Editor's Note: Due to the recent merger of Chrysler and Fiat, we have gotten several emails from people wanting to know if we plan to feature Fiat vehicles now. Well, here you go guys, our obligatory Fiat feature car-pretty cool, eh?!
As drag racing evolved in the late 1950s and early 1960s, competitors scrambled to create cars that were inexpensive to build and would be competitive in the many classes being formed. One of the classes formed that allowed a great deal of freedom and creativity was the Altered class. The rules allowed the engine to be set back 25-percent of the body's length, and very little else was required in the way of running gear restriction.
In November 1959 a young Walt Knock sits on the front tire of the A/Altered coupe his fath
In the late 1950s, Walt Knoch raced one of the hottest A/Altereds-"Walt's Puffer II." It was the marriage of a Chrysler Hemi and a Fiat Topolino body. At that time, Hemi engines were the gold standard for drag racing power, and the sleek Fiat Topolino bodies were light and streamlined, perfect for drag racing.
The Walt's Puffer II story started in early 1959, when Walt's father Walt Knock Sr. owned Walt's Auto Parts in Inkster, Michigan. He and a friend built the Chrysler-powered Fiat for his son Walt to race. The car ran at the newly opened Detroit Dragway and at a few other local strips. It ran well, but young Knock felt it needed to be upgraded for competition at the upcoming U.S. Nationals. "I told my dad," recalls Knoch. "There's no way we can run 140 with the Latham supercharger we had. I called Isky and Hilborn for the camshaft and injectors we needed. I got the injectors, supercharger, blower drive, and camshaft one week before the 1959 Nationals." Knoch took the Fiat to a strip in Toledo for a shakedown and found that he could smoke the tires for the entire length of the strip. "We went to the Nationals and on the first run, I broke the record." Knoch set the NHRA class speed record for A/Altered at 138.67 miles per hour. Following that meet, he went on to record a speed of 150 miles per hour at a strip in Chester, South Carolina.
Walt Knoch Sr. built the chassis for Walt's Puffer II from rectangular steel tubing. The r
In 1960, Knoch returned to the U.S. Nationals but lost the class to the famous Ratican-Jackson-Stearns Olds-powered Fiat. The results were repeated at the 1961 Nationals when the Ratican-Jackson-Stearns Fiat again won the class. Knoch's coupe, now sporting a freshly chopped top and the name "Walt's Puffer II" on the side, was clocking elapsed times in the ten-second range at speeds in excess of 150 miles per hour. The bright spot for the Walt's auto parts crew at the 1961 Nationals was the Middle Eliminator win for the other car they were running, a Chrysler powered A/Roadster, named "Walt's Puffer Too."
In 1962, the stars shined brightly for both Walt's cars at the U.S. Nationals. Walt's Puffer Too won the A/Roadster class and Walt's Puffer II won the A/Altered class. When the time came for the Junior Eliminator run between both cars, it was raining. With only the two Walt's Puffer cars to run against each other, it was assured that one of Knoch's cars would win. Because of the rain, NHRA never ran the race between the two cars. They awarded the trophy to Knoch, with the record book reading "Walt's Puffers" as the Junior Eliminator winner.
Interior check list from the driver's view: gas pedal-check; oil pressure gauge-check; han
By now, the Walt's Puffer II Fiat had reached legendary status in the Midwest. Its tire-smoking runs brought the fans to their feet wherever it ran. Walt Knoch was treated like a rock star when he drove into Detroit Dragway with his black '62 Corvette pulling the chopped Fiat on a trailer. Model car builder AMT noticed the attention that car received among young fans. So much so that when AMT released their Double Dragster model car kit, the Chrysler powered Fiat included in that kit carried the number 285 on the side-the same as the Walt's Puffer II. (Note: That kit was just re-released.)
