Back in the late 40’s and early 50’s, an ambitious 34 year-old Kenneth McLoad embarked on a quest to produce a sleek, fiberglass-bodied sports car which he named the “Venus”. Ken was a brilliant and inventive engineer, having received simulatneous electrical and mechanical engineering degrees from the University of Arkansas (1938 ), and was granted many U.S. patents in the geophysical industry.
Fiberglass had become widely available by the early 50’s, so he decided to acquire a sportscar the hard way: design and build one himself. And just perhaps, Ken wanted to try his hand at automotive design. But before he could create a fiberglass car body, he had to build an exact full-scale version of the Venus in wood and fiberglass, and, it had to be designed to fit on a specific existing chassis. The idea of creating a glass body that would mount to a “doner” chassis was nothing particularly new in the early fifties, but it took an awful lot of very hard work. It’s one thing to sketch out a modern car design and quite another to actually build a full-scale version from scratch!
In theory, a person would remove the body from a used or wrecked vehicle (in this case, a 1949-1953 Ford), and replace it with a Venus body, still using the original chassis, engine, and running gear. Ken began design and pattern work in the late forties on the Venus in Dallas while employed by Mobil Oil. In 1950 or 1951, he was enticed to come to Houston to work as chief engineer at a geophysical cable manufacturing company known as Vector Cable. (He later became President and served in that position for 18 years before the company was purchased by Schlumberger.) One condition in this deal was that he be allowed to finish the work he had started on the Venus. The man that recruited Ken was named D.Y. Gorman, who agreed to set up and manage a small “side” company that would make and sell these car bodies. Eventually, the full-size wooden Venus was completed, and the company Ratio Manufacturing Co. was created as a business entity. (I’m really not quite sure that Ken initially had plans to actually manufacture and sell Venus bodies…he may simply wanted to make a sports car as a personal project.)
In the photos below, you can see this full-scale wooden version, commonly known as a “plug” or a “buck”. I am not quite sure when the B&W photos were taken; possibly for the Motor Trend article. I do know that the fellow in the middle, Mr. E.F. Rockett, was a pattern maker, and probably produced separate molds for the doors and the hood. In the color photos below, Ken is the one with glasses and the nerdy pocket protector (I’m sure a sliderule was nearby!). The guy on the left was a personal friend, Roger Greenwell. I don’t know who the gentleman is next to Ken (maybe Mr. Rockett?), but the young guy on the far right is DeWitt Gorman, son of D.Y. Gorman.
To quickly explain the process of making a fiberglass body, the “plug” or “buck” (which must be absolutely smooth) is sprayed with a release compound to prevent any fiberglass resin from sticking to it (which would be disastrous). Layers upon layers of fiberglass cloth is then laid onto the plug, smoothed out, and then saturated with polyester resin. I would imagine it took weeks to get all of the parts covered with a significant thickness of fiberglass cloth. In the last photo, the hardened fiberglass is lifted off the plug. This new “shell” is turned upside down, and becomes the mold from which numerous Venus bodies are made. (If you look very closely in the wheel well, you can see a Ford “shoebox” chassis). (Another explanation on fiberglass molding is found here).
Also note that the master buck (above) does not have a cut-out section for the hood. The hood and the doors were made separately, using their own molds. After a one-piece body was formed, the firewall had to be inserted along with other stiffening panels such as floorboard, fender wells, and firewall. You can see that the process was quite involved. Can you imagine working with itchy fiberglass and sticky resin in a non-air conditioned tin building in the middle of a Houston summer? Not me.
I’m sure there were several trials and errors, but eventually, a correct Venus body was made (which I’ll call the “prototype”), mounted it to a ’49 Ford chassis, installed some Stewart Warner gages, Dodge headlights, and got it in running condition. Somebody must have called the folks at Motor Trend Magazine as they came out for photographs and for the feature story, appearing in the May 1954 issue. The cover photo was in color, and a model was hired to sit in the car. The photographs that appeared in Motor Trend were taken out at the “new” Hobby airport.
