Ex-Solar Plastics Engineering Division/Steve McQueen/Bud Ekins
1967 'Baja Boot' Off Road Racing Buggy
Chassis no. MICH67229
In the early 1960s off road racing suffered from little organization, no factory support, and a lack of sponsorship. In March, 1962 this began to change when Dave Ekins and Bill Robertson rode two stock but factory-supported Honda CL72 250 motorcycles 952 miles from Tijuana down the Baja Peninsula to La Paz. Sensing good PR, Chevrolet contracted Bill Stroppe, (usually associated with Fords!) to prepare a few trucks and run them from Long Beach to La Paz. The ad campaign said that the test was the roughest under the sun.
By 1967 there was enough support for an organized event down the Mexican peninsula. Ed Pearlman established a sanctioning body, the National Off Road Racing Association (NORRA) and an off road race, called the Mexican 1000 (more popularly known as the Baja 1000) was scheduled for October 31, 1967.
The announcement of the Baja 1000 stirred the very soul of Vic Hickey.
Born in 1919, Hickey served in WWII and later opened a repair shop in California where he worked on hot rods, dragsters and the famous Novi Indianapolis race cars. In 1959 Hickeys abilities had captured the attention of GMs Ed Cole. Hickey had developed a Jeep-like off road vehicle which used the still-experimental flat six Corvair engine, and after Hickey demonstrated his Trailblazer to Cole, Hickey found himself working for GM on a number of interesting projects. (Eventually Hickey would be involved in the development of the Lunar Rover and the High Mobility Multi Purpose Vehicle, or Humvee.) By the 1960s, he was well-known as an inventor and as a producer of off road equipment. He was ready for the Baja.
In a world that had previously consisted of four wheel drive trucks, Jeeps, VW-powered dune buggies, and standard sedans, Hickey envisioned a technically advanced, mid-engined off road vehicle unlike anything ever seen before . In his comprehensive book 1000 Miles to Glory (David Bull, 2004) off road historian Marty Fiolka states that the Baja Boot was the first true off road supercar and an engineering masterpiece.
The history of the Baja Boot 1 is steeped in automotive intrigue. Backed by Hurst Shifters, Hickey, with the help of Drino Miller and Al Napp, started the Baja Boot project at the GM "Skunkworks" in Detroit. As the word got out about the proposed race car, GM management objected due to the no racing policy then in effect. In the shadow of darkness Vic and Miller spirited the Baja Boot away to the Hurst garages, also in Michigan, where it was completed in 26 days. It made the start, driven by Miller and Napp. Although the car retired, it was a harbinger of things to come.
While most four wheel off road vehicles were still based on the ubiquitous VW, the first Boot (now known as Boot 1) featured a heavy steel tubular frame in which a Chevy Camaro V8 was placed, like Grand Prix cars, directly behind the driver. Hickey took advantage of the GM 400 Hydramatic transmission to let the driver concentrate on steering rather than shifting. The Boot also featured Corvette differentials with Positraction, a Dana 18 transfer case, close ratio power steering and torsion bar suspension. Topping this off were huge Goodyear Baja Special tires, 12.4 by 16 by 36 inches in diameter, slowed by four wheel disc brakes.
Also involved with the first Baja 1000 was Dave Ekins brother Bud, who had a Triumph dealership and raced motorcycles in the 50s and 60s. In 1963 actor and Ekins customer Steve McQueen asked Bud to do some motorcycle stunt work for the film The Great Escape. Ekins went on to a highly successful career as a Hollywood stuntman. The two remained friends until McQueens death in 1980.
Interested in both racing cars and bikes, McQueen was also a keen off road racer. After the first Baja 1000, Both McQueen and Ekins recognized the potential and advanced design of the Baja Boots. Solar Plastics, Steve McQueens factory which produced accessories for dune buggies and motorcycles, eventually purchased both Boots from Vic Hickey.
On June 13th 1968, with McQueens Solar Plastics Engineering logo painted on the side and nose, both Baja Boots appeared in Las Vegas for the start of the Stardust 711 event. Matt Stone, the author of McQueens Machines quotes the actor as saying, We were really battin along, feeling good about the car and our chances with it, when we see this big fat wheel rolling along beside us! It had been attached to their Boot. The team retired, but tried again in the third running of the Baja 1000 in October of 1969, failing to finish when a small transmission part let them down. Once the teething problems were resolved, the Baja Boots were successfully campaigned in off road races until the mid 1970s. Driving a Boot, Ekins won the overall victory in the first Baja 500 in 1969.
The Baja Boots were truly remarkable vehicles. Only two were built, specifically for the Baja 1000. The second BajaBoot 2was built in the Hickey shop in California and originally was equipped with an Oldsmobile engine. It is now in a private collection in Europe. The fully articulated independent suspension, large diameter tires, mid-engined configuration and steel tubular frame were far in advance of most off road vehicles of the day and todays Class 1 off road cars have yet to significantly change Hickeys winning formula.
Tom Madigan, then Editor of Off Road magazine, was there to witness McQueen driving Baja Boot 1 when in 1968 the tough Vic Hickey persuaded Steve McQueen to drive the Boot under one conditionthat he acted like a race driver and not a movie actor. Hickey was not disappointed. Whenever McQueen made a mistake driving the Boot, Hickey was in his face, McQueen did not react like a prima donna movie star, recalled Madigan, but would stand quiet like a child getting instructions from a parent.
Boot 1 underwent a four year, ground up restoration by Ryan Falconer Racing Engines after the current owner purchased the car in 1996. It was carefully brought back to its 1968 configuration, with proper Hurst decals and the correct red paint. The bucket seats are both unusual and unique; one of Solar Plastics products was a Baja Bucket seat, designed and patented by Steve McQueen to help prevent injuries in case of a roll over. Baja Boot 1 also was part of the Petersen Museums Tecate Score 2000, inducted into the Baja 500 Hall of Fame and participated in the 40 years to Glory celebration at Long Beach, California.
Advanced from the beginning, created by a true American genius, related by DNA to the Humvee and the Lunar vehicle, driven to successive off road victories, and owned by one of the most charismatic movie stars of the Twentieth Century, the Baja Boot represents a major landmark in off road race history, and will be eagerly sought by spectators, organizers and collectors.