1955 Building a Car from Scratch

In 1941 Kirke Leonard was growing up on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.  He was starting his first year in high school.  A few months later in December, with the attack on Pearl Harbor, World War II started.  His father, Parker Leonard, an accomplished pilot and designer/builder of gliders, moved the family to California and offered his expertise to North American Aircraft to assist in the war effort. 

While he was recognized as a talented aeronautical engineer, his expertise was in design and construction using wood and cloth, not the stuff of fighter aircraft such as aluminum and metal.  So back to Cape Cod the family went.  While there, Parker met with a person that informed him that the Navy was looking for someone who could design and manufacture training gliders for them and Parker was their man.  He moved the family to Connecticut, where the manufacture of the gliders was performed.  His son Kirke, was used to working around the Leonard foundry and machine shop back on the Cape as well as participating in his father’s aeronautical creations.

After completing high school Kirke went to Worchester Polytechnical Institute and graduated in 1951 with a baccalaureate science degree in mechanical engineering.  His best friend in college had gotten a 1951 MG-TD and Kirke enjoyed the sports car that was key to bringing road racing to America.  Within a week after graduation Kirke headed for California where he saw as the center of hot rodding, aircraft design, and racing.

He owned several cars including his own MG-TC and got a taste of road racing.  Several cars later he decided to try his hand at building his own sports car.  He liked the body style of the Jaguar C-type and built a clay model of a similar body for his own car.

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He found a Jaguar Mark VII parts car and used the engine and transmission from it.

He also got to know a couple of guys who had come to California from England who had experience in fabricating bodies from aluminum and who had brought a metal forming tool known as an English Wheel with them.

Kirke built the wooden body bucks that they would use as guides for shaping the aluminum sheets into body panels.  Kirke learned how to use a body hammer and dolly to finish the job.

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He built the frame himself starting with the main tubes that were six inches in diameter.  He had not been able to find such tubing in the thickness he wanted so he had them made from flat stock that was curled into a tube that he seam welded using oxy-acetylene gas welding.

The rear axle was from a Studebaker and he calculated what he needed for coil springs and had them made to his specifications.  He also designed his own trailing arm suspension for the front and rear.  

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The front axle was built by Frank Curtis to use Ford king pins and spindles that would allow for Jaguar wheels using knock-off hubs.

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Buick drum brakes were used front and rear as they were the most durable available at the time.  Disc brakes were not found on cars sold in America for several years.

Knowing that cooling was a critical element he used a large Ford radiator rather than the smaller Jaguar one.

With the frame and drivetrain completed the body was fitted.

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Kirke cut out the head light nacelles and equipped the car with all the required bit such as horn, tail lights, etc. 

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Kirke registered it as a Jaguar Mark VII sedan, to which it bore no resemblance, but it kept the DMV happy.

He drove it for a few years putting on perhaps 300 miles before he decided to start another project.  So he posted an advertisement in the LA Times and sold the car.  Who knows where it is today.

Kirke went on to work in the aerospace industry contributing to the Apollo project as well as constructing his brother-in-law’s prize winning human powered aircraft – the Gossamer Albatross.

Now in his nineties, Kirke still like to design aircraft and enjoy the California life.

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1 Response to 1955 Building a Car from Scratch

  1. Noel says:

    Cool. I’m a little surprised you haven’t tracked it down! (HaHa… Just kidding!)

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