With exception to the cover photo, all other publicity photographs were B&W, shown below. The MT article had a greenish tint. I suspect that most of the photos were taken in color, however all that I have are B&W prints. Copies of this Motor Trend are widely available on that auction site. (click on photos for larger version to read)
According to the flyer (below), a Venus body could be purchased for $875 (plus shipping). You received the body, doors, gas filler lid, hood, grille, and interior. It did not come with instruments, bumpers, or lights. It is not known if the windshield was included, but I suspect it was since the windshield pillars were custom. To the best of my knowledge, no cars were ever sold complete w/chassis, but I expect they built a couple of complete cars just for promotional use. After all, the best advertisement was to see them on the road! (Remember, no Internet back then! How would you have marketed these car bodies?)
Below is the front and rear of the flyer they produced (click for larger, legible version):
Note some of the non-Ford parts used on the Venus (2nd page above), such as ’53 Buick headlamps; 52-400 Packard tail lights, and ’52 Ford bumpers. The Packard tail lights don’t exactly work very well for the shape they are mounted to. (I only know of two Venus bodies that had the Packard tail lights.) I prefer the look of the ’55-’56 Dodge tail lights myself. On the rear of the flyer, I find the paragraph about “complete and comprehensive instructions being included with the body” to be very interesting. I have yet to see a copy of this document, and I’m afraid none exist. (I sure could have used one in restoring my Venus…I have questions!). Among some of the very few documents and publicity photos that my Dad kept on hand are a couple of local newspaper advertisements, shown below. These ads speak for themselves, but note that their publish date preceeds the Motor Trend May issue by a couple of months, yet use the photos (presumably) taken for the MT issue. I sure wish I had some photos of that “first showing” on March 20th.
So let’s say that at this point in time, the Venus is “off and running” so to speak. The response to the Venus after the MT article was very positive, and the company received many letters of inquiries to purchase, and requests to become “authorized dealers”, some from as far away as Mexico and Cuba. (I must give credit and thanks to the Jack Kovar family for making many of these documents available to me for copying and scanning. More on Jack and Eddie Kovar later).
What Things Cost in 1954:
Gasoline: 29 cents/gal
Bread: 17 cents/loaf
Milk: 92 cents/gal
Postage Stamp: 3 cents
Stock Market: 404
Average Annual Salary: $4,700
Minimum Wage: 75 cents per hour
According to Ken McLoad (no longer with us), they only built (or sold?) about 10 of these bodies, maybe less. This was further confirmed by Mr. Dewitt Gorman, the young man in the photos above. But whether or not a majority of them ever made it onto a chassis and on the street is quite another thing. I have documented proof of only TWO bodies actually being shipped…one to Ohio and one to Massachusetts. Venus #1 is the one I’m restoring, otherwise called the “Massachusetts” Venus. (see Venus #1 History in menu bar). But before I get bogged down in speculation, let me say that I have no documentation of how many Venus bodies were made; how many may have been sold and shipped; no serial numbers were assigned to each body; nor how many early Venus cars were modified to later versions. Surely, some sort of record was kept, but it was not among any of the documents my Dad left behind nor any that Jack Kovar had in his possession. This is truly unfortunate, but not all that surprising I guess. The VIN number of the donor car became the VIN number for the Venus body…they were not given individual serial numbers.
So even with the publicity of being on the cover of a national car magazine such as Motor Trend, why did they only build/sell a handful of the bodies? For sure, the Venus was impractical to be used as a primary vehicle; there was no top and no side door windows. Clearly, this was a “fair weather” kind of sports car…but on the positive side, it didn’t cost an arm and a leg either. Perhaps it was because of the sheer amount of work one had to do in removing the Ford body (from a donor car) in order to mount the Venus body….something that required a good deal of automotive know-how, tools, enthusiasm, and persistence. (Yes, one or two Venus bodies did receive a folding top, but they were custom made here in Houston at Ray Jone’s Upholstery shop. As far as I know, the folding top was not offered as an accessory).
The car was clearly attractive for its day. If you look at the styles of cars in the early 50’s you’ll see that although attractive, changes were slight between model years and tended to look the same between automobile manufacturers. Below is a photo of a typical 1954 Ford Victoria and the Venus.
