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Legendary Fuel Altered Set To Return
Great burnout shot at Lions Drag strip. Photo courtesy Jim Sorenson
One of the legendary Fuel Altereds of the ’60s, the 1969 Mondello/Matsubara Fiat Topolino, is slowly coming back to life in California, thanks largely to the efforts of three individuals – Karpo Murkijanian, Pete Eastwood and Derek Bower.
Joe Mondello and driver, Sush Matsubara, started racing Fiat Altereds back in 1965, initially with power coming from an injected 327 Chevy, but latterly, they moved to a Roy Fejested-built car equipped with a blown 472 cu in Chevy. Allegedly, this car was the first Fuel Altered to run in the 8s, and then the 7s!
In early 1969, Matsubara ordered another car; this time from a company named Exhibition Engineering, and it was this Topolino that helped further to immortalise the efforts of M&M. It set the national record for AA Fuel Altereds with a 7.24 ET and 213 mph pass at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis in 1969, and won runner-up in Competition Eliminator. To put that amazing performance into perspective, the low ET for Funny Cars at that event was 7.22, set by Don Schumacher.
Typical Competition Eliminator action. Photo courtesy of NHRA
Eastwood and Murkijanian are long-time Fuel Altered fans, and while bench racing one evening, got to thinking about the Mondello/Matusbara Fiats and the likelihood of ever finding one. To satisfy their curiosity, they began a search on the internet, and more precisely, Jim Sorensen’s excellent Fuel Altered website, www.mysterion.net. Here, after scanning countless pages of photographs of Fuel Altereds, they came across images of the M&M cars racing at tracks in the US – and intriguingly, a fairly recent photo of an M&M Fiat on a trailer. Clearly, one car did exist, but where was it?
Jim Sorenson put the pair in touch with the photographer, who told them that the image was taken in New England. From there, they contacted the local drag strip and discovered the whereabouts of the owner of the Fiat. They eventually tracked him down to the unlikely location of Rhode Island. A further ’phone call revealed the owner was prepared to sell the car. There was only one course of action – armed with pockets full of bank notes, Karpo boarded a plane in California and flew to Rhode Island, several thousand miles away. Amazingly, within four days of making that initial telephone call, Karpo was in possession of the Holy Grail – a Mondello/Matsubara Fiat!
Karpo and his prize after unloading the car from the trailer at his friends house
in Rhode Island. Photo by Mark Hovsepian
This is what the car will look like once restored. This photo was taken by Jere Alhadeff and appeared in the September 1969 issue of Drag Racing magazine.
The version they discovered is the 1969 car, which featured a purple-striped paint job. “There were two purple paint schemes, one solid and one striped, but this car will be returned to its original, striped colour scheme,” says Eastwood. “The car was remarkably complete for its age, and still had the original chassis, wheels, seat, seat belts, fuel tank, and much more. Only the motor and transmission were missing.”
Sush and Joe with the car at the 2005 CHRR
The car was purchased in 2005, returned to California in the condition in which it was discovered, and subsequently put on display at the Hot Rod Reunion in Bakersfield. Since then, however, it’s been stripped down to the last nut and bolt, and is in the lengthy process of a very thorough restoration. It’s hoped that the finished car will debut at this year’s CHRR in Bakersfield, towards the end of 2007 – or sooner, at Irwindale, if the work can be completed in time.
“I’m very excited about the restoration of the car,” says Joe Mondello. “I know Karpo and his team will do an exquisite restoration job and I’m really looking forward to seeing it brought back to life. I’m just sorry Sush will not be here to see it.” Sadly Sush Matsubara passed away in 2006.
“We have no intention of running the car down the quarter mile,” says Eastwood. “This car has already proved its worth in competition, and it will be a thrill enough for us to fire it up at the cacklefest.” Even so, all of the best parts will be fitted to the motor and transmission, to keep it running reliably.
The chrome plating will be finished in the next couple of weeks, and the car will then be put back on four wheels. The body is at the painters and should be ready for colour shortly. In the meantime, below is a pictorial report of where the team is with the rebuild of this famous car.
Special thanks go to Pete Eastwood, Karpo Murkijanian, Joe and Mary Mondello and Jim Sorenson for their invaluable contributions to this story.
Story: Andy Kirk & Graham Jones
Bowers blower has been rebuilt
The brakes have been hard anodized and rebuilt
Original chassis has been repainted
Early magneto, expertly restored by Tom Cirello
Derek Bower takes a break from working on the motor
The original car had polished aluminium throughout - just like this
Friend, John Funakoshi, built the trans, and Jerry from Jerry’s Transmissions put the unit on the dyno
The beautifully restored 12-spoke spindle mount ARE wheels