While the original Little Red Wagon may have become an accidental hero, Roger Lang’s version was always destined for stardom

Back in 1965 Bill ‘Maverick’ Golden surprised not only himself but the whole world when his Dodge A100 pick-up lifted the front wheels off the ground under a hard launch. Granted, the A100 was built as a demo car — and to be the fastest truck in the land — and it was far from standard, but wheel stands were few and far between in those days, and most certainly did not get performed by Dodge trucks. 

While the first few wheel stands happened accidentally during filming for a television commercial, from there the Little Red Wagon went on to become the world’s first dedicated and most famous wheel-stander. 

Getting the truck to perform its acrobatics was relatively simple, thanks to a 426ci Hemi mounted just rearwards of the vehicle’s cab. With around four times as much power as the factory slant six, and more rearwards weight distribution, the nose would lift on command and it became a great advertising campaign for what are admittedly not the most pleasant-looking vehicles. 

From that accidental beginning the Little Red Wagon went on to tour America, appearing at events across the country. It wasn’t until 2003 that Maverick retired, and the Little Red Wagon retired with him, although within that time there had been a few different wagons, since they slowly got destroyed by the antics. 

The surviving wagon is now part of a museum collection, as is another that was built from parts of two wrecked ones. To this day, though, the Little Red Wagon is remembered across the globe, and it is well known and highly respected in drag racing circles. 

The memory recalled

Auckland Mopar enthusiast Roger Lang was just one of those schoolboys at the time who was amazed by the wagon’s wheel standing. “It started back in 1976, with my buddy John Burnett, at primary school,” Roger recalls. “We found this American book in the school library with loads of colour photos of exotic customs and wicked race cars, shortened VW Kombis to drag cars and beach buggies. There was this little pick-up truck on its rear wheels, too.

“Fast forward to around 2005, when Rodney Holland from Rodney’s Restorations and I started talking about a cool project to get into. The truck on two wheels came up again, and was shelved for a while. Last year the bug caught up again, when we were surfing the net and found a camper van version… Some stupid ideas came up, but fortunately we missed out due to a miscalculation on eBay closing times. Undeterred, I surfed frantically and within three days had found the machine we have now. It had only been listed on the trader site for around two hours when I found it on the net. The owner was more than happy to help with shipping arrangements, and the deal was done.”

No doubt people who have not seen or heard of the Little Red Wagon would have been wondering why anyone would buy such an interesting looking machine (that’s the politically correct way of saying fugly), let alone ship it half way across the world.

The project begins

Famous Pacific Shipping was given the task of transporting the truck through the southern States and across to New Zealand, where the mammoth rebuild would take place. Roger is quick to point out that although it made its debut at Beach Hop this year, five weeks out from the event the truck was 80 percent panelbeaten, but nothing else had been touched. There were a lot of late nights and quick decisions, and Roger has asked that huge thanks go out to the wives, partners and children who lost their loved ones in Rodney’s shed for that time period. 

“The thanks list is huge. So many people helped out during the build, many of them off their own back, so it’s great to see other people are as passionate about it as Rodney and I are,” Roger says. 

Although it would be nice to see a Hemi in the back of it, the motor the Dodge currently sports is no slouch itself, and at the least has got the car on the road and legal. “The truck had been destined to become a promo vehicle for the previous owner’s water-blasting business,” Roger explains. “Sadly for him, other events took control and the truck sat for about three to four years. Unbeknown to me the 360ci Chrysler V8 had been completely rebuilt a few years earlier and had just accumulated a multitude of dirt, grime and a raccoon infestation over the time it sat and was only driven periodically.” 

The Mopar motor’s internals are unknown, but the externals are now eye-catching and, more importantly, functional. They include things such as an Edelbrock Performer aluminium intake, Holley 570cfm carb, Mopar electronic ignition and Hooker Super Competition headers.
With the motor sitting effectively between the front seats, a layer of Dynamat has been added to keep the heat at bay. A Vintage-Air air conditioning system has also been fitted, as have the seats out of Rodney’s son’s Toyota (“Thanks for that, Malcolm”). 