Some people may look upon the Venus as a “failure” based solely on the number of units made and/or sold. But was it actually a failure? No, I think not. Although it’s design doesn’t really mesh with “todays” standards of a sleek classic car (i.e. Corvette and the Thunderbird), try to imagine yourself in the early fifties where most cars looked like your Dad’s old Ford or Chevy. Hardly hot rod material back then. And yes, the design of the Venus isn’t for everybody these days, but back then, the space-age look was starting to have an affect on many Detroit cars. Cadillac, for example, would soon be designing cars with extraordinary tail fins. Below, a 1956 and 1957 Cadillac when we started seeing those crazy fins….three years after the introduction of the Venus. Also, it wasn’t until 1956 when Lincoln started producing the Mark 2 with the long “slab” body design, not all that unique when you consider the Venus. And when did humps start to appear behind the driver and rider’s head area? So if anything, the design of the Venus was somewhat ahead of it’s time. It is decidedly unique and American in design, where other fiberglass customs being made in the USA were derivatives of the Jaguar XK-120, such as the Victress and the G2. Rather than get into the history of the many fiberglass customs or the 50’s, you might want to take a look at the “Forgotten Fiberglass” website.
Below, note the tail lights of a 1954 Venus sporting a set of tail lights from a ’55 Dodge, and the cool tail fin treatment on a 1956 Dodge Custom Royal (click on photo for larger image). I have to assume the trim that connects the tail lights on the Venus is a custom-made piece.
Below, copies of the US Design Patent awarded to Mr. D.Y. Gorman and Kenneth McLoad.
Perhaps the Venus wasn’t a failure from a design standpoint, but rather, from a manufacturing business standpoint. After the Motor Trend article, there was a tremendous amount of interest from people who either wanted to buy a Venus body, or who wanted to become a dealer/distributor. Problem was, there was no one who was ready to take the “bull by the horns”, and there was no “real” manufacturing facility in place to even begin producing Venus bodies. The inquiries went unanswered as far as I know.
I speculate that Ken McLoad wasn’t very interested in getting into the car body business, and he soon realized that to do so was going to require quite a lot of seed money to invest in facilities, personnel, materials, and everything else that went along with producing fiberglass car bodies. It was going to be a full-time commitment. Ken was an engineer and an inventor, and had just been retained by Vector Cable as their chief engineer. He had no choice but to relinquish the mfg rights of the Venus to another group of entrepreneurs if he wasn’t interested. Ken also had a “parting of ways” so to speak with Mr. D.Y. Gorman, which ultimately led to the selling of the mfg. rights.
The Venus’ Final Chapter
In March of 1955, The Venus Corporation was formed, with Frank Schulgen as President, Eddie Kovar as Chairman, and H.D. Atherton as Sec/Treasurer. My father sold the mfg. rights to the newly formed “Venus Corporation” on June 13th, 1955 for one dollar. The Venus Corporation then attempted to get registered with SEC in order to sell stock; whether or not they ever did is another thing. I guess Ken was lucky that there was another group of guys who had an interest in “making a go at it”, otherwise the Venus was dead on the spot. But they too had inherited the same problem(s)….how to set up the manufacturing of Venus bodies in sufficient quantities in a timely manner, and, where to find investment capitol to pay for it all.
So, like any new venture, they started with publicity and placed an announcement in the newspaper, dated April 22, 1956 (see thumbnail below; click to expand).
I mean no disrespect, but quite frankly, a lot of what is stated (in above article) is exaggerated somewhat. The suggestion that “17 car bodies have been made and sold” is very doubtful. Plans for “1,000 bodies annually”…wishful thinking. Last but not least, he states that $65,000 (in 1956 dollars) “had been spent perfecting the body design”. I’d certainly like to know exactly WHAT changes were made that amounted to 65 grand!! The grille? The folding top? No, there really hadn’t been any major changes nor a whole bunch of new bodies made. This was just marketing hype, plain and simple. They even suggested the name of a wealthy steel company owner, Charles Markle Knipe as spearheading the Venus Corporation. (Those of you who grew up in Houston remember the cool neon sign on the Markle Steel building on the south side of downtown on I-45). I have tried to run down this lead, but haven’t been able to get any of the relatives to respond, so I really doubt his involvement with the Venus Corporation. Perhaps Charles Markle Knipe was the investor they needed, but for whatever reason, that deal fell through.
