Eric Irwin and his Lancer(s) – One of the First Production Fiberglass Sports Cars

Eric Irwin in his 1951 Lancer - From the 1951 Petersen Motorama

Hi Gang…

You’ll see in books and you’ll read on our website, time and time again….something like this:

“The first 4 fiberglass production cars were introduced to the American public during the Petersen Motorama at the Pan Pacific Auditorium in November, 1951.  These cars were Bill Tritt’s Glasspar G2, Eric Irwin’s Lancer, and Jack Wills and Ralph Robert’s Skorpion and their prototype – the Wasp.”

We know what a Glasspar G2 is.  We know what a Skorpion and its nearly identical twin/prototype  is – the “Wasp”.  But what is the Lancer?  Who’s seen a Lancer.  Did they make more than one Lancer?  Am I the only one who asks these questions about fiberglass cars from the 50s?  (probably).

By 1952, Eric was Selling Books on How to Build a Plastic/Fiberglass Car - via Motor Trend

Ok…as with most historical questions around these cars, the answer is “yes”, “no”, and “maybe”.  Eric completed his first car and it appeared at the November, 1951 Motorama.  This car is the one most often shown in magazines.  In fact, as reported in an article by Joseph Wherry in the November 1952 issue of Modern Man, Eric Irwin’s car was up and running in May of 1951 – one month before Bill Tritt got the Brooks Boxer finished and running.  So gang….the “Lancer” is one special car when it comes to the history of 1950s fiberglass sports cars.  As soon as we can determine when the “Wasp” was up and running, we should be able to identify which of the “firsts” was the “first” (as a historical footnote).

Irwin's "Lancer" Shown in Stylized Blue Color - In Front of the "Chuck Tatum Special" (But Chuck Tells Me "Not For Long...")

So the first design by Eric Irwin (Rick and I call this a Series 1 Lancer) was completed and running in 1951, and according to Bill Tritt, Irwin never made another copy of this car.  Bill and I spent time during a series of interviews in 2006 and 2007 outlining the history of his company and the memory of his friends from that era. 

And….it turned out that Bill Tritt and Eric Irwin were good friends – they both had a workshop on Industrial Blvd in Costa Mesa, California (Irwin’s was more of a trailer that he lived in than a workshop), and both were into boats.  Irwin got the fiberglass car bug after seeing Tritt working on what was to become the Brooks Boxer – the first Glasspar G2 sports car.  Irwin beat him to the finish line with a month to spare in 1951 with his sports car – the “Lancer”.

One car…… one Motorama……., one man………….. Eric Irwin

And that’s what Bill Tritt and I thought was the end of the story.  Not quite so….

Through additional research, we started finding bits and pieces of information.  A brochure here, an ad there, several articles sprinkled from 1952 culminating in an article showing actor Nick Adams and girlfriend Natalie Wood on the cover of the June 1957 issue of “Rod Builder & Customizer” working on Nick’s (Series III) Lancer (they did not identify the car in the story but it’s a Series III Lancer, all right!).

Late in 1952, Irwin Showing Jim Potter New Design for Lancer

When I started showing the research to Tritt, he was as surprised as I was.  He had no idea that even one more car was made – let alone at least 4 different cars, and we can account for at least 3-4 Series 2 Lancers being completed as well.

First Ad Showing Series 2 Lancer - March 1953 Motor Trend

So..there now appear to be at least 4 different models of Lancers (Series 1, 2, 3, and 4) – and probably more.  So how many Lancer models were there?  And where did they all go?  By December 1952, Motor Trend reported that Irwin was working on a new design and in fact it was advertised and debuted in 1953.  It’s the Series 2 Lancer.

But Eric wasn’t taking it easy after November 1951.  By the Summer / Fall of 1952, he was already producing a booklet on how to build a fiberglass car – one of the first such companies/people to do so.  The only picture in the book is on the cover of the booklet, but remember….this was 1952.  You couldn’t just go to Kinkos and have some copies made.  Taking the effort to create, sell, market, and distribute a book on your own was a pretty big step not just now – but back in 1952 – even more so.  Rick and I have found at least 2 different versions of this book as well.  So Eric’s company was in business from late 1951 thru at least 1956 – and perhaps beyond.

