From AutoWeek, Jan 22, 1996

1972 Oldsmobile Banshee


Decades before the Bravada was a glint in Olds chief John Rock's eye, an Oldsmobile called the Banshee was making big tracks off-road. Banshee was a one-off, mid-engine, rear-drive behemoth, and the handiwork of Baja legend Vic Hickey. Hickey built the car in 1972 for the desert racing circuit. His driver was a Maverick, also known as Rockford. The Banshee's pilot was actor James Garner. ''We'd run a regular Cutlass, stock configuration with beefed up suspension, for three years," recalls Hickey. "Garner was doing a good job, so I figured he could use a quicker car."

If Oldsmobiles seem to be rather strange material for off-road racers, it's stranger yet that Hickey ran them without any official affiliation with the company. He had been a manager at GM, and he'd had a long relationship with George Hurst (as in shifters), who was a key Olds supplier at the time. Those connections gave Hickey access to some of Olds' hottest parts. Hickey was a senior research engineer at Chevrolet from 1959 to 1969, when he developed the first Blazers. His racing projects included the Baja Boots (AW, Oct. 16, 1995). Today Hickey is 77. He owns a ranch near Paso Robles, Calif., and satisfies his urge to putter by improving farm machinery. But in 1972, at the height of his off-road days, Hickey worked out of a shop in Ventura.

He built the Banshee quickly - just 45 days from start to finish. Its fiberglass body was based on a stock metal Cutlass, which customizer George Barris had shortened 14 inches. The skin covered a frame made of 1.75-inch tubular steel. The engine was built from an experimental Oldsmobile 455-cid aluminum block designed under Olds engineer Dale Smith. It was originally developed for drag racing. Mated to a 400 Turbo HydraMatic in the Banshee, the 455 made 480 horsepower at 5000 rpm. Although the aluminum engine was 140 pounds lighter than a cast iron version, a traditional front-engine, rear-drive configuration would still have caused a front/rear weight imbalance. Hickey moved the engine back 27 inches, next to the driver, to prevent the Banshee from nose-diving when it was airborne. "With Garner's weight on the left to balance out the engine, the thing flew pretty even," says Hickey. The Banshee frame used a short/long arm suspension; Hickey fabricated the control arms, and using leaf springs in back and coils in front, found 11 inches of suspension travel. Goodyear made tires based on a tread design and rubber compound used for tractors. ''At first we had some cooling problems due to the desert temperatures, so I added a second radiator core," Hickey recalls. ''After that, so far as I know there were no mechanical failures in 25 or 30 races."

It first raced in June '72 at the Seven-11, a desert race in Las Vegas that evolved into the Mint 400. "I had known Jim Garner for years," Hickey says. "He was a friend of Bob Bondurant, and Bob and I were friends. The thing about Garner was that, while he wasn't the world's most fearless driver, he had the best retention of any man who drove for me. On a prerun, if he hit a bump, he'd come back five days later and tell you where it was within 10 feet." Garner only won one race in the Banshee. That was the Riverside Grand Prix, run along a river bed near Riverside, Calif. But he usually ran near the front of the pack, and often placed high in the final standings. Oddly, his only competition accident came in the race he won. According to Hickey, Garner momentarily took his eyes off the course near the finish line at Riverside to look at the crowd, and flipped the Banshee into the river. Garner crawled out and threw his helmet in the mud in disgust. Yet he was so far ahead that he was eventually declared the winner. The actor had one other wreck in the Banshee a big one, in an early shakedown, when the car was going at least two-thirds of its 144-mph top speed. "He went into this corner at about a hundred miles an hour, lost it in the sand and flipped the car about five times,'' Hickey says. "I was relieved to learn it was strong enough to protect Garner from injuries. The last thing I wanted to do was buy a movie star." Hickey straightened the frame, added new fiberglass and had the Banshee ready to race.

The '72 season wasn't the end; Mickey Thompson drove the Banshee in several races without a win. And unlike the typical desert racer, which is stripped for parts, the Banshee is still together. Current owner Jack Mendenhaul keeps it in his Land Speed Museum in Buelton, Calif., about 45 minutes west Of Santa Barbara. The collection includes a number of one-off desert racers, and lots of automobilia. For information, call (805) 688-3139.