The artfully chopped top with its slanted A-pillars is another one of the Walt's Puffer II
In 1963, the NHRA realigned its divisions. This realignment, and young Walt Knoch's temper, would cause him some problems at the 1963 U.S. Nationals. During time trials, Walt's Puffer II was running in top form but his time slips were blank-no ET or speed. Jack Chrisman said to Knoch, "Damn, you got your car running really good." Chrisman told Knoch he was running ETs in the 9.60 range. Knoch asked Chrisman how he knew the times when his slips were blank. Chrisman explained he saw the times on the clocks when he was in the tower. He encouraged Knoch to go to the tower and find out what the problem was. "I walked in and Eileen Daniels [wife of Bob Daniels, then NHRA's Division 3 Director] was there," says Knoch. "I told her I wanted to see the times that I ran. She started to give them to me and then this woman in a red jump suit came over and said, 'Are you Wally Knoch with the Walt's Puffer cars?'" After confirming his identity, the woman in red instructed Daniels not to give Knoch any of his times. An NHRA divisional realignment changed the numbering system for the A/Altered cars and the NHRA had assigned Knoch's Fiat the number 385. Knoch wanted to retain the 285 number that had been on his car for years and was also on the AMT model. "Everybody knew that car by the 285 number, and I wasn't about to change it," exclaimed Knoch.
They directed Knoch upstairs where he could plead his case directly to Wally Parks (NHRA President) and Ed Eaton (NHRA's Competition Director). "Eaton and Parks both disagreed with my point of view-I was right and they were wrong," says Knoch. Unfortunately for Knoch, Parks and Eaton had control of the event. The next time Knoch pulled up to the line to race, he was given the cut signal and not allowed to run. An irate Knoch stormed to the tower. At that time young Knoch was 6'4", 200 pounds and buff as any WWE wrestler. "The timing tower was probably three or four stories high and they had a couple of security cops at the bottom of the stairs," recalls Knoch. The two guards asked him where he was going and they told him he wasn't allowed in the tower. "One guy stood up and took a swing at me, or something like that, and-bam-bam-two guys were down on the ground. I went upstairs." Someone yelled, "Get this guy out of here!" and two Indiana State Troopers grabbed him. Before he could be escorted out, Knoch was asked to go upstairs to again meet with the NHRA officials. "I went upstairs with the cops following me. Wally Parks and Ed Eaton were up there-they read me the riot act." They threw Knoch out of the event, and the Troopers escorted him to the gate and made sure there was no more trouble. Walt Knoch's driving career ended shortly after when NHRA officials approached the senior Knoch and told him, "We'll allow your cars to run, but your kid can't drive 'em."
In 1999, Knock pulled Walt's Puffer II out of storage and, along with friend Jerry Dotson, restored it. When it appeared at Detroit's Autorama it brought back a flood of memories to its many fans that recalled its glory days of race wins and full quarter-mile tire-smoking runs.
'39 Fiat Coupe A/Altered
Owner: Walt Knoch, Inkster, Michigan
- Mopar Power Nothing says vintage Altered power like a 392 Chrysler Hemi. This one is running on pump gas, so let's go for a drive. Up top, is a 6-71 Blower, Hilborn injectors, Isky cam, and Zoomie style headers
- Transmission: We don't need no stinking transmission. It's got an in-out box. You're either in gear, or out of gear.
- Rearend: Vintage Ford with quick-change center section, 4.11:1 gears
- Suspension: If that's what you want to call a suspension. It's only a solidly mounted rear end with a buggy sprung straight axle up front. Imagine a blast at 140-plus mph and hitting a bump.
- Brakes: Rear-only that are actuated by a hand lever. This means the end of the track comes along really quick.
- Tires & Wheels: Vintage 8.00x15 M&H Racemaster slicks and front runners on Halibrand magnesium wheels
- Body: '39 Fiat Topolino coupe chopped, fiberglass nose
- Paint: Red, just plain red with yellow lettering.
- Interior: Surplus aircraft seat, modified brand-X steering wheel.