Kellison J-6 Panther - sports GT body - model year 1962
One of the first to see the potential in glass fiber reinforced plastic bodies for cars was Californian Jim Kellison. Kellison was a former fighter pilot for the US Air Force who started experimenting with plastic sportscar bodies in 1954, just after the new Chevrolet Corvette with its novel fiberglass body had been introduced. These early Corvettes weren't very successful, largely because of their experimental character, high price and disappointing performance. But Kellison didn't aim for mass production or the general public like Chevrolet had, instead he pioneered the niche which later became known as the kit-car.
The first Kellison production body was offered in 1958 and was a spectacular and aggressive looking 2-seater sports coupe designed by Jim Kellison himself. It was named the J-4 and featured a long nose section, a very low roofline and curvaceous lines inspired by contemporary European designs. To an extent it set the example for a style made popular a few years later by the Jaguar E-type. However the J-4 was far more basic; it just was a body with the floorpan, driveshaft tunnel, inner fender panels, firewall, dashboard and assembled doors. The rest was left to the buyer who had to find the remaining parts according to a specified list that came with the body and then assemble and finish the car.
Next to the car Kellison offered a chassis for it; at first this was a ladder frame from metal tubes with beam axles in front and rear by race car builder Chuck Manning and later a tubular X-frame with independent front suspension (usually from Chevrolet models) and rear beam axle developed by Jim Kellison. Initially there were plans of manufacturing the Kellison J-4 with GM engines by GM's racing division but this fell through, leaving the J-4 to be offered as a body with an optional chassis only.
Soon roadster versions of the J-4 coupe were added to the line-up: the long wheelbase J-2 and the short wheelbase J-3. Smaller sized but similar looking bodies were developed to fit on chassis of European import cars like the VW and the MG; these were named the K-3 coupe and the K-2 roadster. The J and K series appealed to the public and Kellison rapidly evolved into one of America's main manufacturers of kit bodies, which became renown for being strong but difficult to assemble.
Because of the expertise needed to assemble a Kellison and the low weight and intimidating looks of the bodies most of the J-4 that were constructed were racecars, often entered in the then popular and widespread sportscar races of the Sports Car Club of America or in drag races. To that purpose Kellison also offered J-4 "racing" bodies, which were in fact bodies straight from the mold without floor, firewall etcetera and because of that weighed even less than the regular bodies. Till 1959 about 300 J-4 bodies were sold and additionally 50 J-4 racing bodies.
In 1960 the J-4 was replaced by the J-5 which featured a roofline raised by 5 cm and a wheelbase lengthened by 10 cm to make the cabin less cramped; also the doors were 13 cm longer which meant you actually could get in the car without being a contortionist. Other notable differences were the slanted double headlights and recessed taillights. The J-5 was offered up to 1961 and again about 300 were sold apart from 50 racing bodies. New improvements lead to the J-6 in 1962; the roofline was raised by another 5 cm, the double headlights were dropped in favor of a return to the recessed headlights of the original design and in the rear a boot lid was added. By adding 5 cm to the wheelbase (resulting in 264 cm) the body now fitted a 1953 - 1962 Corvette chassis without modifications. This resulted in the J-6, or Panther as this model was dubbed, being offered as a body without chassis only. The car shown here for instance is fitted on a 1955 Corvette chassis. Estimated production of the J-6 is about 550 bodies.
By 1964 the production of the Kellison J-series coupe was carried over to Allied Fiberglass Corporation who restarted the production of the J-2, J-3, J-4 and J-5 models and offered them under the Astra brand name while Kellison concentrated on a plethora of other kit-car and racecar projects. Allen Max Germaine of Allied Fiberglass designed a new version of the coupe which was sold as the Astra X-300GT; it still resembled the original Jim Kellison design but had a shorter wheelbase than the J-4 (244 cm instead of 250 cm) and a wide oval grille giving the car almost Italian looks though proportions were a bit off. It was meant to fit a Corvette C2 chassis of which the engine had to be moved 16 cm further back but could also be had with the custom X-frame chassis. The X-300GT was marketed until 1968 and sold about 500 times but in fact any of the J-series could still be ordered until Allied Fiberglass closed its doors in 1970, making production totals a bit sketchy.
Kellison itself stopped in 1972 but by then Jim Kellison had already left. In 1970 he opened up a bookstore (quite a change of pace) but around 1976 he returned to kit-car production with Mike Grant to manufacture the Eagle American Stallion, a first generation Shelby Cobra clone. However Jim Kellison improved on the concept by designing a stiffer chassis which was 13 cm longer than the original while the engine was moved that same distance to the rear to provide better handling. Manufacture of the Stallion ended about 1980 and Jim Kellison made another abrupt career move and entered the jewelry business. He died in 2004, leaving the Diamond Palace SuperStore to his family and literally thousands of kit-cars to the world.
Can a kit-car be considered to be a classic car? All too often kit-cars are low quality products fumbled together by amateurs. But the appealing original design which inspired almost a whole generation of American teenagers, the racing provenance of many and the trend setting history of the Kellison sports GT truly makes it a classic when expertly built and fitted with the right components. It's mostly valued in the US where a Kellison J-series with a good racing history can by quite expensive. On the other hand, many of the sold bodyshells never reached the status of a roadgoing car and those project cars can be had for a few thousand dollars or less, though interest in these cars seems to be on the rise.
The Kellison sports GT epitomizes the beginning of a new industry catering to the tastes of resourceful individualists in a time where the rise mass production left only room for generalization and as such is a small but interesting part of automotive history. And it's a fun car to have if you fit into the small cockpit and an exciting drive with a proper V8 in front of you; it's competitive as well, the 400 hp car shown here has won a number of classic car events in Germany.
For more info about Kellison cars you can visit Kellisoncars or check out the article Classics from Kellison at Kit Car Magazine.
© André Ritzinger, Amsterdam, Holland