on May 24, 2016
The mystery begins – did this gasser-axle Gremlin really run 9s?
Craigslist Free, for those who don’t know, is the real wild west of Craigslist sections. Through the free mattresses, refrigerators, and garage sale leftovers, you can find real bounty. Drafting tables, take-off Grand Prix tires, mid-century desks, and bizzaro laboratory test equipment await those who are watching and resourceful. And, just a few days ago, a 1970 AMC Gremlin drag car came across my screen.
Los Angeles is a difficult city to live in because there are so many people doing so many things all of the time. The city is jam-packed with people constantly on the move – no wonder why the automobile took hold here early in American car culture. However, with that hustle and bustle boasts opportunity. People here move their home from place to place, a lot. I’ve been here eight months and have moved three times, for example. And, well, life doesn’t wait; so there’s not a lot of time to tie loose ends. Thus is the magic of Craigslist Free.
So, when “Free car 1972 gremlin” appeared with photos showing at least some kind of competition history in stickers, being watchful and resourceful paid off – even if it did end up costing $400, and it was really a ’70. The car was pulled from the back of a home in Venice, Califorina after the property was sold to new owners. The purchase price was essentially covering the time Meathead Junk Removal spent pulling the Gremlin from behind the home, which took them about two hours with the four flat tires – flat slicks, no less. Thankfully, they got the car into the street, which made loading onto the trailer much easier.
When I arrived, I knew immediately this was going to happen – there it sat on the street, with four flat tires, yellow paint punching through the moss and dirt, calling to some inner voice that said “You’ve made worse decisions; do it!” Underneath, a quick glance showed a home-built ladder-bar suspension, with what initially appeared to be a Ford 9-inch.
A quick glance through the hood, and this Gremlin had a straight-axle. Yes, a gasser axle in a Gremlin. Dare I call it a gasser Gremlin? There were also aircraft fuel system parts, a radiator, and a mini fuel tank.
The car cover was torn up, so it was quickly stuffed into the interior – and oh man. It was caged. The interior showed a fabricated firewall and transmission tunnel, and a formed aluminum dash. This was no B.S. street car – this thing raced, and it had the contingency and competition decals to prove it. Before I could even remember to grab the cash from the truck, the trailer ramp was dropped and I was diving for the winch.
After a little bit of brute force, and a very handy winch, we got it onto the trailer. Surprisingly, no one was miffed at the truck blocking an alley way after they saw what I was dragging onto the trailer. Even the Amazon delivery driver stopped to take photos (I apologize for any late packages, Amazon buyers. It was worth it.)
Once on the highway, every glance in the mirror was met with a small, maniacal laugh. Behind me was a bright-yellow Gremlin drag car – a car I thought I’d never have to describe to my parents. It’s not like I needed a drag car, but between the history project and restoration potential, I couldn’t find a drop of buyer’s remorse.
We started an archaeological dig on Facebook Live, dusting off the bones of the Gremlin’s history. There was a ton of paperwork in the car. Everything from life insurance paperwork to competition contingency stickers, and NHRA forms were hidden under the wealth of take-off parts. In the passenger seat-area was a massive pair of racing headers, a mid-plate that appeared to show big-block Chevy on one side and BOP on the other, and the trunk was filled with valvetrain components, including an unused cam. And, of course, tightly folded up, we found Miss March 1993 under all of the rubbish, too.
The only question left was, where did all the pieces go? And I meant both physically, and historically. The paperwork only carried us from about 1981 to 1987, and it didn’t suggest good times were being had outside of racing at that time. And it appeared that the car had been built in the early 1970s, and raced late into the 1980s.
Thankfully, the power of the internet allowed a friend of the original driver, Carl, to see the car for the first time in almost 15 years. I reached out to him, and learned a few pieces of the puzzle.
First, the driver, Carl, was the good ol’ hard-ass drag racer. The friend was more accurately the friend of Chris, the Carl’s son. They knew each other since high school, until Chris died in 2010, not long after Carl passed around 2006. The car had not raced since the late 1980s to early 1990s, apparently, though Carl still guarded the car. This matched the paper trail in the car, which ended in 1987.
While the friend basically knew Carl as the guy who would yell “get out of my race car, kid,” he was closer to Chris, the son. They knew each other throughout the 1990s, after the Gremlin was retired. He mentioned that the car had a blown big-block with dual-carbs. That confirmed the hood cutout and half-scoop, and the BBC to BOP mid-plate. With the friend, we bounced back and forth on details on the car, and history on Chris – which is a story for another day.
In the short-term I may just get the Gremlin running and testing with a small-block, but there’s a bigger plan in the books with few modern ideas to the old blown big-block formula, but on a reasonable budget.
But, first, I needed an experienced opinion on this as-built suspension. The Gremlin’s original Trunion suspension had been replaced by a straight axle – however, it interestingly used a chassis-mounted steering rack. While the rear ladder bar suspension was nothing special, I had yet to work on a solid front axle. I needed some learnin’.
For that, I went to Westside Performance in Santa Monica, California to meet Ted Toki. Toki’s shop is a traditional speed shop in the best sense, with as many hidden stories as there were car parts. If shops could talk, this one would never end. Toki, the owner, spent about a half-hour digging through every corner of the Gremlin’s suspension. The rear suspension was basically fine. The panhard location was in a weird spot, but beyond that, it was fairly well-built. More importantly, I did not have a Ford 9-inch, however the Gremlin’s original toothpick of an axle had been replaced by a 9.3-inch Oldsmobile/Pontiac unit with massive ladder bars.
Up front, it was a mixed bag. The steering rack/straight axle combination would bumpsteer as much as you’d expect it to, but the car was set up to almost ride on the bump stops, and limited droop travel heavily with cable-limiters around the coilovers. This meant that while front suspension played a minor roll, it also limited bumpsteer. “With a big block, it probably didn’t float the front-end much anyways,” said Toki. He got a little angry me for even suggesting an independent front-end, but after identifying the 1949 to 1954 Chevy front axle, he suggested leaf springs with a Vega steering box over keeping this setup in the long run. Additionally, the links were a little skinny for Toki’s liking, but that is an easy fix either way.
With those notes, I now had direction in my teardown for this car. First, the rear suspension and axle will get a simple teardown, inspection, and rebuild. Wear items will be replaced, but I suspect it will mostly be a maintenance process for now, and I’ll put a few passes on it and see how it behaves. Up front, I might just replace the links and service everything, and see how this original suspension behaves – there’s no signs of wreck damage, so it must’ve worked pretty well for the 10-or-so-years that it raced. Or Carl was a helluva driver – probably a combination of both.
The engine might start as a hand-me-down drivetrain from my ’69 Chevrolet CST/10, a 350 ci, TH350 combo. The goal is to simply get it back on track, safely, and learn how this original build behaves. From there, we may start to tweak this thing – and here’s why: The old friend said it ran 9s! If we can’t do that with some modern experience, we might be doing it wrong. Hopefully original photos can be found, and I’ll start working towards that end-point, but with a few modern technologies.
As of right now, I’m still trying to track down anyone who knew this car when it was in active duty. There’s still a ton to learn about this car’s history, so stay tuned to HOT ROD for more updates – we’ve only just begun to tell this Gremlin’s story.