Restoring the Piranha Dragster

As a young man growing up in Detroit, Rich Riddell remembers seeing pictures of the Piranha dragster when it was first built in 1966 by AMT, and thinking how great the car looked. Little did he know that someday he would end up owning it.

In 1971, Rich met a gentleman by the name of Fred Smith. He soon discovered that Fred was the builder of the Piranha dragster and soon all their conversations ultimately revolved around the car and its’ racing history.

Rich moved to California in 1980 and eventually learned that the historic car was now part of the Harrah Auto Collection. When he visited the museum, he found the car in disrepair and missing many parts. He was told by the museum curator that the car would be sold at the next auction. Rich was promised that he would be contacted before the auction, but Harrah’s failed to do so and he missed the event in 1986. The car went to a buyer in North Carolina.

The Piranha Dragster as shown in the Harrah's Vehicle Auction magazine for June 27-29, 1986. "Poor overall condition ... not in running condition ... missing parts."

Fortunately, in January 1990, Rich discovered an ad for the Piranha in “Hemming’s Motor News.” He made a quick call and bought the car, sight unseen, over the phone. He sent the money the next day, which arrived shortly before veteran drag racer Don Garlits showed up to buy the car for his museum in Florida.

The front part of the lower tub still had the original Winfield paint job and lettering.

Upon receiving the car, Rich started restoring and updating the chassis. He acquired many new parts, a new engine, and upgraded much of the car. During this time, Rich also talked to Gene Winfield, one of the cars builders, and Walt Stevens, a former driver of the car. He planned to restore the car to running condition and ultimately make some passes with the car at the drag strip.

Then disaster struck. Later in 1990, the NHRA made a ruling that old drag cars could no longer be run at their drag strips. Because of this, Rich lost interest in the project and it sat idle and almost untouched for about 10 years.

Fortunately, in 2001, Rich’s interest in the car was rekindled and is next in line to be finished after a current project is completed. Rich estimates the car could be completed with as little as two months work. When completed, the restored car will probably end up in Garlit’s museum in Florida.

Thanks to Rich for sharing the story and photos of his car and good luck on the finishing touches.

Piranha Homepage
Page Updated: 2003