Big-block “street altered” 1937 Fiat is a Motown mystery machine

The "Orange Crush" lettering appears to have been professionally applied. Pit crew members are listed as Fast Mike, Boom and Dicky. Real names or characters in drag racing fiction? Dicky, if you're out there tell us more about this car. Paul Stenquist

I’ve driven my ’55 Bel Air in almost every Woodward Dream Cruise, Metro Detroit’s nostalgic celebration of automotive culture that springs up each August. This year my wife, our adult son, and I decided to just enjoy the show, whereas in past years I’ve frequently spent the day reporting on some assignment. We cruised to the event’s Ferndale starting point in the early morning, then headed north to Hunter House for a breakfast of cheeseburger sliders, with stops at Pasteiner’s AutoZone Hobbies and at a the Cruise’s unofficial epicenter near 13 Mile. There we bumped into our friends Ken and Susan Lybolt, whose Barbie car Austin Healey was recently featured on these pages, but I was soon distracted by a screaming-orange hot rod.

It was a 1937 Fiat Topolino with big gum in back and skinny tires up front, looking for all the world like a fuel altered car from the golden age of drag racing, and parked just across the street from the Lybolt machine. The orange paint appeared to be nearly flawless from a distance, with nicely rendered lettering identifying the car as “Orange Crush.”

I walked over to take a closer look. The car was built on a tube chassis, much like early funny car designs. Nestled between the rails was a carbureted big-block Chevy. “Okay, a drag car,” I thought, but no—it had headlights, taillights, and even a side mirror. “Street altered,” if there is such a thing, would be a more apt descriptor. Little did I know that I was just scratching the surface of this pretty little orange car, which despite looking new and unmolested, was a in fact a mystery machine at least thirty years in the making.

Fiat Topolino chassis
Paul Stenquist

On Dream Cruise day, machines that no one would ever expect to find on a public road motor up and down Woodward. I’ve seen an Isetta with a Chevy V-8 in back, a motorized unicycle, and a rolling outhouse overflowing with clowns. But this was my first Fiat Topolino hot rod coupe.

I called out to a crowd of spectators on the side of the road, inquiring after Orange Crush’s owner. No response, so my family and I left, but later I called Ken and asked if the Fiat owner had returned. “Gone,” he said, “took off down Woodward.”


Later that day, I got a text from Susan that included an image of a business card. “We saw the Fiat Topolino cruising down Woodward and Ken flagged him down,” she wrote. The owner’s name: Jim Hudnut. Naturally, I called and arranged for a time to meet.

Hudnut the car nut

Hudnut is a Motor City old-timer, a friendly wrench who proved even more interesting than his unique automobile. His hands are grease-stained and calloused, as are the paws of any mechanic worth their salt. He grew up in Lathrup Village, a middle-class Metro Detroit neighborhood. He graduated from Southfield High School in 1970, coming of age in the days when you were either a jock, a scholar, or a car guy.

Fiat Topolino owner on roof
Jim Hudnut demonstrates the best way to enter Orange Crush. Although getting on in years, Hudnut must have some mountain goat blood. Paul Stenquist

Hudnut has always been a car guy to his core. Right out of high school he picked up a ’57 Chevy, sans motor, for $300 and built a 301-cubic-inch small-block Chevy in the basement of his parents’ house. Those 301s were the hot ticket for low-buck racers back then. All it took was a 283 V-8 bored 0.060-inch over stock. The 283, an engine produced in the millions by GM, could be had for a song in just about any boneyard. Aftermarket pistons, like those in the J.C. Whitney catalog, sold for about $100 a set, and Chevy’s legendary Duntov 30-30 camshaft was available for $50 or so.

In Hudnut’s ’57 shoebox, that 301 small-block was good for low 14-second ETs—fast enough to win stock class at Detroit Dragway or turn away the rich kids’ GTOs and Chevelles on Woodward or Telegraph Road.

