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After a 16-year absence, the Little Red Wagon wheelstander returns to the track

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Mike Mantel tests the latest Little Red Wagon at Tucson Dragway. Yes, all four tires are off the ground. Photos courtesy Mike Mantel.

The Little Red Wagon may be the most famous pickup truck of all time, thanks to Bill “Maverick” Golden’s 38-year run thrilling audiences with his wheelstanding drag strip shows. Golden took his last pass in the candy apple red Dodge A100 at Michigan’s US 131 Motorsports Park in 2003, but in 2019 a new Little Red Wagon will take to the track, driven by Hemi Under Glass owner and driver Mike Mantel.

Jim Schaeffer and John Collier built the original Little Red Wagon in 1964 to match race in the NHRA’s Altered Factory eXperimental (A/FX) class. Stuffing a 426 Hemi in the bed of a 90-inch-wheelbase cabover pickup produced unique — and potentially terrifying — handling properties, so the duo sent the truck off to Dick Branstner Enterprises and Roger Lindamood for sorting. Any improvements were minimal, and the pickup remained a handful to pilot.

The Little Red Wagon’s first public appearance came at Lions Drag Strip in early 1965, with driver Jay Howell behind the wheel. His nose-high pass delighted fans and made the cover of Chrysler’s shop magazine, Bin & Bench, and it didn’t take the automaker long to realize the truck was a potential advertising goldmine. Frank Wylie, Chrysler’s director of marketing, helped broker a deal to sell the custom A100 to drag racer Golden, and in turn the Little Red Wagon featured prominently in period advertising for Dodge trucks. It was a popular plastic model kit into the 1980s as well.

Mike showing Wayne Carini the original Little Red Wagon. Wayne’s advice was to preserve the truck, not restore it.

From 1965 to 2003, Golden toured extensively with the truck, though his runs were not always without drama. Notable crashes occurred in 1969 and ’71, but Golden simply rebuilt the truck and returned to the strip. A 1975 accident in Quebec, Canada, however, was more extensive, and after catching the front wheels in a ditch, Golden went end-over-end six times, rolling the truck five more (and ejecting the engine and transmission in the process) for good measure. Golden wasn’t seriously injured, but the original Little Red Wagon was essentially destroyed.

Layers of Bondo serve as a testament to past crash repairs. The A100’s VIN matches Bill Golden’s 1965 registration, verifying the truck’s authenticity.

Not that this slowed him down for long. To keep racing, Golden built a new Little Red Wagon from a show truck, and in 1977 used this to complete a front-wheels-up pass of 4,230 feet, landing himself in the Guinness Book of World Records. In 2009, six years after his retirement, Golden sold this Little Red Wagon at auction, where it shattered pre-auction estimates and achieved a selling price of $550,000 including buyer’s fees.

1965 Dodge A100

The starting point of the new Little Red Wagon was a rust-free 1965 Dodge A100.

Fast-forward to 2015, when Mantel purchased the original, wrecked Little Red Wagon, complete with its magnesium wheels and Hillborn fuel injection. Understanding the historical importance of the Dodge, Mantel opted to keep it in its as-wrecked state, showing it at events across the country. Around the same time, he began work on a new Little Red Wagon (“Don’t call it a tribute,” he told Hemmings, “since I’m doing essentially the same thing that Bill did in 1975.”), built from a rust-free 1965 Dodge A100 found in Arizona.

The methanol-fueled 526-cu.in. blown Hemi V-8 makes somewhere north of 2,000 hp.

After stripping the shell and tubbing the rear wheel wells to accommodate the 16-inch slicks, the shop welded in a heavy-duty 10-point cage, as much to keep the truck from folding in half during landings as to protect Mantel. Like the original Little Red Wagon, the latest version will carry a fuel-injected 426 Hemi in a steel subframe below the bed, though the methanol-fueled engine has been bored and stroked to 526-cu.in. and topped by a Littlefield supercharger. Mantel estimated that it’s good for over 2,000 horsepower in current tune, enough to get the Dodge through the quarter-mile — on two wheels — in around 10 seconds at 140 mph.

Driver’s seat is centrally mounted, and when the front wheels are in the air, the truck is steered with the vertical braking lever.

To survive repeated front-wheel landings, the suspension has been beefed up with seven leaf springs, and the driver’s seat has been repositioned to the center of the cabin to improve balance and up the safety margin. The steering wheel has been moved, too, though steering the truck in mid-pass, with the front wheels off the ground, is accomplished by individually braking the rear wheels, the same as Mantel’s other work vehicle, the ’68 Hemi Under Glass Plymouth Barracuda.

Mike with the Hemi Under Glass ’68 Barracuda and the primered Little Red Wagon.

Once the candy apple red paint is sprayed, Mantel will campaign the new Little Red Wagon alongside the Hemi Under Glass and his modern wheelstander, a Hemi-powered Ram pickup known as the Little Red Fire Truck. The original Little Red Wagon, in its unrestored glory, will also be shown at select events throughout 2019.

For details on upcoming appearances, visit HemiUnderGlass.com.