Paul Zielsdorf of Schofield, Wis., has a dragster with a history. His Fiat Topolino started burning up Wisconsin’s famous Great Lakes Dragaway in Union Grove as early as 1962. His research has found that Jerry Adams built the car with a 348-cid Chevy big-block nestled in a Lakewood chassis. The “doghouse” for the parachute was installed by Roger “The Mole” Jackson in his Mole Cave located behind a donut shop in Kemosha. The car was then painted all yellow and powered by Chevy’s first big-block, the 348-cid V-8 that arrived in 1958.
Mike Gish of Coloma, Wis., saw the car racing at Great Lakes Dragaway—better known as “The Grove”—when he was 12 years old. In 1968, he was reading the Milwaukee Journal and noticed an ad placed by Power Automotive of Kenosha for a Fiat altered drag car. He immediately knew which car it was. Gish went to see it and bought it as a roller with no engine or transmission. He brought it home and had Jim Luker at Magnum Racing Engines in Milwaukee build a 301 small-block Chevy with Hillborn injection.
The motor was painted “Rustoleum Yellow” and attached to a three-speed manual gearbox with a Corvette shifter using a National Hot Rod Assoc. approved Ansen bellhousing. At the rear was a 1957 Chevy axle with 4.56:1 gears. Airheart disc brakes kept the American Racing magnesium wheels and Mickey Thompson M/T drag tires from turning when the juice was applied.
In 1971, the car was painted in its current color scheme. The base body color is white and the ribbon stripes were smoked into the paint with an acetylene torch. A white spider web graphic was applied on the nose and the entire paint job was then clear coated with pearl lacquer. With this custom finish the car stood out both at The Grove and in national hot rod and custom car shows.
The Fiat was raced again in 1972-1973. Mike Gish or his nephew Dave Straw drove the car and a neighbor nicknamed “Hobo” crewed for them. The car turned in inconsistent performances at The Grove. Its best run was a 10.17-sec. quarter mile. It was shown at International Show Car Assoc. events in Milwaukee, Sheboygan, Chicago, Detroit, Dubuque, Cleveland and Philadelphia between 1968 and 1973 and took a third place award in ISCA competition.
After the 1973 drag racing season ended, the Fiat was stripped down for repairs. The engine was removed for work that was never completed. The car was moved from one garage to another and some parts were stolen along the way. It sat in storage until 2007, when a salesman stopped by Hobo’s place in Coloma and noticed the Hillborn injection unit sitting on a shelf. When he asked if it was for sale, the answer went, “Yes, but you have to buy the car that goes with it.”
Zielsdorf ultimately wound up with the car. He really wanted a Willys gasser, but the Topolino had advantages. “It fit in my budget and fit in my garage,” he said. “I had a little bit of space, so I thought, I’ll buy it. The car basically was in the condition it is in now, but had been taken apart. I had to reassemble it and pressure-wash everything and clean it. It had not had anything done to it since it was taken apart in 1973. I had to basically put it back together.”
Zielsdorf hopes to preserve the car much like it was in 1968. He has made only a few changes required to make it reliable and legal for nostalgic drag racing events. He says it’s never going to be a car that wins races, because it doesn’t have all the safety equipment required for regular drag racing. Paul adds only bolt-in items, but wants to preserve the car’s originality and leave it like it was.
The Fiat has its original seat and circa-1957 military surplus driver’s harness, its original butterfly steering wheel, Corvair steering, a Triumph Spitfire master cylinder and the ’57 ‘Vette shifter. It has no cooling system. There’s only a little bit of water in the block and that’s it, so when raced or driven at car shows, it has a short run time. After three or four minutes it’s already getting pretty warm.
At the Symco Shakedown Zielsdorf drove the Fiat up and down the street outside the show grounds and blew a spider gear out of the rear axle. He then fixed the car there, started it up and drove it into Unionville where the show is held. The Vagabonds hot rod club rewarded his determination by presenting the car with a trophy made out of an old wheel rim and various parts and gave it to Paul as the “Best of Show” award. How much better can life get?