By on September 13, 2014

Untitled 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.

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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“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.

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.

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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.

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.

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* 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

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19 Comments on “Two Definitive Kit Cars: Bradley & Kelmark GTs...”


  • avatar
    jim brewer

    Hmmm….dune buggies. That’s blast from the past. It was quite a craze in the mid sixties. Then just as quickly, they were gone. May I suggest it as its own topic?

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Bradly’s sucked ~ they were not only FUGLY , they neglected to allow much air to reach the engine so the lightly stressed air cooled VW engines dropped like flies back in the day .

    They also had almost zero fresh air into the passenger cabin so no one enjoyed driving them once built .

    I see one or two in the So. Cal. Self Service Junkyards every year , always complete , no one wants any parts off them , too bad .

    My Son has an original Myers Dune Buggy , the dual port 1600 engine is turbo charged and it’s much fun if totally unsafe to drive .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    Landcrusher

    They mention some tube frame cars. What are the main drawbacks to tube frame cars? Surely it has to beat unibody for strength.

  • avatar
    skor

    I always wondered what percentage of kit-cars were ever actually completed?

    BTW, the only kit-car I ever wanted was the McBurnie Coachcraft Ferrari Daytona Spyder replica built on a C3 Vette donor chassis. That black ‘Ferrari’ driven by Don Johnson in Miami Vice was actually a McBurnie replica. Unfortunately Ferrari ‘cease and desisted’ McBurnie out of biz soon after Miami Vice hit the airwaves.

  • avatar
    CJinSD

    Did EMPI really have a fiberglass dune buggy before Meyers? The EMPI Imp was one of the early Manx clones.

    • 0 avatar

      That’s what this source said, that EMPI started making dune buggies in 1960 and that Meyers, who had experience with fiberglass from building boats followed. It seems reliable:

      http://www.dunebuggyarchives.com/DuneBuggyHistory

      • 0 avatar
        CJinSD

        EMPI built this Sportster before the Manx came out: http://beachwheels.blogspot.com/2011/01/very-early-sixties-1961-empi-sportster.html

        As you can see, it didn’t have a fiberglass body or styling similar to the Manx’. The 1968 EMPI Imp was EMPI’s first fiberglass dune buggy, and it was inspired by the 1964 Meyers Manx. So while EMPI may have had the first dune buggy, they didn’t have the first fiberglass dune buggy.

  • avatar
    petezeiss

    Always so difficult to match text with photos in Ronnie’s articles but I’m guessing the grey gullwing thing is a Kelmark. I’m digging those hardware store door hinges. Très kewl.

    • 0 avatar
      CJinSD

      That’s a Bradley GT2. The Kelmark is the one that looks like a Dino 246GT mixed with a Porsche 904.

    • 0 avatar

      Sorry about that. I generally try to integrate the photos with the text but in my rush I got them out of sequence. The red car is the Kelmark, the matte grey car with the gull wing doors is the Bradley.

      • 0 avatar
        RobertRyan

        Now the current Kit cars tend to be built by the manufacturer rather than the buyer, at least here in Australia. Lamborghini, Ford GT, Cobra,and Lotus 7 like replicas popular as well as original creations VW powered was never a big thing here

        • 0 avatar
          Landcrusher

          Most states won’t allow that in the US. One Cobra company here did a builder assist program, claimed it proved how easy and complete their kits were, and then canceled the program. Sketchy.

          In the kit plane world it’s pretty sketchy to buy an unproven kit. Builder assist is a pretty big reassurance because you have their employees at arms reach. I am really surprised that builder assistance programs haven’t taken off in the kit car world. Sales of kit planes with assistance programs are proven to be multiplied greatly.

  • avatar
    cargogh

    It seemed like there used to be a small b/w ad for three of these in magazines in the 70s or 80s. I think it was for the Bradley GT, possibly a Scarab, and an Aztec 7. The Aztec 7 was the one I wanted to build as a teenager. It was beautiful. Just googled it. Not so much now. Looks like an electric Vector knockoff. Times have changed. Don’t remember ever seeing any of these up close.

  • avatar

    Correction: The last sentence in the opening paragraph should read:

    “On-road enthusiasts were paying attention too, which is how we got kit cars.”

  • avatar
    wstarvingteacher

    I remember a mid engine (sbc) oval window that I saw at the drag strip in the mid to late sixties. Always wondered how the vw trannie took the power of that V8. Probably went the route described in the story with a flipped pg from a corvair. Engine compartment was covered with plywood with suitcase parts glued to it. Looked like someone on a trip till he dropped the hammer.

    This (kit cars) is a subject that always fascinated me till the focus moved from the type 1 vw.

  • avatar
    April

    Don’t forget the countless fiberglass Baja kits sold by J.C. Whitney in the mid to late 1970’s.

    There was at least one Baja Bug in every High School parking lot during that time period.

  • avatar
    pacificpom2

    Aussie Purvis Eureka based on the British Nova

    • 0 avatar
      RobertRyan

      Purvis, Kit company was purchased by a woman in her mid 60’s, who wanted to build kit cars. no did not last long as potential buyers did not like the put put sound from the VW engine. It was a true kit car one of many in the early 70-80’s here
      http://worldcarslist.com/images/purvis/purvis-eureka/purvis-eureka-05.jpg

  • avatar
    MK

    Didn’t like the “put put” sound?
    Just tell people it’s an air cooled Porsche engine and charge a premium.
    Problem solved plus profit.


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