s Leanne Fields, Continental Motors built the cars in an attempt to entice automakers into using Continental engines once again.

Continental, which at one point in the Twenties supplied engines for 90 percent of America’s automakers, did for a brief period build its own automobiles, but that episode ended poorly. By the early 1960s, with Kaiser-Frazer and Willys abandoning automobile production, Continental had just one company left in its automotive client portfolio, and Checker had already or was soon to lay plans to switch out Continentals for more modern overhead-valve engines from Chrysler and General Motors.

Why Continental chose to power the prototypes with L-head four-cylinders rather than more modern overhead-valve engines – or even the air-cooled engines it already had in development for its aircraft business – remains a mystery, as does the role of the Detroit National Automobile Company.

Fields was, however, able to shed light on the mystery of how Continental paired up with Seagrave to tout the prototypes: Apparently all the other Detroit automakers snubbed Continental, so Continental turned to another company that already had a dealer network in place. Seagrave, however, had enough on its hands with FWD’s upcoming purchase of the company, so it spiked the project and sold off the prototypes as scrap.

Both fiberglass cars emerged from Michigan hiding places starting in 2013 (a third, reportedly the aluminum prototype, exists but hasn’t been documented), and both cars eventually ended up in the hands of Martin Godbey in Florida. Godbey’s son Blake said that the family will hold on to the blue-roofed example, but has decided to sell the red-roofed example, which is mostly complete but does not run.

The Seagrave—engine number 79044—will cross the auction block as part of the Worldwide Auctioneers Auburn sale over Labor Day weekend. For more information on the sale, visit Worldwide-Auctioneers.com.