“We raced on Telegraph,” Hudnut said. “Woodward was high-dollar stakes, but you could stoplight race on Telegraph for pocket change.”

A couple years of study at Northwood University (Michigan’s training ground for auto industry professionals) got Hudnut started in the service station business. In the early ’80s he signed on as a mechanic at Mel Farr Ford, eventually earning his credentials as a Ford Master Technician. Drag racing and fast cars became distant objects in the rear-view mirror as time passed. Wanting to escape the busy, closed-in suburbs of his youth, he bought a few acres of land wedged between the big state parks near Brighton, Michigan.

Never afraid of hard work, Hudnut singlehandedly built a log cabin on that land in 1990. Not just any old log cabin, either, but a 2400-square-footer made with timbers trucked in from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and joined with 12-inch spikes pounded in with a sledgehammer. When Mel Farr’s 11 Ford dealerships went blooey in 2002, depriving him of steady work, Hudnut opened his own repair business in a pole barn behind the cabin.

Life for Jim and Terrie, his wife of 47 years, was good. The business supported them well, the house was paid for, and the handful of neighbors who lived nearby became friends.

One of those neighbors was an old drag racing buddy from back in the day, who kept telling him how the guys they grew up with were racing again. So, when Hudnut reached retirement age in 2018, he decided to get together with the old gang on the drag strip. Not wanting to spend a fortune building a car from scratch, he bought a cool little Henry J street machine and set about converting it to a drag car. Today, it runs 10.80s in Open Comp at Milan Dragway. With a dose of nitrous it has run 9.80.

Fiat Topolino front three quarter
This Fiat Topolino looks just like an altered from back in the day. But it has headlights and a side view mirror that say “street machine.” Paul Stenquist
Fiat Topolino rear three quarter
The Fiat’s paint looks pristine at a glance, but all other indications suggest it’s at least 30 years old. Paul Stenquist

A Fiat comes calling

The Henry J was enough for Hudnut … until he spotted the blistering orange Fiat Topolino in a Facebook Marketplace ad. It was a basket case, having been disassembled for reasons unknown and advertised for sale by a guy not far away; Hudnut dropped by to have a look. He apparently liked what he saw, and at $7K, the price was more than reasonable. Beating out a line of would-be buyers, he plunked down the cash and dragged the machine home in boxes.

Hudnut learned very little about the Fiat’s history from the seller, who surmised it had been built about 40 years prior by Dominic Blasco, a well-known Chicago area drag racer who has managed numerous drag strips. The car came with a title, but the Michigan Secretary of State (DMV in most other states) couldn’t provide any information about previous owners.

The car’s origin wasn’t a matter of deep concern for Hudnut, so he got to work. In short order, the Topolino was together, using the parts supplied by the seller. Among them were a tube chassis and a fully assembled big-block Chevy V-8 displacing 413 cu in. Hudnut has dug into the engine and reports it has a hydraulic cam and pistons with a small dome, which means it’s likely a stock 375-horsepower factory engine with a bit of an overbore that should bump output up a bit. Of course, even 375 horsepower is more than enough for a car that weighs about 1600 pounds.

Other equipment includes a Powerglide transmission with a streetable 11-inch torque converter and a ’58 Corvette third member. That rear end gives Hudnut pause, as the axles had apparently been shortened and welded to fit the narrowed case.

Future plans include replacing the Corvette rear with a narrow nine-inch Ford unit. Also due for replacement are the Mickey Thompson rear tires, which are far too old to be driven on with even minor aggression. The engine can be left as is, since it runs well and will probably be very reliable and powerful enough to take the little car to some healthy elapsed times, should Hudnut decide to run the car at the track.

I photographed the Orange Crush Fiat on the expansive lawn behind Hudnut’s oversized log cabin. If I didn’t know better, I would have sworn the car was a recent build, given its condition. Hoping to learn more I called Blasco, who is currently managing the US 41 Dragstrip in Indiana. He barely remembered the car, saying he didn’t build it and had owned it only briefly in the ’80s or ’90s, driving it just a few times before selling it. He thinks the chassis was built by the first owner but couldn’t remember from whom he had purchased it or exactly when that had occurred. (None of this is surprising given that Blasco has owned many drag cars in the years since.)

