WOODILL WILDFIRE 1952 - 1956







The early 1950's saw the young B.R. (Robert) "Woody" Woodill become one of the most successful Dodge dealers in the nation. Following in his father's footsteps, Woody was able, in fact, to make his business so successful that he was allowed to add the Willys line, an almost unheard of move in the '50's. One thing that Woody had always wanted to drive as his own personal mode of transportation was a sports car. The sleek lines of the new Jaguar X K 120 had caught his fancy. He expressed his wishes to his mechanics at the dealership. The unanimous retort from those mechanics was to think again, as they felt the Jag to be a rather unreliable car and definitely hard to get parts for. "Woody, she will be in the shop more than you'll be driving her," was the advice his chief mechanic gave him. "Too bad America hasn't made a real sports car yet. It would be so much easier to maintain." That evening Woody was relaying his problem to his over the fence neighbor Howard Miller. Howard was very talented at making almost anything. "Why not build your own sports car using all American running gear?" Howard suggested. It hit him like a flash. The Willys had been proven to be a real little power plant by Brooks Stevens in his Excalibur J earlier that same year. Woody, of course, had access to those motors through his own dealership. He had also heard of a young boat builder by the name of Bill Tritt who had just begun marketing a Vibrin fiberglass sports car body which you could affix to your own running gear. Unfortunately the affixing was a little above the layman's capabilities. What Woody wanted was a sports car that used all Willys' components. He solved this problem with the guidance of Howard Miller by having Shorty Post, a noted hot rod builder of the day, fabricate a sturdy frame that would accept all Willys Jeepster suspension components and adapt itself to the Glasspar body. Two of the Glasspar bodies were ordered with specific modifications to set them apart from the conventional Tritt model. First, the rear fenders were squared off with extensions to allow them to accept the Willys Areo taillights. Second, a fake scoop was affixed in front of the hood to balance off the tail lights. Finally, two beautiful humps were added to the dash area which gave the car the M.G., Allard look. These tiny changes gave an already beautiful design a sporty elegance unsurpassed for its time. The hand laid body was of the highest quality, far surpassing the Kaiser Darrins and Chevrolet Corvettes which were to come later. Darrins and Vettes were pressed similar to the way steel is formed. Too much of the resin was squeezed out which led to premature cracking and warping.

Once the bodies were delivered, Howard Miller assembled the components and made the final adjustments. The little Willys engine was set far enough back in the car to give them an almost perfect 50/50 weight ratio. Cornering was superb and the car with a hot cam, three carbs and headers has supposedly obtained speeds in excess of 120 MPH!

Why did Woody build two? Well, being an entrepreneur, he deduced that he could sell the second and greatly defray his costs. The trouble was that Willys got wind of the project, came out and had a look, liked what he saw, and got Woody to fly his little sports car to Toledo where it was shown to all the dealers. They flipped over it! Willys would be one of the first companies to have a sports car, and Woody was going to build it.

Woody decided before he went any further to make some modifications in the original design. Both he and Howard were aware that the cockpit was too small for anyone of stature and needed to be lengthened. They also wanted door panels and a trunk like other cars. Finally the Glasspar grill was too identifiable and needed to be changed. Woody designed an oval grill opening that would accept the single horizontal Willys Areo grill bar. A continental kit was also affixed to the rear, using the filler pipe for the mount. A knock off wheel cover was placed on the spare, using the knock off itself for the gas cap! Several other modifications were done to make the car a lot more practical, although a little of the original clean styling was lost. It is estimated that Woody made 6 of these Post frame, F-head engine cars before he got the news that Willys had been taken over by Kaiser Frazer. He returned to Toledo but was unable to convince the new executives to set aside the Darrin for his car.

Woody was anything but a quitter, however. He proceeded to modify his car to take all late Ford running gear. Ford was not interested. He tried one with all Buick running gear and finally one with all Cadillac parts. Response from Detroit was the same. He and Howard finally hit on making a kit that could be quickly adapted to a 39 Ford frame and running gear. In fact, it was dubbed the 14 hour sports car, which Woody proved by assembling one, in time, live on the television program, "You asked for it". Mr. Woodill had a knack for showmanship, and was able to get his car featured in no less that four movies, the most notable being "Johnny Dark", with Tony Curtis and Piper Laurie. Although the acting would kill you, the Wildfire performed flawlessly, and was in more scenes than the Stars! Woody managed to keep the Wildfire alive until 1956 in this country. After that time, he went to other countries where he almost made it big in Australia. The little car he built was definitely a notable piece of American automotive history. The fact that two guys in a small building in Downey were able to manufacture such a well built car without formal engineering training says a lot for them. Woody passed on in 1991 before he restored a second series body he had acquired. He used to stop by my house once a year or so during the 80's for breakfast, to chat and to visit the car. His dream was to have future generations know about the love of his life. Have no fear, Woody, the Wildfire will live on!

FREDERICK J. ROTH
Copyright June 2003

This is a picture taken during the shooting of the movie Johnny Dark (1953) starring Tony Curtis. The car star was a type two factory Willys powered Woodill (shown here) named the Idaho Special. The shoot that was supposed to be Canada was done in downtown Big Bear, CA.


This is a fully restored second series 1953 Wildfire
owned by Wayne Wenger of Gilroy, CA
It's powered by a Ford 60.


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