There are plenty of little bits and pieces that proved troublesome during the restoration, but thankfully the chassis was in great condition, which gave a solid starting point. “Parts were ordered through numerous sources, including Summit Racing and Year One, along with the good old favourite eBay,” says Roger, who stayed up through the night on more than one occasion to make sure he didn’t miss out on elusive components. “Some parts are so hard to get that sitting up all night to win a single lens is a worthwhile way to lose sleep,” he says, laughing. 

The truck’s flawless finish is thanks to the many hours put into the bodywork by Simon Tippens of Creative Panelworks, after it had been media blasted by Media Blasters Ltd in Pukekohe. PPG came to the party to provide the final colour, which was applied by Rodney — after all, he’s a painter by trade despite his expertise in all other aspects of restoration work. 

Lessons learnt

The rebuild of such an oddball machine often makes for dramas, but so confident were Roger and Rodney in the workmanship of all involved, and so short was the deadline, that there wasn’t a chance to drive the car before it went for its VIN. It was a big risk, but one that was well worth taking when the Dodge passed with flying colours. Better still, it made the trip from Auckland to Beach Hop and back still with no dramas. With 4:1 diff gears it may have used a bit of petrol, but Roger had more than enough fun to make up for it. Even the reminder that the fuel gauge isn’t accurate — and the subsequent short walk to a nearby petrol station — couldn’t take the smile off the guys’ faces. 

The fuel gauge incident is just one of the many lessons learnt during the build. Roger recalls a couple of them. “Lesson two: American parts supply stores selling genuine replacement or OE equipment doesn’t necessarily mean the parts will fit the vehicle in question. Lesson three: when asking locally for parts at parts stores, describe the part, not the vehicle. Exotic and unusual vehicles generally don’t figure in modern parts books or computer systems. Lesson four: don’t lock the car without knowing if it will unlock.” There are plenty of other lessons too, some of which I’m sure will be kept secret for some time yet.

Where to from here? Now the truck is on the road, Roger is happy to use it for advertising and promotion, hence the sign board that folds up from the rear tray whenever it is parked. (Check out www.redwagon.co.nz for info). Deep down, though, I think we all know that it will one day see a Hemi in the rear. Mention that to Roger and all you will get is a tell-tale smile… 

1968 Dodge A100 pick-up

  • Engine: 360ci (5.9-litre) small block Chrysler V8, replacement engine, ’71 block – fresh rebuild less than 805km old, Edelbrock performer aluminium intake, Holley 570cfm (period carb for a ’70 big block), reverse-base chrome air cleaner, Mopar electronic ignition, Mopar coil, std 7mm leads, NGK spark plugs. Hooker Super Competition headers S/S two-inch mufflers, custom built exhaust system by Kenny at Waiuku Radiators & Mufflers, standard two-core radiator, seven-blade solid fan, aluminium water pump, new loom, Dynamat installed throughout, Lokar flexi throttle cable and gas pedal, Vintage-Air air conditioning system, new pulley set from Bouchillon Performance Engineering (USA)
  • Driveline:  Chrysler 727 with short tail-shaft, stock converter, cable shift from dashboard, American Quarter shift knob, Mopar 8.75-inch diff with 2.76:1 gears, open head for safety reasons
  • Suspension: Stock leaf spring with I-beam axle and Kingpins etc, reversed hangers on rear for height adjustment, Monroe shocks all round, Nolathane bushes
  • Brakes: 254mm drums all round
  • Wheels/tyres: 15x6 and 15x8-inch Wheel Vintiques Mopar stock steel rims, 195/60R15 and 275/60R15 BF Goodrich tyres
  • Exterior: Fuel filler from a ’69 Dodge Charger was Frenched in by Simon Tippens (this was thought of way before we heard about Chip Foose doing the same with a Viper filler cap on an episode of Overhaulin’). Body panelled by Simon Tippens of Creative Panelworks, media blasted by Jason at Media Blasters Ltd, Pukekohe, all loose panels and small body parts were stripped by Perry Brewer and Co at Powerstrip Industries Ltd, PPG Sting Red paint, custom signage created by Glen of Gibbs Signs and ABC Print
  • Interior: Toyota Cynos front seats – cleaned meticulously by Zeta Panton, new seatbelts from Safer Seatbelts, stock steering wheel with NOS horn ring; and indicator switch, stock gauges, volt and amp gauges hidden inside engine house, windows tinted by Car Tint Ltd, new custom-made carpet by Karl Turner
  • Performance: Untested

