When it comes to mid-1960s NHRA Super Stock racing, fans generally associate AMC with the 1969 Hurst-AMC SS/AMX program, as they should. These machines dominated the SS/D through SS/J classes. However, as successful as the SS/AMX program may have been, it was not the groundbreaker many AMC aficionados assume. Three years earlier, Kenosha, Wisconsin’s Topel Rambler decided to build a Rebel Super Stock car to campaign around the Tri-State area. The dealer’s principles approached local car builder Dennis Porcaro.
“At the time, I had built a number of successful race cars, and Kurt and Hal Topel wanted me to build a car for them,” says Porcaro. “I quoted them a price, which was a little too steep for their budget. The Topels were well aware of the fact that I was about to lose the lease on my building, so they made me a counteroffer to go to work for them as a line mechanic at the dealership, and build the car there on the premises.”
Topel Rambler made arrangements through AMC Director of Motorsports Carl Chakmakian to retrieve the remains of a Samoa Gold Metallic 1967 Rambler Rebel R&D car that was sitting at Tony Tag’s Auto Salvage in Kenosha, says Porcaro.
“The car had been a rollover. The top was caved in. There were no front fenders, no doors, and the rear quarter-panels were pretty well torn up. I said, ‘What in the world do you expect me to do with this piece of junk?’”
Nonetheless, Porcaro persevered. He bumped out the top and rear fenders, replaced the front fenders, and added body parts as they were brought to him at the dealership.
“It was pretty funny. The body was gold. The doors were green, the hood and fenders were another color, and so was the trunk.”
Once the car was transformed into a roller, Topel service manager Kenny “Skip” Oettel (who was slated as driver) towed the car over to his home shop for the serious racecar prep. Bernie Pucci was an engine man who worked at Topel’s dealership, and was brought into the project as the build progressed.
“Dennis Porcaro, Skip Oettel, assistant service manager Gregg Kishline, and parts manager Kenny Shiodo were the main people involved with that project,” recalls Pucci. “Skip pretty much built that  engine out of what was lying around the dealership. I maintained the car.”
Curiously, Topel Rambler may have lent its name and exerted influence as one of the Midwest’s leading Rambler dealers to bring this project to fruition, but AMC’s involvement still remains in question.
“They gave us the car, that much I know,” says Pucci. “It came straight out of Tony Tag’s junkyard. I don’t even think we had a title for it. There was a guy who worked in AMC’s Experimental Department named Elverne Pfeifer who was a friend of Skip’s and hung around a lot. He never turned a wrench on the car, but he was at the dragstrip on a number of occasions when we ran the car. I am sure that he reported its progress to the higher ups at AMC.”
Porcaro says, “Funny thing is, the dealership raced the car, but other than paying our salaries, they never contributed any money toward it. The guys in the back room forked over the necessary funds out of their own pockets to keep things going.”
Carl Chakmakian also stated that Topel’s Super Stock Rambler served as a development mule for AMC’s Group 19 Parts program. Pucci weighed in on that subject. “I have heard a lot of talk about the Topel Rebel being the first known AMC drag car to participate in the Group 19 parts program, and that may or may not be true. All I know is that all parts we used on that project came out of the parts room at Topel Rambler. The last thing I remember is that [Topel was] thinking about changing the single four-barrel intake over to a dual four-barrel setup. Edelbrock had been assigned a Group 19 part number for that particular application, but I don’t know whether anything ever came of it.”
A big concern was that the Rebel Super Stocker remain 100 percent AMC, but according to Pucci, that proved problematic at times. “We had a lot of problems with the rearend. We broke ring gears. We bent driveshafts. We kept breaking axles. There was talk of going to a Ford 9-inch rearend, but Hal Topel would not hear of it. He wanted the car to remain ‘pure AMC.’ Finally we bought a set of steel billet axles from the automotive aftermarket, and that seemed to cure the problem.”
The Topel Rambler Rebel’s colors were also unique. As it turned out, the vertical-panel red, white, and blue paint job would set the standard for all other factory-sponsored AMC racecars to follow, according to Porcaro.
He says, “One of American Motors’ show cars was painted half red and half blue. But those colors just didn’t look right once transferred to the Rebel body. Finally we decided to paint them vertically and add the white panel spanning the midsection of the body.”
