In the early 1950s with the US market starting to boom with the economy improving after the Second World War, many companies wanted to get a car to market as more people were looking to buy something for work or play. In addition, new materials were now being used – the war had provided an influx of new technologies and equipment that were now being tested for the automotive market. One such material was fibreglass, a strong yet lightweight fibre that could be moulded into shapes that steel or aluminium couldn’t – certainly not without a lot of hand metal working.
Triplex Industries in Chicago started out making white goods such as washing machines and when the business was sold to an engineer with military experience, Frank Hinger, he took the company in a different direction: equipment to handle explosives – he had a contract with the Government as the Korean War was at its height.
When that war ended, so did the contract – another change of business was made, this time as an automotive parts company that saw a need for a new sports car. Hinger had seen fibreglass cars being made in California and so in late 1952 he started out by creating the Triplex Safety Frame, a ladder style chassis that they called the “K Frame” and welded from box steel. Hinger had a cunning idea: make the frame a standard size so that it could be modified to take other people’s bodywork! It was sold exclusively through Ketcham’s Automotive Corp, also in Chicago.
The next step was to create a sports body out of fibreglass and Hinger had the shell designed by Robert Owens as a kit car or as a complete car for sale. It apparently took 56 days for the design to be created and the first car to be completed! There is conjecture about the running gear – a report suggested that the first cars were built to use a Willys six cylinder engine and running gear, however media reports at the time show a rolling chassis with Oldsmobile running gear fitted!
The team at Triplex used the loft template tooling method (known as “lofting”) to create the overall shape of the mould with wooden templates. This method was originally used in boat building and then during the 1940s was used extensively in the aero industry to get new aircraft to the war fronts. With the wooden templates fixed together and cloth stretched between them, the actual mould was made using Hydrocal Plaster by injecting it between – and over – the templates. This was done in two stages and once hardened it was then smoothed off by hand before being sealed and then polished to provide the smoothness of the body to be moulded. This was a much faster process than using clay or wooden bucks.
The body was a one-piece three seater with minimal work to complete the assembly. It allowed the buyer to fit their own switchgear, seats etc and Triplex claimed that if a buyer wanted to build it from the kit, it would take two or three weeks with help from a skilled mechanic.
The first completed car, called the Chicagoan, was formally launched at the Chicago Auto Show in 1954 – the title picture is from that event. Interestingly, that auto show was full of concept cars such as the Plymouth Belmont and one of the Dodge Firearrow cars, both of which I have seen at the Blackhawk Auto Museum in North California.
Then the car had a marketing make-over and was renamed the Triplex Lightning and although it was made by Triplex, it was still sold exclusively through Ketcham’s. They modified the chassis to take a Ford V8 and running gear from a 1942-48 donor car. The only modifications required were adjustments to the steering rod and prop shaft depending on the vehicle used. Triplex (or Ketcham’s) designed adapters to allow other American V8s and gearboxes to be fitted. An odd feature was the split windscreen – as the seating was three abreast, the screen was split 34/66 with the driver getting the smaller section – the original version of the car had a normal 50/50 split.
The car was apparently a winner at the auto show with a lot of interest, however, it is unknown how much of that interest actually converted into sales although reports suggest that only 15 completed cars were made and no one really knows how many others were sold as kits for the owner to assemble. The car was discontinued after about a year of production and in 1956 Hinger sold Triplex, moving on to other business ventures. It would be fair to assume that not many kits were completed if 15 fully built cars were made and I would think that none survive today!