CCotW: The AMT Piranhas (1966-68) – Part 2

02 August 2018 | by Karl Smith

Last Week: AMT, the storied model car kit maker, decided to create its own concept car from prototypes developed by Marbon Plastics. AMT landed a huge promotional coup by placing the car in a popular television series, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. But AMT wanted more for the car than just a few television cameos. We rejoin the story as AMT’s Piranha Concept Cars attempt to join the racing circuit…

While the Free World was being valiantly defended on a Hollywood stage set, AMT decided to follow in Marbon’s footsteps and create racing cars to further raise the profile of the Piranha.

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A restored Piranha racer streaks across the track, just as it did in the 1960s

An SCCA car was created for road tracks such as Laguna Seca and Riverside. Intended as more of a show car, AMT nevertheless installed a performance-spec Corvair engine and expertly-tuned suspension. Veteran race driver Dick Carbajal was retained to give it demonstration spins around the tracks for promotional purposes – but Carbajal had other ideas. He floored the car whenever he got out on the track and scored some impressive racing results.

Racing legend Phil Hill would later recall the Piranha racer blowing by him at Riverside, “We didn’t know what the hell that thing was. We couldn’t tell if it was a boat or a car, but it sure was fast!”

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The view most of the competition saw of the Piranha when on the track. It was a fearsome racer

A modified Piranha was also created for the drag race circuit., lengthened to accept a massive supercharged 392 cubic inch Chrysler Hemi engine, which produced about 1400 horsepower with 95 per cent nitro fuel.

Although again developed primarily as an exhibition car, it went pretty well too. On its first run it covered the quarter-mile in 8.81 seconds at a speed of 182.64 mph. After such an impressive performance, it garnered enormous attention at races across the country.

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The Piranha Dragster – a 1400 horsepower monster

With three Piranhas on television and in the racing press, AMT models were soon enjoying very healthy sales. And inquiries about full-scale Piranhas were pouring into the Speed and Custom Division in Phoenix.

But then disaster struck, twice. First GM announced that it was going to cancel the Corvair program after the 1969 model year. And soon NBC would cancel ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’, having already canceled its spin-off, ‘The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.’ (the spy car appeared in both series).

AMT had already been struggling with the high cost of parts and assembly. The price of the car was set at $5,000 ($38,000 or £29,000 in today’s money), but AMT had been having a hard time building a Piranha for even close to that figure. And its relationship with Marbon, which supplied the body shells, had begun to sour.

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The Piranha racer – striking, but doomed along with the AMT dream of a plastic car

Finally, AMT, like Marbon before it, decided the custom car business was ultimately too peripheral to its principal brief, which was of course making model car kits. It would return the plastic shells to Marbon, wrap up its existing contracts, and close the Phoenix shop in 1970.

Marbon would continue to research innovative ways to use plastics in automotive assemblies, its CRV/Piranha experiment having been  largely deemed a success. Though the association with TV gave the car and its plastics technology a higher profile, it also lent an air of fantasy that undercut the serious research endeavor of the CRV project.

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AMT built a full-scale shuttle for the Star Trek series, and sold truckloads of scale models

AMT would continue to work with NBC, now on Star Trek models and toys, and even constructed the full-sized shuttle craft for the show. The company continued to produce plastic models through the 1970s and into the 1980s, when it saw its business greatly reduced by changing times, changing demographics, and changing interests (read: videogames). The company would be bought and sold several times, but still makes models today.

Gene Winfield would continue a long and fabulous career in hot rod, customizing and movie cars. With the passing of George Barris, Winfield at 91 wears the crown of the Grand Old Man of the classic customizing era.

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A small sample of Gene Winfield’s creations

Today, some of the original CRV cars are restored and remain in private hands. As for the Piranha cars, AMT had planned a production run of 50, but perhaps only a dozen were completed – and some of those were from shells returned to Marbon.

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AMT always reminded the public that a scale model was available for a personal collection

The three most famous Piranhas disappeared for decades, but have been found and brought back to life. The Piranha racer was restored recently and can be seen at vintage races and Concours, mostly in California. The Piranha dragster is owned by drag racing legend Don ‘Big Daddy’  Garlits and sits in his museum in Ocala, Florida.

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Gene Winfield, with the restored Man From U.N.C.L.E. car

And the spy Piranha from The Man from U.N.C.L.E.? It languished in a barn in Colorado for decades before being found and restored by Robert Short of Malibu, California. It makes the occasional appearance at TV events and Concours. Perhaps it also secretly patrols the scenic Pacific Coast Highway, protecting unsuspecting beachcombing starlets from the nefarious plots of the agents of THRUSH.

We should all be so lucky.

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