1. Business

'Forgotten Fiberglass' cars from decades ago get makeover in Tampa Bay


One of the partners holds a doctorate in industrial organizational psychology, the other's doctorate is in economics. But through their company called Forgotten Fiberglass, they love nothing better than to hunt down ignored relics of the post-war American sports car scene and restore them to their original glory.

Once completed, the cars built from fiberglass by World War II and Korean War veterans can command several hundred thousand dollars, as evidenced by a 1955 Kurtis 500 Swallow Coupe sold in May by Sotheby's RM Auctions for $220,000.

Call it serendipity or vision, but Geoff Hacker of Tampa and his business partner and pal, Rick D'Louhy of Daytona Beach, have set up shop in the Tampa Bay area to refurbish and sell rare American classics that most people have never heard of such as the Kellison, the Victress (which set a speed record in 1953 of 203 mph) and the UFO-inspired Tiburon Shark — Hacker's first car at age 17.

Hacker, 53, and the 66-year-old D'Louhy have been friends for about 35 years, united by their love of those hand-built cars they have been zealously collecting, restoring and selling.

Hacker estimates 1,000 of these unique cars, either as bodies or with engines and chassis, were built during America's golden age of Forgotten Fiberglass that lasted from 1951 to 1957. He and D'Louhy own about 80 of them, most stored on a rural, 3-acre plot in Zephyr­hills fondly called the Fiberglass Farm. They expect to eventually restore each car they own, both for historic significance and growing marketplace value.

"These wonderful cars were built in garages by normal, talented guys," Hacker said. "Why should we care about these cars? Because they're emblematic of American ingenuity, our can-do spirit. They are stories of remarkable people and a reminder of who we are, what we can achieve."

Those blue-collar veterans returned to a culture embroiled in a design revolution that reflected the giddy supremacy of America in the Atomic Age. Known as "Mid-Century Modern," it was recently popularized by the period TV drama Mad Men. This home-furnishing and lifestyle movement employed new synthetics such as plastics and fiberglass to enliven the homes of forward-thinking suburbanites and urban hipsters with sensuous organic shapes and brilliant colors that heralded the social upheaval of the 1960s.

Detroit answered with streamlining fins, a gluttony of chrome and high-horsepower V8s. American drivers populated the expanding interstate highway network with steel behemoths that transformed everyday transportation into jet-age indulgences.

Fiberglass was introduced to the transportation industry during World War II. The cloth of woven, hair-thin glass fibers overlaid with liquid resin hardening agents saw limited use in military aircraft and boats. By the time American GIs returned home, fiberglass had become more generally available.

Jet fighters capable of 650 mph and powerful bombers packing 8,500 horsepower introduced many of these young GIs to the explosive potential of massive horsepower. Some even wanted to capture that sensation in their personal automotive vision.

Before fiberglass, building a car body at home required a full machine shop packed with medieval-looking monstrosities that tortured metal into shape at the hands of skilled practitioners.

Now with fiberglass, the backyard car designer needed only basic home-improvement tools. Plaster was overlaid on a wood mockup or modeling clay was used to achieve the desired shape. Then, fiberglass was applied onto that mold like icing on a cake. Fiberglass could easily accommodate any contour — enabling amateur designers to create some beautiful automotive shapes.

The greatest reward was seeing a creation showcased on the covers of Car Craft, Hot Rod and other magazines from that era.

Those articles were read by the baby boomers as kids, who are now rekindling their nostalgia through Forgotten Fiberglass.

"The boomers who are retired with disposable incomes are definitely driving the market for our cars," D'Louhy explained. "They're also encouraging younger people to appreciate the cars, as well."

Hacker and D'Louhy preach that Forgotten Fiberglass is the next consignment of small-volume classics affordable to collectors.

Locally, Vintage Motors of Sarasota serves as their showroom. Their big break came in 2007, with an invitation to Florida's Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance, where multimillion-dollar vintage cars compete for best-of-show honors. Held at the Ritz-Carlton, influencers and investors dictate the flow of collector money. Since then, Hacker and D'Louhy have appeared there five times. They have twice attended the invitation-only Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance on the eponymous golf course, considered as the world's most prestigious Concours d'Elegance.

These exclusive venues host extremely rare and shamelessly expensive cars that are judged by the uppermost echelon of connoisseurs on originality and authenticity. Some entries require patient years of restorative craftsmanship and millions of dollars in parts and labor to vie for the coveted 100-point perfect score. Got a screw head pointing in the wrong direction? Too bad, because that will cost a fraction of a point.

Recently, Hacker was furiously preparing a one-of-a-kind Leo Lyons Mercury Custom in a Weeki Wachee upholstery shop for shipment to the 2015 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance in Carmel, Calif. Hacker and company were restoring the rusting hulk he had found on eBay for less than $10,000. Bottom line: The car is now worth about $150,000.

Hacker and D'Louhy freely admit their endeavor is not yet a moneymaker. But they've become celebrities by appearing on TV, rubbing shoulders with millionaire prospects and appearing in respected car magazines, both print and digital. Through their efforts, they've carved a niche in a car segment that they believe is poised for a deluge of big money.

Irwin Greenstein is a freelance writer based in Spring Hill.