Vic Hickey – 1976 Inductee Vic Hickey is recognized for his achievements as an off-road vehicle designer. He helped design vehicles which are cultural icons today such as the Chevrolet Blazer, the Humvee, the Lunar Rover and the legendary off road race vehicle the Baja Boot.
In 1919 Vic Hickey was born in Akron, Ohio. His family moved to South Gate, California soon after his birth. As a boy Hickey spilt his time between South Gate and his grandfather’s ranch in Tenachapi, California. As a young man he found flying, sports (including roller derby), hunting and hot rods interesting. By age 12 he had purchased his first car a Model T Ford and by 16 he had soloed his first airplane. In his teens he raced cars across Southern California’s dry lake beds. He earned his pilots license at age 19. He self taught himself to work on sprint cars, dry lake racers, and Novi Indy Cars. At age 24 in 1943 he attended the Navy’s pre-flight training program at Cal Poly, San Louis Obispo Campus. He served the Navy during World War II. While in the military he invented a device which converted air-to-ground missiles into ship-to-ship missiles. After the War he returned to Southern California and his young wife Leona.
Hickey met his wife Leona at a California roller rink. As a roller derby racer he had been speeding around the rink, when he accidentally knocked her over. He asked her out. The couple were married for 63 years and had two children Jim and Gail. Because of his family Hickey choose to design, build and repair race cars for others rather than take the risks of driving himself. He once stated, I figured anybody can drive a car, not everyone can build one.
Building and designing innovative vehicles, many well before their time, is what Hickey is most recognized for. He worked on numerous projects many providing long lasting contributions that would help from space exploration to traversing earth’s varied terrain. When he returned from WWII he briefly attended Cal Poly again on the GI Bill and studied Physical Education. He then opened his auto shop in Los Angeles where he specialized in Indy Dragsters. During the Korean War he developed flotation devices and extra wheel kits for Military Jeeps to keep them from getting stuck in rice patties. Rolling with the success from these inventions he felt that a better off-road vehicle could be developed the general public too. Between 1957 and 1959 Hickey developed an off-road vehicle he called the Trailblazer. His father helped to come up with the name. The vehicle had a prototype General Motors engine which his friend Bill Yeager helped him secure. Ed Cole the General Manager of GM came to California to see the capabilities of Hickey’s new vehicle. Hickey took Cole for a test drive in a dry river bed. Cole ended up driving and pushing the vehicle as hard as he could eventually breaking a tie-rod, suitably impressed with its performance he offered to buy the rights to the vehicle, its name and offered Hickey a job as a research and development engineer. The Trailblazer would not go into GM production as the Blazer until 2001, forty-two years after Hickey conceptualized the vehicle.
While at GM Hickey specialized in designing off-road military vehicles. There he helped develop amphibious vehicles, improved independent suspension which would be used on vehicles designed to explore the lunar landscape. He led the group which built the mobile Geological Trainer for the Apollo Space program as well as the Lunar Rover which went to the moon.
GM gave Hickey a semi-blessing to also work on off-road race vehicles in his shop. In 1967 with the help of friends he built the Baja Boot in 30 days. The Boot was a racing version of the Trailblazer and could hit a top speed of 140 miles per hour. Its first drivers Al Knapp and Drino Miller tested it at the 1967 Baja 1000 where its speed capability proved to be a liability and a rear suspension strut broke. Bud Ekins raced the vehicle at the inaugural 1969, Baja 500 to victory. The Boot had two other famous drivers, Steve McQueen and James Garner. The Baja Boot was the first purpose-built racer for the Baja event.
Hickey left GM in 1968 and set up Hickey Enterprises. He continued to work with GM as a main client for another 13 years. Now having his own shop he had the opportunity to experiment more with the types of off-road vehicles he chose to develop. He designed and built the Banshee for James Garner to race. This vehicle had an Olds Cutlass frame, an aluminum 455-inch Oldsmobile engine and toped out at a speed of 150 miles per hour. Garner won the Riverside Grand Prix in it. While Hickey enjoyed fabricating one-off race cars it was not very profitable. Hickey Enterprises grew beyond just developing race vehicles quickly and included the development and fabrication of aftermarket parts for off-road vehicles including the Blazer, Ford Bronco and Dodge Ram Trucks. By 1979 the company grew to 140 employees and a catalogue which listed over 1,400 items. Hickey chose to sell the company once it became more focused on manufacturing rather than design.
In semi-retirement he continued designing for GM, U-haul and others. In 1979 Hickey took a contract with the Food Machinery Corporation (FCM) to design a High-Mobility Multi-Purpose Wheel Vehicle (HMMWV). The vehicle would become known as the Humvee and eventually the Hummer. This vehicle was basically a very heavy duty version of the Baja Boot. The U.S. Army viewed the vehicles at a demonstration and had ten more built for testing. AM General began building the vehicles for the Army. By 1995 over 150,000 Humvees had been built for the U.S. Military and its allies. In 1999 General Motors purchased the name Hummer from AM General and began producing civilian versions of the vehicle. Hickey and his wife moved to the ranch of their dreams a 900 acre property near Paso Robles. In 2000 they sold the ranch and moved to Arroyo Grande. Hickey passed away of natural causes on June 13, 2003 at the age of 84.
Sources: Rafferty, Tod. The Achievers, Central California’s Engineering Pioneers. Central Coast History Foundation, San Luis Obispo, CA. 2004.
Obituary Victor Francis Hickey, The San Luis Obispo Tribune, 10 July 2003, p.B2.
Auto Maker, Vic Hickey Loves Cars and it Shows…,English, Jennifer. The San Luis Obispo Tribune, 24 March 2000, p.H1.