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Vintage Race Car of the Week: The Hurst Hairy Olds

Vintage Race Car of the Week: The Hurst Hairy Olds

You’d probably be jailed for even suggesting this type of thing today. Two motors? Four wheel drive? Factory freakin’ parts? Yes, yes, and yes. The Hurst Hairy Olds, one of the most infamous exhibition runners in drag racing history contained those three aspects and delighted crowds from coast to coast while showing them off.

The story of the Hurst Hairy Olds is, like for so many other “out of the box” cars, relatively short. It was born from the minds of George Hurst, Jack Watson (Hurst’s president of R&D back then) and a factory Olds engineer named John Beltz.

The plan was simple. Stick a blown, fuel-burning Olds 425 engine under the hood, do the same thing in the trunk, use Olds Toronado drivetrain components, and voila! You’ve got a four-wheel-drive race car that would double as a moving fog bank down the track, roiling all four tires from the starting line to the finish line stripe.

The body was a (mostly) steel ’66 Olds 4-4-2 and it was mounted onto a custom tube chassis. The principals involved in the physical construction of the car were Dave Landrith, Bob Riggle, Ray Sissner, Dick Chrysler, Paul Pheips, and John DeJohns.

It was DeJohns who suggested that the guys use the tube chassis to act as a radiator for the motors. 33 quarts of coolant were circulated through the chassis when the car was running. It really must have sucked to be in there on a hot day! The crew chief on the car was Bob “The Animal” Larthrum who hailed from the Cleveland, Ohio, area.

As amazing as it sounds, the Olds Toronado parts used in the construction of the car were basically stock. The beefy chain-drive transmissions never presented a problem as they were able to handle the shock load of being hit with all that power all at once. Many people had speculated that the transmissions would be a constant headache, with broken chains a-plenty.  

The few driveline modifications made were basic and invisible to the average gearhead. Factory Olds axles were used, with the only difference being that two right side axles were chosen as opposed to the typical right and left specific axles found in the Toronado. This decision was made because the right side axles were known to be stronger. Also the factory switch-pitch torque converters were welded up for strength.

Moving to the motor, er, motors. They were identical 425 Olds engines on both ends, and were outfitted with Mickey Thompson forged rods and pistons, Isky custom ground cams, Sharp intake manifolds and gnarly GMC 6-71 blowers. We cannot image the sound of this car with both of the engines making full steam; it must have been epic.

We mentioned that the body was mostly steel and it was. There was some strategically placed aluminum there as well. Aluminum bits consisted of the floors, fender wells, deck lid, and bumpers. Even with the weight benefit of those panels the car was still very heavy and by most accounts weighed over two tons.

While the drive train was never a major source of worry for the Hurst boys or driver “Gentleman” Joe Schubeck, the suspension and steering were. In short, the car was virtually uncontrollable when the loud pedal was mashed. For starters, when the weight transferred off of the front end, the front engine would sometimes run away because there’d be virtually no load on it. The larger problem was the fact that the car would go into an extreme toe-in condition when under power. This was dealt with by setting up the car with an equally wild toe-out adjustment so when the hammer dropped and the weight came off the front end, it would go to neutral and provide a slightly less terrifying ride for Schubeck.

Schubeck was asked to shoe the car for its debut and he initially balked because, let’s face it, even crazy guys have limits. Once he had the chance to see the car and learn more about it firsthand, he decided to take the job. It must have been a busy looking cockpit because everything was doubled. There were dual shifters, dual throttles, etc.

The car debuted at the 1966 March Meet and instantly became a legend. It made wild runs, traversing the track sideways, Schubeck sawing at the wheel to keep it between the ditches, tires smoking the entire way. As soon as the word began to permeate after that race, the car was a hot commodity. Unfortunately, it was a numbers game as to when the thing would crash, not if it would crash. The first wreckage came at the end of the 1966 season. The car was careening off the end of a Midwestern dragstrip and, as the story goes, was on fire. Schubeck, not wanting to ride the flaming Olds into the upcoming cornfield, attempted a side dismount while the car was still moving at a pretty good clip. He escaped the blaze but sustained a broken ankle in the process. His custom made tuxedo fire suit saved him from being burned.

The car was repaired and re-nosed as a ’67 for the following year. The team was feeling confidant that they had made progress on solving many of the issues plaguing the handling of the car and that season held much promise for increased performance, and for a while they were living up to their lofty expectations. The car was now making laps in the low 8 at over 180 mph. Those were heady numbers for anyone back then, but completely nutty for a car with doors and a body on it.

Unfortunately, the success was short lived. The last pass ever made by the car came at the old Niagra Dragway in Buffalo, New York. One the run, the magneto in the front engine failed and the loss of power upset the car. The suspension, tuned to be neutral at full bore, now went back to its old toe-in condition and the car was uncontrollable. Veering wildly across the track and getting out onto the grass at the side of the strip, it was looking very badly as the Olds careened like an unguided missle toward the assembled fans along the fence.

Thankfully (for the fans), this strip had a large steel cable stretched along the length of the outside of the track to prevent cars from getting into the crowd. The cable did its job to a “T”, but in the process, the car was destroyed.

Hurst decided that he wasn’t going to risk anyone else’s life, and Schubeck already made it known that he’d never place his tukus in the seat of it again, so the car was dismantled and that was the end of that until 2000/2001 as the car was recreated using some of the original components. It will never run down the track again. But it does make the rounds at Oldsmobile enthusiast meets and other large shows.

While things certainly ended badly for the original Hurst Hairy Olds, it delighted, inspired, and scared the crap out of tens of thousands of drag racing fans during its short two-year run, barnstorming the country. The only thing we’re disappointed in is that we never got to see it, or more importantly hear it run down the strip.

Hairy Olds

Joe Schubeck, Linda Vaughn

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