Jim Kellison was a fighter pilot during the Korean War who went on to study aircraft engineering at UCLA. In 1954, he founded his own company, Kellison Engineering, and began building professionally-engineered sports cars with fiberglass bodies. A Kellison J-4 Grand Turismo coupe cost $6,700 in 1959. To put that into perspective, you could buy a new Corvette for $3,875. As Motor Trend wrote when they tested Andy Porterfield’s new car, “Kellison’s J-4 is a well-built, nicely-executed coupe made for high-speed touring. There is luggage storage behind the driver and passenger in true GT tradition. Only thing, it’s almost too pretty to race.”
This particular road racing Kellison has been taken about as far as you can go. Don Rodimer, SCCA executive director in the Northeast, owned it from new. Well-known author/racer/rally organizer Rich Taylor obtained it from Rodimer’s estate in 1985. The original Kellison space frame, a mix of square and round tubes, was duplicated in all-new materials by Chassis Dynamics of Edison, New Jersey. A NASCAR-style roll cage, 15-gallon fuel cell, Simpson five-point harness, cut-off switch and other modern safety equipment were added at this time. Gauges are white-on-black VDO, steering wheel is Momo, shock absorbers are racing Koni, and brakes are four-wheel discs with Porterfield carbon-fiber pads. The classic 15x7 inch American Racing aluminum wheels are fitted with Dunlop Racing 6½x15 tires.
The original body was restored and painted Corvette bright white acrylic. The interior is finished in polished aluminum and black crackle. The windshield and rear window are unbreakable Lexan. The engine is a bored-and-stroked, 406-cubic-inch Corvette small block assembled by well-known vintage racing engine-builder Tom Lalinski of Germantown, Pennsylvania. It drives through a close-ratio four-speed M-21 transmission. The current differential ratio is 3.31:1, though ratios from 2.73 to 4.56 are easily installed.
Rich Taylor made his vintage racing debut in this car at the SVRA Sebring races, finishing third behind the Maserati Birdcage of Stirling Moss and Ferrari Testa Rossa of Peter Sachs. Since then, the Kellison has raced the full SVRA circuit, as well as the Lime Rock Vintage Fall Festival, where it received the Goodyear Cup.
This Kellison is perfectly maintained, fully sorted and ready to win races. It has never had an accident or DNF. It comes with a current SVRA Group 4 logbook as well as a good Florida title.
|Vehicle:||1959 Kellison J-4R|
|Original List Price:||$6,700|
|Tune Up Cost:||$225|
|Chassis Number Location:||Front of block|
|Club Info:||Kellison Registry Hagen Hedfield, 3402 Valley Creek Circle, Middleton, WI 53562|
|Alternatives:||Devin, Darrin, Kurtis|
This car sold for $36,300, including buyer’s premium, at RM Auction’s Amelia Island event on March 10, 2001. The Kellison dates from an era when young enthusiasts longed for an affordable, high-performance GT car with European specifications. Like the Devin, the Kellison offered sweat equity participation in a dream car that could compete with Ferraris, Maseratis, Aston Martins and Jags. Also like the Devin, the company offered a very few pre-built cars, primarily to reassure buyers that the dream could become reality. Ads for the fiberglass body shell avoided mentioning the level of skill and resources needed to accomplish the dream. As a result, most of these shells were never completed. Ads for optimistically “90% complete” efforts for sale by kit buyers whose enthusiasm became overwhelmed by the realities of construction probably surpassed the number of ads placed by Kellison himself.
No doubt, Kellison’s aircraft engineering background helped him complete a lightweight car that was far more sophisticated than the homebuilts, and his styling was certainly unmistakable. While the Devin body was a Ferrari knock-off, the Kellison was an original design reflecting the American conviction that lower is better. For me, however, Kellison crossed an aesthetic line. Instead of looking sleek, his car has an awkward, squashed appearance. As a practical, road-going, two-place GT, this low-roof design inevitably sacrifices either head room or ground clearance, and probably both.
Popular period styling features include an egg-crate grille, extreme tumblehome and fastback styling. However, the appearance hardly matters. This is a single-purpose, NASCAR-like racer that is more prized for its accomplishments than its origins.
If it were not for the car’s unique nature and low market value, we might be asking, “Is it real or a replica?” (After all, who really cares if a sub-$40,000 car is not “completely authentic”?) With a totally new chassis and drivetrain, it’s a sharp sword sheathed in an old scabbard.
The real value of this car is the entry it provides to exclusive venues for what amounts to exotic car chump change. Being gridded with Stirling Moss’s Birdcage and Peter Sachs’s Testa Rossa for just $40k? Moreover, today this car can more than hold its own against these real thoroughbreds. However, its contemporary success is not so much a triumph of Kellison’s genius or of American engineering as much as it is the results of several generations’ sorting-out process. Chances are that an out-of-the-box Kellison in the ’50s, on a race track, would have seen nothing but the fast-disappearing taillights of a true exotic.—Pat Braden
(Historic data courtesy of auction company.)