The connotations attached to “kit car” are not always the most flattering; attempts to reach the planes occupied by the likes of Ferrari and Lamborghini on a budget typically end in massive panel gaps and endless rattles. That is, if they even make it to the road at all. The catalogue ads’ allure of high performance and exotic aesthetics led to many purchases, but the reality of more or less building a car on one’s own led to many a garage filled with immobile fiberglass. From the tragic attempts at Countach to the tidiest Shelby Cobras, you can hate them, love them, or love to hate them, but it’s unfair to think of kit cars as a homogenous group.
For instance, there was Kellison. Beginning operations all the way back in the 1950s, Jim Kellison’s vision for a substantially sleek sports car body became reality, many times over. I say that because of all the offerings over the years from all over the globe, few companies have matched the output and gumption of Jim Kellison. As a former Air Force pilot, he was clearly no stranger to going ridiculously fast, and more importantly, was aware of the engineering work involved in accomplishing it.
The various “J-cars” (Kellison’s model nomenclature was “J”-based, with models like the J-4, J-6, and so on), were all variants of the original ultra-low-slung initial design, but the clearly visible bloodline running between the bodies and the years did not mean they were all used for the same purpose. Kellison cars could be seen in road races, hill climbs, and, given the vast majority of the cars underpinned with American running gear and big V8s: drag racing.
Jim Kellison bounced the company around quite a bit back in the 1960s and 1970s, and the bodies and chassis were consequently sold under various names, with a bevy of small changes to accompany each restructuring, rebranding, revival, what have you. Outside of his J-cars, Kellison would also go on to offer various kits for everything from GT40 replicas to dune buggies. After he walked away from the J-cars in 1970, he opened a bookstore of all things. A marked change from designing sports and racing bodies, which was itself a departure from flying combat helicopters.
This is the story of one of the first and most significant cars to come from one the company though; Marc Coschieri’s Kellison J4-R is one of the earliest, and one of the best examples of the breed. This car, the 12th prototype, was designed over 60 years ago, in 1956 (and it can likely be said to have its genesis even decades earlier, when Jim first began mocking up and designing his cars on paper). Avant garde then, and still uniquely handsome today—its form is akin to that of Bill Thomas’ Cheetah (which would come years after the J4-R in fact), albeit stretched and squashed; the cars shoulders are higher than its drivers! Born in America, this unique product of entrepreneurship and is now enjoying life in Nice, France.
Being a prototype, this J4-R’s beautiful body covers a specially-made box tube frame engineered by Chuck Manning, rather than the Corvette underpinnings that would become commonplace in these cars later on. Special supports were built into the chassis to aid rigidity at speed, and all the back in the 1950s this car was surpassing 200MPH. How? The fact that the car was shipped to Bonneville with a big-block Chrysler V8 under the long and low hood should hint at how serious they were. With drivers like Bill Burke and Mel Chastain providing input and behind-the-wheel duties, the feat helped propel the Kellison name into the lexicon of serious cars. While not every J-car was as successful, this J4-R is certainly a stand out, an example of the company’s best, one of the few left in this condition to carry the legacy of a short-lived but impactful small-team exercise in engineering and design.
Following the high-speed runs on the salt flats, the car pictured here was promptly purchased by a friend of Jim Kellison in 1958, and it was then that this J4-R prototype was converted into a sports car that could be registered on the road. Though now suited for civilian streets, there would be no lack of on-track action in its life to come. Roving around the west coast’s racing circuits, the Kellison was a familiar sight at the region’s popular tracks like Laguna Seca, Riverside, and Willow Springs.
The owner even entered it into drag races before he passed away in 1962. In four years of ownership, he provided the car with a varied and fulfilling life already, but there was still so much ahead. After his passing, this owner’s son became the caretaker up until his passing in the 1990s. Marc would eventually purchase this J4-R from a broker about a decade ago, and has been adding to its history ever since. The car came to him in good condition, especially for a fiberglass kit prototype, with minimal cracking and stress on the body, and one of the last good 327 hi-spec Chevy small blocks, still stamped with “1962.”
The interior was similarly well-preserved, though the original wheels had been swapped at one point for some steel shoes from a C1 ‘Vette. Remedying this, Marc had a new set of aluminum wheels made to spec in Germany, as the originals were long-lost. He also chose to spray the car in the stunning shade of silver that it would have worn originally. What began as a well-preserved piece of American entrepreneurship has only further embodied its history thanks to Marc’s penchant for bringing it back to its original look. If the photos weren’t evidence enough, he keeps it well-exercised too.
Few cars from this era, out of America or otherwise, were this striking in shape. Remember, this was in the 1950s, when so many cars from the country were overly-bloated and weighed down by expansive dimensions and a liberal use of chrome. The Kellison J4-R is then both an antithesis to the typical kit car and a reminder of a single person’s ability to create.