Ex-James Garner, Vic Hickey-built, 1969 NORRA Mexican 1000 2nd in class
1969 "Goodyear Grabber" Oldsmobile 442 Baja Racer
Some cars are just destined to be found and restored. So it was with this very special Oldsmobile off-road racer driven in Baja by actor James Garner. Best known for his television work on the "Maverick" and "Rockford Files" television series, Garner became an auto-racing fan during the filming of 1966's Grand Prix, a feature movie about Formula One racing. Garner played Pete Aron, an American driver on the comeback trail.
In real life, Garner's love of and involvement in motorized competition rivaled that of fellow actor/racers Steve McQueen and Paul Newman. He was co-owner of the AIR (American International Racers) team, which fielded endurance road racing Chevrolet Corvettes in the late 1960s. Off-road racing was another of Garner's pursuits, which is how he came to be behind the wheel of this Olds 442 Baja car, dubbed the "Goodyear Grabber" thanks to sponsorship from the rubber company, which was promoting its line of Grabber tires. Fabrication ace Vic Hickey had turned the Detroit muscle car into a very competent off-roader and Garner, an excellent all-round driver, was putting it to good use in the 1969 NORRA Mexican 1000, leading his class by almost an hour until a flat tire and oil problems slowed him down. Nursing the car over the finish line, Garner still nabbed second-in-class. He would race the car five more times in the next two years, then it was sold off, crashed heavily and essentially forgotten about for the next three decades.
In 2008, collector Ron Johnson spied a classified ad for a basketcase 442 race car. Interested in salvaging some of the parts, he had no idea the rusty wreck was actually the ex-James Garner car until it arrived back at his shop. A full restoration was then undertaken despite the chassis' poor condition, the wrinkled bodywork and the fact that the entire powertrain was missing. Here's where fate steps in. Garner's car was powered a Dale Smith aluminum-block 410 cubic-inch V-8, one of just four built. When internet sleuthing uncovered one of the 410s sitting in an East Coast warehouse, it turned out to be the very one originally fitted to the car! Refreshed, it now pumps out 500-plus horsepower.
Motor and chassis reunited, finished in its 1969 livery, and with updated suspension and a new 50-gallon fuel cell, Garner's Olds 442 Grabber is once again Baja-ready. It even had the 83-year-old actor thinking about a comeback. "You guys have done such a remarkable job," he wrote to Johnson after seeing photos of the restored car, "I was just about ready to reach for my racing gear."
- Please note that the title for this vehicle is in transit.