Once the car was lettered, Hal Topel, Dave Graves, Skip Oettel, and Kenny Shiodo posed for a picture with it in front of the dealership. In fact, the car looked so good that it won its class at the 1967 Chicago Autorama!
All told, the Topel Rambler Rebel was campaigned for a little over three years. Oettel recorded a best of 10.60 seconds at nearby Great Lakes Dragway in Union Grove, Wisconsin.
“The car wasn’t all that competitive at national events,” Pucci explains. “It was more of a billboard for the dealership than anything else. We would go out there, make a lot of noise, and just look good.”
Topel Rambler went out of business in 1971. By then the Topel Rambler Rebel had already embarked on its journey into oblivion, according to its current owner, Fred Aherns.
“The car showed up on eBay in 2003,” Aherns says. “A friend of mine named Ellis Tripp bought the car but decided that he didn’t want to do anything with it. I traded him a 1975 AMC Matador with 12,000 miles on the odometer, a 1967 AMC Marlin that was a nice restoration, and a 1966 Rambler Classic with 10,000 original miles.”
According to Aherns, there have been 21 owners of the Topel Rebel, but its lineage is pretty cloudy. What we do know is that Kurt Topel was the first owner. Then Dennis Cloet bought the car. He struggled with it for a couple of years, running 11.20s. After Cloet sold the car, it went off the radar only to resurface again in Michigan in 1995. James Sweet bought the car, then consigned it eight years later to Classic Auto Showplace Limited in Madison Heights, Michigan. In 2003 Ellis Tripp purchased the car from Classic and traded it to Aherns in 2006.
The Topel Rebel has gone through a full rotisserie restoration. The coachwork, which features a 12-point rollcage and subframe connectors, has been completely smoothed and painted by its owner and helpers Herb Anderson and Bob Van Canneyet in the factory AMC Samoa Gold Metallic on the inside and PPG red, white, and blue on the outside.
The Rebel’s front suspension was rebuilt with a pair of AFCO adjustable shocks. The car’s Moser-equipped, 4.88-geared Dana 60 rear axle has likewise been rebuilt using AMC OE suspension components and AFCO adjustable shocks.
“The engine was done by R&R Engines,” says Aherns. “The 390 AMC block now displaces 426 inches.”
Internals include a stroked 390 AMC crank, Crower rods, 13.0:1-compression JE forged-aluminum pistons, and a Competition Cams 739/714 cam. A set of R&R Performance ported AMC square-port 390 cylinder heads features a combination of Crower and Comp Cams valvetrain hardware, ARP fasteners, and finned Offenhauser valve covers. The intake is the original Group 19 Edelbrock manifold mounting 650-cfm Holleys.
“Greg Friederich over at Gizmo’s Performance did all the plumbing, exhaust, and headers to get the car up and running,” says Aherns.
Aherns rebuilt the original Hurst-shifted BorgWarner T10 four-speed transmission, which utilizes a Proven Force clutch, flywheel, and pressure plate housed inside a Lakewood bellhousing. A Gizmo’s Performance aluminum driveshaft sends an estimated 600 hp back to the Dana 60.
When it came to the car’s interior, Aherns selected reproduction SMS burnt gold vinyl and cloth weave upholstery with ACC carpeting.
“All told, we spent about five to six years restoring this car,” Aherns says. “It’s one of one. Due to its rarity, I am not really interested in racing it, as I want to preserve it just the way it is. But I do plan on taking it out, and showing it at AMC enthusiast events.”
At a Glance
1967 AMC Rebel 770 Super Stock
Owned by: Fred Aherns, North Branch, MN
Restored by: Owner; R&R Engines, Spring Lake Park, MN; Gizmo’s Performance, Ham Lake, MN
Engine: 426ci/600hp (est.) V-8
Transmission: BorgWarner T10 4-speed manual
Rearend: Dana 60 with 4.88 gears
Interior: Gold vinyl bucket seat
Wheels: 15×8 front, 15×10 rear Cragar S/S
Tires: Goodyear Radial T/A front, Goodyear Eagle slicks rear
In July 2016, Fred Aherns brought the Rebel Super Stocker to the site of the former Topel Rambler dealership, where it was reunited with two of the men who helped build the car originally, Dave Graves and Skip Oettel. Also on hand were about a dozen AMC enthusiasts, other former employees of the dealership, and Kenosha News photographer Sean Krajacic, whose photos helped make the event front-page news.