Muscle Cars You Should Know: James Garner’s Grabber ’70 Olds 4-4-2

American muscle cars and Hollywood royalty have long had a close relationship. While just about every star from A-to-D list celebrities has some sort of muscle car in their garage, back in the day actors like Steve McQueen and Paul Newman did more than collect these cars; they raced them in serious races, from Trans Am to the Baja 1000.

Having film and television star James Garner piloting his Goodyear Grabber 4-4-2 was publicity boon for the tire maker.

Yes, it might be strange to think of American muscle cars racing across the desert of the Baja peninsula, but back in the 60’s what else would you have raced? There were all sorts of shops that specialized in converting American muscle into crazy off-road competitors.

Among the many Hollywood stars who would drive in these off-road desert races was one James Garner, a television actor who became so enamored with car racing that he raced an Oldsmobile 4-4-2 in the 1969 Mexican 1000 (a pre-cursor to the Baja 1000).

The star of the Western-comedy show Maverick, detective show The Rockford Files, and racing-packed Grand Prix, Garner rose to fame as an actor. But he was a more than competent racer as well, and among his many rides was a rather unique 1970 Oldsmobile 4-4-2 modified for the NORRA Meixcan 1000 off-road race.

This car was lost for decades before being found, restored, and brought back to racing condition for the 21st century. Now this unique, star-touched car is up for auction on eBay, of all places.

Getting The Grabber To Go

Garner first got involved with the world of motorsports during filming of the 1966 flick Grand Prix, in which he plays a race car driver who falls for his teammate’s estranged wife. In 1969, Garner grabbed a sponsorship from Goodyear tires.

Garner suffered a virtual Rube Goldberg-level breakdown that robbed him and the Goodyear Grabber 4-4-2 of their 45-minute lead, landing them a 2nd Place win during the 1969 Baja 1000.

Teaming up with Vic Hickey of Hickey Enterprises, Garner had a ’70 Oldsmobile 4-4-2 dubbed “the Goodyear Grabber” built to compete in the 1969 NORRA Mexican 1000, better known as the Baja 1000. It was so named as Goodyear was promoting its new “Grabber” line of tires, and what better way than by backing a big name star in a big name race?

Of course, converting an Oldsmobile 4-4-2 into a competent Baja racer is no small task, as Hemmings Autoblog lays out. Among the many modifications were enlarging the wheel wells to allow for bigger tires and more suspension travel.

The chassis itself was lifted 3-inches to make room for custom control arms and ball joints, as well as spindles modified from a Chevy pickup, which were much tougher than the stock spindles on a 4-4-2.

A serious rollcage was called for, and a 50-gallon fuel tank was installed for the long, rough journey across the Baja deserts. The Olds had come from the factory with an all-aluminum W-31 350 engines. Unfortunately, the plant gave up the ghost, leading Hickey to source a one-of-only-four Dale Smith-built aluminum-block 410 V8.

Garner’s best finish in two years and six races with the Goodyear Grabber was second place in the 1969 Baja 1000. Between the last checkpoint and the finish line, a rear tire came loose and busted the spare oil cans, just as the 410 big block decided to start burning oil. Garner’s 45-minute lead evaporated, leaving him to finish in second place.

After Garner and Goodyear were done with the Oldsmobile though, it changed hands numerous times throughout the next nearly four decades. The Olds would be crashed, rolled, wrecked, and reskinned numerous times over the years. Many people considered this iconic Oldsmobile to be lost to history, a victim of time and neglect.

The Grabber's restoration bordered on a 'restomod' build because of the steps taken to update the famous Oldsmobile's cage, suspension and fueling system to meet with modern racing safety regulations.

New King bypass shocks, C3 Fab Racing Parts' control arms and Mastercraft limiting straps all were new components that brought the 4-4-2 up to modern standards.

So it was that Ron Johnson, who came to own Hickey Enterprises, was trolling the classified lists of Hemmings Autotrader when he came across and Oldsmobile modified for off-road use.

Originally, the Garner Grabber Olds 4-4-2 came from the factory as a rare W-31, equipped with an equally rare aluminum 350. Clearly not enough for the Baja 1000, Hickey replaced the plant with a Dale Smith-built aluminum-block 410 that cranked out over 500HP.

Johnson was a fan of many of Hickey’s old contraptions, including the off-road Oldsmobile. It was a wreck and a basketcase as you might expect, and neither Johnson nor the seller knew what they had.

