Two Definitive Kit Cars: Bradley & Kelmark GTs

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber

We recently looked at the Volkswagen Type 181, known as the Thing in the United States, along with a couple of World War II era variants on the VW Type I Beetle, the Kubelwagen and Schwimmwagen. By 1960, the Volkswagen company was selling three vehicles that were very similar mechanically, the Beetle (and the Karmann built Cabriolet), the Karmann Ghia and the Type II Transporter/Bus. The folks in Wolfsburg weren’t the only ones who realized that the sturdy platform chassis, suspension and drivetrain could make the basis for an interesting vehicle. First EMPI and then Bruce Meyers made what became known as dune buggies, open fiberglass bodies *mounted on shortened VW chassis. EMPI and Meyers were successful enough that they spawned many imitators, including Volkswagen. The Type 181 was VW’s attempt to capitalize on the dune buggy craze. Off-road enthusiasts were paying attention too, which is how we got kit cars.

Full gallery here.

Properly speaking, that’s not entirely true. There have been body kits going back to the early days of the automobile. A variety of companies offered speedster and other bodies for the Model T. In the late 1940s and early 1950s a number of companies started selling fiberglass bodies and kits to build them into finished automobiles. Some had custom frames but all used donor cars for major components. Today Glasspar and Woodill Wildfires are collectible along with other early kit cars. An entire website, Forgotten Fiberglass, is devoted to cars that likely convinced General Motors to start producing the Corvette.

Full gallery here.

I don’t know exactly which company first offered a fiberglass sports car body for the VW Type I chassis, but it was a logical consequence. Fiberglass kit cars were not unknown and the Manx and Imp had shown that the Beetle was an ideal donor car. In time there were all sorts of companies offering swoopy gull winged bodies that you could, theoretically, mount on a VW chassis and end up with something special. Perhaps the best known were the Bradley GT and the similarly named Kelmark GT, along with Fiberfab (though they used British roadsters as donors for their early cars). For the most part those companies produced cars that were simultaneously shamefully derivative yet obviously homebuilt.

Kelmark Engineering was founded in 1969 in Okemos, outside of Lansing, Michigan. Like another Lansing automaker, Ransom Olds, Kelmark was eponymously named, in this case a portmanteau from founders Russ Keller and Randy Markham’s surnames. Their first products were V8 conversion kits for Corvairs and VW Beetles. They also offered a turnkey V8 powered Beetle called the Sleeper. The V8-Vair turned the stock Corvair transaxle around and stuck the engine where the back seat would be to achieve a midengine layout. The first Kelmark GT was based around this setup, with a V8 engine sitting in front of the rear wheels. Styling was prety much copied from Ferrari’s Dino 206/246.

Full gallery here.

Those kits were sold until 1974, when the VW based Kelmark II GT was introduced. The body was widened to fit a stock VW chassis and revised to include styling cues from one of the many midengine Corvette concepts. Kelmark would continue to offer a tube frame version called the Kelmark GT Liberator that could be fitted with a variety of VW, Porsche, V6 and V8 engines.

The ultimate Kelmark GT was the Kelmark Toronado GT that had a tube frame set up to take an Olds Toronado drivetrain with it’s 455 cubic inch engine, with the Olds’ FWD setup moved to the back of the car. The car used a chassis built by Bill Porterfield, who had worked as an engineer at Oldsmobile and had set up a shop in Lansing called Mid-Engineering that did conversions on a variety of cars. Later he’d return to GM, having a role in the development of the midengine Pontiac Fiero. Car & Driver tested the Kelmark Toronado GT at 202.7 mph, not bad for a kit car.

“Not bad for a kit car”. Let’s face it, kit cars don’t have a stellar reputation. That might be attributed in no small part to the Bradley GT, manufactured by Bradley Automotive in Minnesota starting in 1971. Eventually, though, quality issues led to financial issues which led to bankruptcy. From the beginning, Bradley’s founders, Gary Courneya and David Bradley Fuller, had humbler automotive ambitions than Russ and Randy over at Kelmark. No tube frames or midengine layouts for Gary and Dave. From the get go the Bradley bodies were meant to bolt to bone stock VW Beetle chassis.

Full gallery here.

As with Kelmark the Bradley was available in various stages of completion and they did have some success. Over 6,000 of the unusually styled Bradley GTs were sold by 1977, when the GT II was introduced. The GT II is less obviously a kit car, with some bespoke parts, unlike the original Bradley, which borrowed things like window glass from production cars. Bradley would also make a midengine kit called the Laser, which sorta almost looks like a Porsche 917.

While it’s easy to deride them as VW Bugs with plastic bodies, glorified dune buggies, the Kelmarks at least appear to have been well engineered. Both marques, though, have their enthusiasts. There are at least a couple of sites devoted to Bradleys, here, and here, and there’s a forum for Kelmark enthusiasts. From the image results of a Google search, I’m guessing that there may be more of each car, completed and driving, today than there were in the 1970s.

Full gallery here.

Not coincidentally, there was a Bradley and a Kelmark at the Vintage Volkswagen show this yar. Though the Bradley appears driveable and the Kelmark was on a trailer, neither was what I would describe as a completed project. The Kelmark is a 1974, and based on its location at the VW show my guess is that it isn’t a midengine V8 powered version. I you’ve had a hankering for something that looks like a Ferrari but sounds like a Karmann Ghia, it’s for sale.

* The first Meyers Manx was a fiberglass monocoque to which Beetle suspension and drivetrains were mounted. Meyers later switched to a body on frame design using the VeeDub platform.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

Ronnie Schreiber
Ronnie Schreiber

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, the original 3D car site.

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  • Varezhka The biggest underlying issue of Mitsubishi Motors was that for most of its history the commercial vehicles division was where all the profit was being made, subsidizing the passenger vehicle division losses. Just like Isuzu.And because it was a runt of a giant conglomerate who mainly operated B2G and B2B, it never got the attention it needed to really succeed. So when Daimler came in early 2000s and took away the money making Mitsubishi-Fuso commercial division, it was screwed.Right now it's living off of its legacy user base in SE Asia, while its new parent Nissan is sucking away at its remaining engineering expertise in EV and kei cars. I'd love to see the upcoming US market Delica, so crossing fingers they will last that long.
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