Whether you’re a fan of the Chevrolet factory off-road vehicles, the military-based HUMVEE, or Baja-style racers, you owe a lot of thanks to one man by the name of Vic Hickey. A GM engineer from long ago and an avid off-road fan, Hickey’s work is behind the design of the Chevy Blazer, the HUMVEE, the production Hummer, and even the Lunar Rover. But what Hickey is most well known for is his contributions to the classic off-road community, particularly with the design and build of this week’s Vintage Monday feature vehicle–the Baja Boot.
Hickey was into pretty much anything with an engine from a very young age, purchasing his first vehicle, a Ford Model T, by the time he was 12. From that ripe young age to the time he went off to serve in the Navy during World War II, Hickey taught himself to work on anything from sprint cars and Indy cars to dry lake-bed racers.
After returning from his military service, Hickey and his wife Leona had two children, and in-turn decided that it was better for his family if he built cars rather than raced them.
After opening his own shop, which specialized in Indy dragsters, Hickey contributed to the Korean War efforts by designing extra wheel kits and flotation devices for the military jeeps of the time. This led to the idea that a better off-road vehicle could be created for public use, which eventually led to Hickey designing the first Trailblazer.
Ed Cole, the general manager of GM got word of the Trailblazer and went to see it’s capabilities.
Cole was so impressed by Hickey’s design that he not only offered to buy the rights to the Trailblazer design and name, he also gave Hickey a job as a R&D engineer for GM.
(Later on in his life, in semi-retirement but still working on certain GM projects, Hickey helped develop the first military HUMVEE, which would later became the production Hummer released in 1999.)
The Baja Boot
Though Hickey was working for GM in the 1960s, he continued to work on off-road racing projects with a mediocre blessing from the company. In 1967, the National Off Road Racing Association (NORRA) was created by Ed Pearlman, with a debut race called the Mexican 1000 (known today as the Baja 1000). Hearing about this race down the Baja, Mexico peninsula, Hickey was determined to create a vehicle that would not only perform well in the competition, but also take the existing off-road vehicles by storm.
With the help of his friends Drino Miller and Al Knapp, Hickey developed the Baja Boot, based loosely on his original Trailblazer designs. Backed by Hurst Shifters, the vehicle is known today worldwide as the Hurst Baja Boot.
The vehicle featured an SAE-1010 1-¾-inch steel tubular frame, 350 ci SB Chevy engine, a GM Turbo 400 Hydramatic transmission, Dana 18 transfer case, torsion bar suspension, Olds Toronado axleshafts, close-ratio power steering, 11-inch Hurst-Airheart disc brakes, and Corvette differentials with Posi-traction.
The engine was fitted behind the driver’s seat in front of the rear axleshafts, while the drive assemblies were put in the vehicle in inverted positions from normal, allowing a driver to disengage the transfer case and operate the off-road machine in just front-wheel-drive.
With 36×12.4×16-inch Goodyear Baja Special tires, the Baja Boot boasted nine inches of wheel travel and could reach speeds upward of 140 mph.
As impressive and innovative as the Baja Boot was, an even more impressive fact is that Hickey was able to build it in less than 30 days.
Purpose-built for the Mexican 1000, the Baja Boot was entered into the debut NORRA race with Knapp and Miller slated as drivers. Unfortunately, with the Boot’s speed capabilities and the rough terrain of the Mexican 1000 course, the vehicle broke a rear strut and was forced to retire early.
Prior to the 1968 running of the Mexican 1000, Hickey sold the Baja Boot to none other than actor and avid off-road enthusiast Steve McQueen, who owned a factory that produced accessories for off-road vehicles and motorcycles at the time called Solar Plastics.
Under the Solar Plastics banner, the Baja Boot was entered into the 1968 711 Stardust off-road event, where once again, a minor malfunction, this time with one of the tires, forced the Boot to be retired from its race. In 1969, the Boot was entered into the third annual Mexican 1000, where similar luck, this time with a transmission component, sent the vehicle back to the pits early.
Though the Baja Boot had a small streak of bad luck for a while, it ended up taking the overall win at the inaugural Baja 500 race in 1969, with McQueen’s counterpart Bud Enkins behind the wheel. Following that win, the Baja Boot continued its off-road campaign throughout the mid 1970s.
Now long after both Hickey and McQueen’s deaths, the Hurst Baja Boot lives on, having undergone a four-year restoration, which took the vehicle back to its 1967 glory, including the correct Hurst decals and red paint scheme, and even the unique Solar Plastics’ Baja Bucket seat. In 2008, the restored Baja Boot sold at auction for $199,500.