Eventually Johnson negotiated the price down to just $1,000, intending to use whatever parts he could salvage off of it.

Then Johnson, like any good car guy, started checking the car out. He noticed some modifications to the chassis that looked like Vic Hickey’s work. He then got an old magazine feature on the Goodyear Grabber, did some detective work, and finally realized that he had a very, very special car on his hands.

Alas, the Garner’s old Oldsmobile was in poor shape, was missing its drivetrain, and needed a full restoration from front to back. And an era-correct restoration would be all but impossible; many of the parts were custom made, and again, just four Dale Smith 410 engines had ever been built.

Instead, Johnson went about restoring the Goodyear Grabber with more modern parts, starting with a 12-bolt Olds rear end with Yukon 4:11 gears, Moser 35-spline axles and a Speedway Engineering full-floater kit. Custom control arms, King remote-reservoir shocks, and Willwood brakes help bring the back end into the 21st century.

A successful Baja racer needs to be well equipped in case of emergencies as well as the rough terrain ahead. Stocked with dual fire extinguishers, a spare Victory driveshaft, King shock reservoirs, a massive 50-gallon Schneider Simpson fuel cell, and a emergency jack. Two spare BFGoodrich off-road tires fit amazingly in the factory trunk pan.

Inside and beneath the hood, the Grabber 4-4-2 is all-business. For the numbers-lover, we've got some bad news. This cut up race Olds is the only documented '70 W-31 - in fact, its the prototype - to have come with the all-aluminum 350 small block. When the Dale Smith 410 replaced the 350, Vic Hickey swapped the W-31 tags to W-30.

Amazingly, the original Hickey custom control arms were maintained, though much of the rest of the suspension was updated with modern technology to keep the car competitive in current racing regulations. The fuel cell, while a new Schneider Simpson fuel cell, mimics the look of the original 50-gallon unit (though it houses an ATL bladder); the filler neck too was left original. The interior was remade and the fiberglass seats replaced with a pair of Mastercraft pieces, though the vintage speedometer and tach were kept in place, which is pretty cool if you ask us.

Another piece that survived the passage of time, amazingly, was the original Dale Smith 410 V8 engine block. The rest of the motor required a full overhaul though, including a new crankshaft and Probe pistons with 10.5:1 compression ratio.

The motor was fitted with aluminum heads and a Comp Cams camshaft. Topping it off is an Edelbrock intake manifold and carburetor, while a MSD Pro-Billett aluminum distributor provides spark.

Putting power through a A-PLus Transmissions-rebuilt GM TH400 transmission and a brand new Victory Performance driveshaft, the Goodyear Grabber put 508 horsepower down at the wheels and a helluva lot more torque.

That’s nothing to sneeze at, and more than capable of keeping up with the modern muscle machines that took on a vintage edition of the NORRA Mexican 1000 in 2010 and 2011. Hot Rod Magazine was even lucky enough to get a ride in the ol’ Goodyear Grabber with Johnson himself at the helm.

The Goodyear Grabber Olds 4-4-2 was jacked up 3-inches as well as had the wheelwells radiused to allow for bigger tires and more suspension travel. Raced from 1969 through 1974, the Grabber Olds fells off the racing radar until 2008, when Rod Johnson discovered it listed in a nondescript Hemmings advertisement.

Back To Life

The restoration process was a long, hard road, but we imagine a gearhead like Johnson could not let such an historic car just rot away. James Garner himself even took notice, writing a letter thanking them for their hard work and admiring the amazing restoration. Since returning to the public eye, the Goodyear Grabber has been relentlessly documented by major and minor publications alike even as Johnson raced it. But now it has come time to auction off this piece of history to yet another collector.

The starting bid is only $60,000 for an awesome and unique piece of racing history. But more than anything, this Baja racer is a reminder of the days when muscle cars were more than pretty driveway candy.

No, those days are long gone. But James Garner’s Grabber Oldsmobile remains, an enduring symbol of mankind’s willingness and ability to put automobiles through all sorts of treachery they were never intended to endure. Yet they did more than endure; they thrived.

If only we could harness that sort of human spirit again, like Ron Johnson did when he spent a small fortune restoring a car most people would have stripped and scrapped. If only there were more Ron Johnson’s in the world, we’d never have lost any historic race cars. As it is, the Goodyear Grabber is an exception to a rule in a world where old race cars are usually gone, but never forgotten.


About the author

Chris Demorro

Christopher DeMorro is a freelance writer and journalist from Connecticut with two passions in life; writing and anything with an engine.
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