Series 3 Irwin Lancer Shown on Front of "Lancer Brochure"

The ads continued with Irwin, and in 1953 he published another in the July issue of Auto Sportsman (a 4 issue magazine by Petersen Publishing).  And later yet he did a poster showing different ways you could build a Lancer – all showing a Series 2 Lancer – the most popular model he advertised – being built.  The poster is approximately 2 feet by 3 feet.  Very impressive again.  And his brochures that we have collected so far show dates on the envelopes into late 1955 and early 1956. 

And…when you add the fact that Eric Irwin’s Series 2 Lancer was used in the movie “Johnny Dark”..you have one cool car!  You can see the car in several movie shots and one of the movie posters too.  This car seems more famous than is remembered….not sure why it was so easily forgotten.

So who has seen a Lancer? 

Eric Irwin Driving his Series 2 "Lancer" in Movie Johnny Dark

Enter our friend of fiberglass – Tony Miller.   Tony has continued to take time and explain to me how things were built and styled back in the day.  He attended several of the 1950’s Petersen Motoramas personally and the collection of Motorama Programs shared on this website – are a result of his goodwill in making these available to our group.  Thanks again for this Tony 🙂

About 2 years ago, Tony sent a picture to me from one of his friends – Jim Kiple.  It turned out to be a picture taken candidly of the Series 1 Lancer.  How neat!  Here’s the e-mail from Jim concerning his memories of taking that picture:

Jim Kiple - Friend Of Tony Miller - Snapped This Picture of the First Lancer Around 1952

Tony,

Not that I wouldn’t enjoy a toast, but I really don’t know anything about the car, other than it looked neat. The picture was taken in the early 50’s at the Palm Springs SCCA road races that I went to with my dad.

The only thing that I remember about the car was what I thought was the sound of a V-8 making it go. It sounded like a flathead Ford to me. You know that sound has never been duplicated. Maybe the car was built on an old Ford chassis? Who knows. I never talked to the owner, just drooled over the car for a while and took the picture.

Wish I could be of more help.     Jim Kiple (2008)

(Note: according to Popular Science, March 1952, the engine was actually a modified Studebaker Champion 120 HP engine which could top of 100 mph!) 

Picture from Brochure Showing (L to R) Lancer Series 1, 3, and 2

So where are all the Lancers?  Certainly this was a car made in numbers more than “1”.  Heck… Eric Irwin made at least 4 different models from what Rick and I can tell, and the brochure actually talks about another model as well – so there could be more.

Well… one was found a few years ago in a South Carolina junkyard.  Pictures of it are shared below, and recently this car has been thankfully saved.  It’s a Series 2 Lancer, and looks to be in the kind of shape you would expect – after sitting in a junkyard for 20-30 years. 

Another Lancer surfaced and is in the hands of a collector and it’s a Series 4 Lancer – an undocumented car – with a different front and back end.  So we are starting to find these cars, but in quantities much smaller than the 63 Glasspar G2’s Rodney Packwood and I have found, or the 20+ Skorpions that Steve Cowdin and I have found.  Two Lancers down – how many to go?

Eric Irwin's Lancer - We Call This a Series 4 Lancer

So…calling all researchers…calling all vintage fiberglass guys….be on the lookout for the cool old Lancer sports car.  More must be around, and closer to home than you might think.

And in the same vein, what happened to Eric Irwin?  We recently came across a family friend of his who provided additional pictures that will be in our forthcoming “Forgotten Fiberglass” book, but  it turned out that Eric was a friend of her parents – not herself.  So we don’t have the detail and stories on Eric Irwin that we would like.  If any of you knew him or what happened to him – please contact us.  All types of historians are encouraged to do so.

Go get ’em gang, and let’s ring in the memory of Eric Irwin and what he accomplished so many years ago.  It’s time we bring his cars, posters, brochures, and memories back into the forefront of what we enjoy – vintage fiberglass American sports cars.

There Could Be A Lancer Hiding Under a Nearby Tree....

Glass on gang…

Geoff

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