The AMT Piranha racer: A model car for grown-ups

When Frank Zucchi first set eyes on it in 1992, the little red car was just sitting there, half-forgotten, under a tractor trailer in Santa Clara, California. Dusty and half-concealed by tires and other discarded car parts, the car had something that caught Zucchi’s eye. He offered the owner $2500 for it, and the deal was done.

Zucchi hauled it home to his restoration shop in Livermore and there the car sat for 10 years. In time, Zucchi got around to cleaning it up and, as he stripped away layers of dirt and grime and paint, he found original holes that once housed gauges and side scoops. An avid vintage racer, Zucchi was delighted to have stumbled upon an actual race car. Trouble was, this car featured a plastic body on a fiberglass chassis—it looked like nothing he had seen before or since.

dusty AMT Piranha before restoration
Frank Zucchi
AMT Piranha restoration
Frank Zucchi

After many phone calls—and with the help of a 1960s Car and Driver article—Zucchi finally discovered that the dusty, plastic heap he’d bought a decade earlier was, in fact, the Corvair-powered AMT Piranha racer built by Gene Winfield and Dick Carbajal. It competed in SCCA events in 1967–68.

Car-obsessed American kids once grew up assembling AMT models at their kitchen table and, indeed, this Piranha was built by the very same company, with an eye toward promoting its model car business. AMT also hoped they could sell full street cars as kits to enthusiasts. In 1978, however, AMT was sold and the Piranha racer stayed with Carbajal. He continued to race it at various tracks and in hill climbs (he once rolled the car off a cliff at the Bottomless Lake Hill Climb outside of Phoenix), and in various color schemes throughout his ownership. At some point, as happens to bizarre old race cars, the Piranha drifted through a series of owners until it landed under that trailer in Santa Clara.

AMT Piranha racer engine
Courtney Frisk
AMT Piranha racer wheel
Courtney Frisk

AMT Piranha racer Kit Car
Courtney Frisk
AMT Piranha rear propeller
Courtney Frisk

Precisely how many full-size Piranhas AMT built remains unclear, but three of the most famous cars remain in existence. In addition to Zucchi’s race car, legendary drag racer Don Garlits owns a Chrysler Hemi-powered Piranha funny car, while the car that starred in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (the British TV series that ran from 1964–68) reportedly resides with a collector in Hollywood.

Zucchi’s car, however, is far from a dusty museum show piece. After restoring the car in 2002, Zucchi has raced the car on the vintage circuit every chance he gets. Its 200-horsepower Corvair 140 engine—with triple Weber carbs—pushes just 1400 pounds, so the car retains the nimble quickness that made it such a success on 1960s SCCA circuits. With its big disc brakes, coilovers on all four corners, and surprisingly neutral handling, the Piranha continues to hold its own against Maseratis, Jaguars, and Aston Martins.

AMT Piranha racer seat belt detail
Courtney Frisk
AMT Piranha racer nose
Courtney Frisk

AMT Piranha front quarter detail
Courtney Frisk

When parked in the paddock, the car never fails to attract attention, both newfound and nostalgic. Passersby often corral Zucchi to tell him of the Piranha slot car they owned, or of the AMT Piranha model they built as a kid. Even the late American racing great Phil Hill once approached Zucchi at an event and proceeded to recall memories of the Piranha blowing by him at Riverside International Raceway in the 1960s as if Hill was standing still.

“We didn’t know what the hell that thing was,” Zucchi recalls Hill saying. “We couldn’t tell if it was a boat or a car, but it sure was fast!”

That’s a normal outburst for just about everyone who sees the Piranha, though.

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    “The Man From UNCLE” was an American TV series, NOT British.
    And the engine features TWO Weber 3-barrel carbs, as used on early Porsche 911s, not three (2-throat) carbs.

    Bottomless Lakes is a state park near Roswell New Mexico, not Phoenix AZ. It wasn’t a hillclimb. It was a highspeed eight mile course with elevation changes on the road around the park.

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