So with no investment capitol, the Venus Corporation had no choice but to call it quits. And that was that.
Eddie Kovar was also running Fiberglass Enterprises, Inc., as well as being named Chairman of Venus Corporation. Eddie had plenty of experience with fiberglass, having produced a number of fiberglass boats. Perhaps the Venus Corporation contracted Fiberglass Enterprises to produce Venus bodies? I don’t know. Below, a couple of photos of a Venus being driven in a parade in Galveston (note cars in background):
A noteworthy document is an annual report prepared by Eddie Kovar for Fiberglass Enterprises dated Sept. 17th 1957 stating that for all practical purposes, “the production of the Venus fiberglass sports car has been abandoned”.
Compare this with the optimism of the above newspaper article some 8 months earlier. I speculate that things began to unravel well before then. Eddie Kovar was in possession of the Venus molds and the original “buck” that Ken had made. (There is a document somewhere that states that 1 million in investment capitol was being sought….again, that probably fell through).
In January of 1962, Ed Kovar gave power of attorney to Mr. Paul Tyler to sell the Venus mold and/or patterns for $2500. What ultimately happened to these is anyone’s guess. But what I don’t understand is why the Venus was abandoned altogether. Just because a half-million bucks couldn’t be raised to make them on a mass scale is no reason to give up. The Venus was clearly in demand, but by a very small market. A smarter move would have been to produce one or two Venus cars in a month; sell those, and then make another couple. As the popularity of the Venus grew, so could the operation…but if it failed, then there wasn’t much to lose. I really don’t know why the Venus got mired in such grandiose plans, or for that matter, who initiated the plans….but by doing so, they sure put up a lot of roadblocks to overcome. Hindsight being 20/20, how cool would it have been to have a little operation back in the fifties making and selling these sportscars on a custom, as-ordered basis…sort of like how Morgan made their cars…one at a time! So the Venus adventure came and went in just a few short years. And so it goes.
I don’t really fault anyone nor am I looking to lay blame as to why the Venus never really got off the ground. It was going to be a huge undertaking no matter who was in charge, and I’m not surprised that a robust company didn’t materialize. The Motor Trend article gave them an awful lot of publicity and there are dozens of letters from folks who wanted to become dealers…and as far away as Mexico and Cuba! But Ken McLoad was a geophysicist and an engineer first…he wasn’t about to leave Vector Cable Company to pursue a full-time job making fiberglass car bodies.
Let’s face it, the Venus body probably had a narrow market sector to begin with. Yes, it was an inexpensive way to get a one-of-a-kind sports car, but it required a tremendous amount of automotive know-how to not only remove the body from a donor vehicle, but to then successfully mount a Venus body. From a consumer’s standpoint, there’s also the downside of “service after the sale”. The Venus was for fun on nice days, and was never meant to be a person’s daily driver. From the manufacturer’s standpoint, they needed to have spare parts available and ready to ship quickly.
Clearly, the “new” Venus Corporation had little money to devote towards print advertising, and if that was the case, they didn’t have the money needed to buy materials to make more Venus bodies. No bodies; no sales. I have yet to find a single magazine with an original Venus advertisement in it other than the two shown above (local newspapers and MT article). Perhaps there was no sense in doing a lot of marketing if no Venus bodies were being made ready to ship.
I also have to assume that very few Venus bodies ever made it to the streets besides those that were assembled for “demo” purposes. In fact, I only know of two Venus body that were actually shipped. Why? Because I have letters from the receivers of the body complaining about missing parts and the lack of any correspondence from anyone from “Venus”. Had more bodies been made and shipped, it would almost be a certainty that there would have been similar letters of problems with the assembly or missing parts. I have photographs of 5 or 6 different Venus bodies, some of which I believe to have been updated, re-sprayed, and recycled. I personally do not believe more than 10 were ever made, and that’s being generous.
As of this writing, there are only TWO known Venus cars known to exist (the whereabouts of the “prototype” as seen on Motor Trend is unknown). The Venus is a very small part of American automotive history, but it still deserves to exist and to be remembered. If nothing else, it represents very core of American values, entrepreneurship, and vision.