Thus, Orange Crush’s origin remains a mystery. Perhaps an informed reader will recognize the pretty little faux Fiat and tell us more about it in the comments section below.




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    We have a 37 in town here. It is called The New Kid In Town. It was built back in the 80’s by Kevin Mcdonald who just recently passed away.

    He had a T buck he built in the early 70’s with a 392 Blown Hemi. The car was sold and he built the Fiat. The car retained the Blown hemi and in place of the holes in the front it has a airbrushed grill. The car was painted by Greg of Akron a nationally known van and car painter from the area. He also painted Arlen Vanke’s Pro Stock cars and Ken Veneys Alcohol Funny cars.

    The car was top notched race and show car. It had a full powder coated tube frame. The body tilted like a funny car or you could use the doors to get in and out. Fully functional parachute on the back.

    This car would have been a World of Wheels show winner had he shown it but he just chose to drive it. He also had a Grand Sport Corvette reproduction he build and restored a front engine rail nitro dragster from the 60’s. He never got to drive it as he was a large man.

    Back in the day he also had a matching Kawasaki 900 with a turbo on it and all the fasteners were gold plated.

    The Fiat was a local fixture and not really seen out of the area. It is still the nicest I have seen. It did appear in the Summit Racing Catalog in the 80’s at the old drag strip on the axcess road where Roger Penske ran his first race as well Art and Walt Arfons ran their early Green Monster drag cars. It was a good shot of the fiat and a rail with chutes out on the two lane road where they used to race in front of the soap box derby track.

    Kevin got me into my first car show and he was a quiet big man who really spoke with the cars he built and taught us young guys how to do it right. Sad he is not with us now.

    Orange Crush is a very cool car! This is the sort of car that gets my hot rod blood going. I’ve always liked the Topolino/Altered look and this one checks all the right boxes for me. 👍👍

    Driving that beauty must the most fun you can with your clothes on. I did sort of the same thing to a Daimler SP 250 body that I got my hands on. Widen the body 10 inches stretched the front quarters 4 inches, tube chassis under it, and powered with a 355in SBC,fede through a Hilborn fuely.On the dino it made 425 hp. The car weight 1892 lbs.

    Michigan has always had some really interesting street and drag cars (Ron Ellis “Trick T” AA/A 392 blown Hemi-powered green ’23 Ford T Roadster; Russ Eggers orange ’57 Corvette “Go-Rilla” Hilborn-injected 427 with straight axle; Dodge Ramchargers; Royal Bobcat Pontiac GTO’s; etc.). Russ Eggers (Saginaw, MI) also had a very similar Fiat Topolino drag car (Bandito) that was powered by a Hilborn-injected big block Chevy motor, and it may have had a tilt-body. One guy in town had a street driven dark blue ’59 El Camino with a straight axle front end (Papa Don). Ron DuRussell had a red ’23 Ford T-Bucket with a blown 392 Hemi with slicks and zoomie headers that was street legal. Jon Hall had a beautiful metalflake blue channeled ’27 Ford Roadster with an Olds V-8 with 6 dueces. There was Dave Curry’s metallic blue ’31 Ford full-fendered 5-window coupe gasser-style with 327, 4-speed with a black diamond-tufted interior. There was Tiny Matthis Chevy-powered black ’40 Ford coupe with a straight axle. There were a couple of nice black Chevy-powered full-fendered ’32 Ford 5-window coupes (Ray Weavers and mine). The list goes on and on. Those were the days my friend! What a neat place and era (60’s) to grow up in. Other than Jon Hall’s and Ron Ellis cars, where did all of the rest go? What ever happened to Russ Eggers old orange Chevy-powered ’34 Ford 3-window coupe with white interior?

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