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
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.
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.