Driver profile

  • Owner: Roger Lang
  • Car Club: American Muscle Car Club of NZ    
  • Age: 45
  • Occupation: Electrician
  • Previously owned cars: 1969 Dodge Charger 383 auto, 1970 Plymouth Roadrunner 440 four-speed, 1970 Plymouth GTX 440 four-speed (current), Chevy one-ton van (in USA) – don’t tell too many people, Pontiac TransAm (in USA) – okay, really don’t mention this, 1981 Range Rover, V8, four-speed plus O/D – UK daily driver, numerous MkI Escorts, a MkIII Zephyr, Hillman Imp, Fiat Bambina, Renault Dauphine (it gets worse…)
  • Dream car: My old Roadrunner… 160mph-plus, quarter-mile burnouts, 14mpg, five passengers, tow a BBQ at any speed and still be a daily driver. What more could anyone want?
  • Why the Dodge: I wanted one from when I was a kid
  • Build time: Approx five weeks, although only about 80 per cent of the panel work was complete 14 days before its arrival at the 2010 Beach Hop! 
  • Length of ownership: Eight months

Roger thanks: Rodney Holland — Restoration Whizzkid from Hell, NZ’s top car painter, and thoroughly good bloke to work with. Zeta Panton — Rodney’s partner, for putting up with me for several months, feeding the crew at all hours and I mean all hours (bacon and eggs at 6am).

Wally Chaplin – for turning up unasked and working like a demon through the night to help get the project finished, Simon Tippens at Creative Metalworks Pukekohe (09 239 1023), Marcus Goldsworthy and Paul Stichbury and the team at Famous Pacific Shipping for all their help in the USA and here in NZ, Andy Baker at PPG New Zealand for generously donating the paint, PPG Delfleet, Glenn Gibbs at Gibbs Signs Papakura (09 296 5444), Cliff Brice at Mobile Mechanical Repairs Waiuku (09 235 2323), Carl Priestly for a big helping hand in panel prep, Mark Stokes at MS Vehicle Certification 0274 522 276, Kenny Bracken at Waiuku Radiators & Mufflers (09 235 6223), and ‘Dr Phil’ Arthur at Designer Brakes Ltd, Waiuku.

Jason at Pukekohe media Blasters (09 238 4298), William Cleary (Chillib) in Kentucky USA for being a real trooper handling all my eBay and USA parts purchases to forward on — I trust him like a brother. Chris Benoit in Dallas Texas for travelling across to check the vehicle out for me, and also purchase parts – another great friend I have made over the internet. Bricon Engineering Ltd (09 634 0207), Waiuku Brake & Alignment Ltd (09 235 6022), Perry Brewer at Powerstrip Industries Ltd Mt Wellington (09 573 0146), Steve Burr at ABC Print Papakura (09 297 2074), Lee Marriner at Diffs ’R’ Us (09 270 0850), Magoo’s Street Rods for the air-conditioning components (06 377 5706), Autolign Mt Wellington (09 574 2270), Selwyn from All Fuel Services for tuning of the carb (09 263 4564). Matt Smith for the awesome Dynamat work.

And last but by no means least, my wife Maree for allowing me to undertake this project, albeit with a measured amount of apprehension; my boys Cameron and Jacob for being good while I was away from home working on the truck; my sister Debbie and her husband Dean for childcare duties and assisting with finance during the final push; Lindsay and Nigel from American Boats Direct for assisting with some last minute urgent parts; my brother Steve for helping with the tear-down (somewhat like Clyde in the Clint Eastwood Every Which Way movies); Karen Chaplin and Julie Brice for allowing their husbands out to play late — and providing scrumptious food.

This article originally featured in the June 2010 issue of NZV8 (Issue No. 61). Don't miss out on having this mag in your collection. Grab one of the last print copies, or grab a digital copy below:

Todd Wylie

Todd Wylie has been involved with NZV8 magazine since before the first issue was printed, and has been the editor for the last eight years. Growing up in the heyday of the Jap-import scene, he's not adverse to Japanese vehicles, having worked for NZ Performance Car previously, as well as owning a few well-known examples. These days he cruises at a slower pace in a 1956 Cadillac Coupe and dreams of building a Model A tudor.