The popularity of muscle cars in the mid to late 60s and the early 70s was undeniable, but it wasn’t limited to just the streets and the track. The off-road world also saw a staggering number of muscle cars converted for competition enter into famed races like the NORRA Mexican 1000. The beloved Goodyear Grabber Oldsmobile 442 driven by the late actor James Garner was one of them.
Movie star turned competitive driver, Garner got hooked up with Hickey Enterprises team owner Vic Hickey and the 442 in 1969, following his role in the 1966 film Grand Prix and a stint with the American International Racing organization.
The 442 that Garner ended up driving was a pre-production car prepped by George Hurst and then sent to Hickey for a complete conversion to the off-road competitor it became.
In Hickey’s talented hands, the pre-production ’70 Olds had its chassis lifted three inches, the wheel wells opened up by an inch, and its suspension completely revamped with modified upper and lower control arms, custom ball joints and Chevy ¾-ton pickup truck spindles. The car was also fitted with a roll cage, racing seats, 50-gallon fuel cell, custom Crager wheels and a set of Goodyear’s off-road tires. Of course, the most notable upgrade was the Dale Smith-built aluminum 410ci engine (one of four built) that found its way into the engine bay of the Olds.
Garner raced the Goodyear Grabber from 1969 to 1971, with his best finish being second place at the ’69 Baja 1000. Though Garner found himself with nearly an hour lead at the race’s last checkpoint, a flat tire and oil leak, and no oil thanks to the flat damaging the oil cans in the rear of the car after it was changed, ultimately put Garner across the finish line just over 20 minutes after the race winner.
By 1971, the Goodyear Grabber was sold to Jack Mendenhall and his son (after the car was re-skinned due to a nasty roll-over), who raced the car through 1974. It then went as good as missing until the early 2000s.
In 2008, having grown fond of the off-road vehicles Hickey used to build, the current owner of Hickey Racing, Ron Johnson, responded to an ad in Hemmings Motor News for a seemingly run-of-the-mill off-road Olds 442.
It wasn’t until after he purchased the car for $1000 and got it home that he discovered, through a lot of research, that he had actually purchased the original Goodyear Grabber.
This started a project to return the car back to its as-raced condition, with the ultimate goal of returning the car to the competitive off-road scene at the 2010 NORRA 1000.
Through a lot of looking, Johnson was able to find a few original parts from the car that had gone missing over the years, including its original hood and 410ci aluminum race engine, which was fitted in the car upon Hickey receiving the Olds. Other components, like the rearend and rear control arms were replaced, though the rest of the Hickey-built suspension was maintained.
For its second-coming, the Olds featured a 12-bolt rearend with Yukon 4.11 gears and Moser 35-spline axles, Wilwood brakes, Optima batteries, an original-spec 50-gallon Schnieder Simpson fuel cell, overhauled Dale Smith-built 410ci engine (one of just four ever built and the very one that was originally run in the Goodyear Grabber, found in a warehouse on the East Coast) and a number of safety upgrades, like reinforcements to the original cage and Mastercraft seats.
After Johnson raced the car in 2010 and 2011, it was put up for sale on eBay in 2012. We are unsure where the car ended up but hope to see it on the dirt once again in the future!