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Fun with fiberglass: Petersen exhibit celebrates moldable material

Fri, 26 Feb 2010

To be an artisan in aluminum or the Stradivarius of steel, you need about 40 years as an apprentice working metal with pinchers and pullers and to spend a lot of time rolling sheets back and forth through an English wheel.

To make something out of fiberglass, all you need is resin.

The Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles is celebrating all things fiberglass--especially the cars--with an exhibit that runs through Oct. 3.

"The thing about fiberglass is you could mold it into some bitchin' shapes," said curator Leslie Kendall. "You could make things you just couldn't do with steel or aluminum."

Fiberglas was invented in 1935 at Owens-Corning (fiberglass, with two s's, is the generic term). It is actually glass that has been pulled into long skinny strings and woven. Its first use was for insulation. But by 1942, scientists at Owens-Corning figured out that by adding resin to Fiberglas and letting it harden, you could make damn near anything out of the stuff--from skateboards and sailboats to bows and arrows to luggage. The fiberglass car was not far off.

William Stout's massive Scarab came four years later, a voluminous monocoque powered by a rear-mounted Ford flathead V8. You could argue that it was the first minivan and, looking at it, this creature would make a very practical family hauler today.

Almost as soon as the war ended, various hot-rodder entrepreneurs saw fiberglass as just the thing to give form to their many wheeled fantasies. The museum exhibit includes many of these, 25 in all, the bold and beautiful as well as the dorky and the doomed.

History will not likely love the cartoonish Woodill Wildfire, the Maverick Sportster or the Covington Tiburon. Likewise, the not-for-public-viewing 1955 Mercury D-582 Beldone was probably better left off the show-car circuit, though it did have features that made their way to production.

But many of the greatest modern sports cars have bodies in fiberglass, including the late '50s Devin SS, the Meyers Manx of 1964 and the Chevrolet Corvette and the Dodge Viper. All will be on the second floor of the Petersen. Even Ed "Big Daddy" Roth's iconic T-bucket roadster Outlaw is on display.

There are two great ways to see the exhibit. Kendall will give a tour on March 23, starting at 7:30 p.m. For that, you have to RSVP to the museum at (323) 964-6347.

Fiberglass Day and Car Show at the Petersen is June 26 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Any fiberglass car is welcome, but again, you have to RSVP to show a car, which can be done at the above number. Or just show up and see hundreds of handmade fiberglass fun. Visit to find out more.

By Mark Vaughn