By Bill Tybur. Photos from the collection of Chuck Rahn.
Reprinted by permission from the Automotive Motorsports Foundation Journal, 2000
Carl Grimes’ Wild Wagon is a fascinating story of home-built hotrodding from the ’40s and ’50s. There are several galleries including construction details (rather scarry by today’s standards) of both of Carl’s Wild Wagon and his Fiat-bodied racing cars. Also included is a gallery of his Studebaker school bus transporter, maybe the first of its kind, and photos from a Perryville program.
In the early 1950s drag racers had very few performance manufacturers that sold parts, so they used components from existing vehicles to build their racers. Carl Grimes was a master at crafting early hot rods, and they were fast and reliable. The Wild Wagon is the only surviving example of his work. He raced it at Perryville airstrip near Goodyear, Arizona (possibly Arizona’s first drag strip) and throughout the southwest.
The basic components for the Wild Wagon chassis and suspension were from a DeSoto of the late ’30s. The rear end was from an Oldsmobile from the late ’40s, and the body was a 1948 Crosley. He fabricated the hood and fenders. The car had 3 engines—the first was a Cadillac V8 that was eventually replaced with a Buick V8, and then finally had an Oldsmobile V8. Various carburetor setups were used on all of these engines.
The Wild Wagon
1955 was the first National Hot Rod Association’s national drag race—the sport’s biggest and most premier event. Carl was there with the Wild Wagon—the first to enter and qualify. In the same year, Hot Rod magazine featured the Wild Wagon in the April issue. They took photos of the car at the Bonneville Speed Trials. When the Wild Wagon finished its racing career, it proved to be quite streetable. Carl’s daughter, Sally and her husband Lewis Rogers, used it for their everyday transportation for two years. Lewis also became Carl’s driver for the Grimes ’57 Fiat racer.
Carl was always a strong supporter for NHRA racing. In later years Carl was awarded the very coveted Wally Award for his achievements and support in drag racing. In 1991 NHRA also brought Carl and his wife Sara to the Nationals in Indianapolis to recognize him as the first entrant in the very first NHRA Nationals.
Carl’s Fiat-bodied race car
In the late ’50s Carl’s competitors were catching up with him, so he built a new racer using a Fiat body with the Buick V8 removed from the Wild Wagon. The ’57 Fiat Racer had a tubular chassis that Carl fabricated in his shop. It had a Ford front axle from the ’30s and an Oldsmobile rear end. Carl came up with the idea to narrow the rear axle to make the car more stable and go straighter down the strip. The body was hinged on the chassis at the rear so it could be raised for complete access to the engine and chassis. Carl was the first to implement the narrowed rear axle and hinged body, which others quickly duplicated. The Grimes ’57 Fiat raced all over the U.S. with many victories including two NHRA nationals wins.
Carl’s transporter was built from a Studebaker school bus. The family and crew lived and slept in the bus as they toured the country on the racing circuit. Carl installed a Pontiac V8 engine in the bus and modified the rear to open up for loading the race car. When the race promoter would allow it, Carl would make exhibition runs with the transporter. It is believed that Carl was the first person to convert a school bus into a transporter.
Carl was quite the innovator—he probably created the V8 Corvette before Chevy did. In 1953 he replaced the 6-cylinder engine with a Buick V8 in a brand new Corvette giving it unbelievable performance for its day. Carl’s Seventh Street Machine Shop & Garage in Phoenix, Arizona are where he created his racers. It was also the local gathering place for many famous local racers such as Bobby Ball, Jimmy Bryan and Clint Brawner, to name a few.
The Wild Wagon is restored and currently on display at the National Hot Rod Association Museum in Pomona, California where only the most significant drag race cars are featured.