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Posted By: Gene Herman
Posted On: Saturday February 8, 2014 at 8:17 AM
As far as I know, the '59 IS a legit factory prototype. From Hemmings Classic Car a few years ago...
"Change is inevitable. Experimentation is the rule: If anything has been consistent within the automobile industry throughout history, it's the never-ending quest for the next big thing. Mounting an internal combustion engine onto a buggy chassis wasn't good enough to get a stamp of approval and call it done; instead, designs--both stylistic and mechanical--have evolved constantly throughout the years. Since the earliest days of the automobile, Detroit has been a wellspring of ingenuity, dreaming up new car ideas that inspire, startle and innovate.

One such notable experiment had to be the careful stylistic blend of a passenger car with a pickup--a design that actually blurred the dividing line between the two categories. Ford's Ranchero and Chevrolet's El Camino are certainly the best-known examples, but few car aficionados are aware that Pontiac nearly threw its hat into the hybrid market segment, too.

The history of these unique, market-straddling vehicles actually begins earlier than many think. In the U.S., it was initiated with the introduction of the Hudson/Terraplane Utility Coupe of 1937; Nash and Studebaker soon followed with vehicles of their own. On paper, it was a sound concept: a unification of passenger-car comfort and ride with a retractable truck bed on rails. But its initial fate may have already been sealed even before examples rolled from the assembly line. First on the demerit list was the Utility Coupe's cargo capacity, which was limited by the conventional encapsulating car body. Second was the fact that a portion of the domestic auto industry had been building light-duty pickups based on passenger-car platforms; they were modified to haul substantial cargo loads, but still provided passenger-car accommodations within the cab. When the independent manufacturers finally shifted to purpose-built, bare-bones half-ton haulers after 1949, a strong post-war economy meant that many buyers chose to purchase both a work truck and a family sedan, rather than one compromise vehicle.

In the western Pacific, however, Australia had been in love with their Utes since 1932. Officially called the light-duty Utility--and reportedly spawned with the advice of a local farmer--it was a reaction to excruciating economic conditions that left many farmers without the means to purchase both a car for the family and a truck in which to haul their goods. First issued by Ford, the Ute, for all intents and purposes, was the precursor to the Ranchero: the perfect blend of car and truck. It was so successful that both Chevrolet and Dodge jumped into the market with their own, similar designs in 1936--yet for the most part, the allure of the Ute remained anchored in the western Pacific for the next two decades.

With that success overseas, however, Ford felt there was a place for the Ute in the United States, and in 1957, they introduced the Ranchero; it was a move that caught General Motors by surprise. In essence, the Ranchero was a modified two-door Ranch wagon with the roof removed behind the driver's seat and a new bed floor placed in between the quarter panels. With some alterations to the basic suspension (one period magazine reported that the Ranchero could haul more weight than a same-year F-100 pickup) and a standard array of passenger-car engines under the hood--which were more powerful than the standard pickup engine--it was a best-of-both-worlds, left-hand-drive Ute.

Although some on the East Coast questioned the new domestic vehicle's usefulness, the Ranchero instantly rounded up a new fan base west of the Mississippi River. All together, only 21,695 units were sold, but it was a strong enough number to warrant continued production. That, and Ford executives knew it would be at least another year before competition from Chevrolet would creep into the market segment.

What Ford did not realize, though, was that Pontiac was also contemplating a similar move.

Pontiac, under the guidance of Bunkie Knudsen, had become a dynamic and very competitive automaker since the early Fifties. The word of the decade was performance. With the Super Duty program in full swing and a series of new and more powerful V-8 engines in its products, the division managed to capture a handful of wins in Southern stock car races; it seemed an unlikely home for a cargo-hauling Ranchero-fighter. The last time Pontiac even offered a truck was 1928; the last sedan delivery model rolled from the assembly line in 1953. Nevertheless, a series of prototypes was commissioned for production consideration.

It was commonly accepted that the station wagon was the perfect platform for a new utility sedan, so Pontiac Engineering allegedly opted to use a 1959 Catalina Safari as the foundation for the prototype. Choice of power for the Safari was the two-barrel 280hp version of the famed 389 cu.in. V-8 engine, coupled with a Hydra-Matic transmission. A dramatic color combination of white body with red interior and red, white and gray upholstery was selected.

The department's first order of business for the transformation was the acquisition from Chevrolet of an El Camino cab shell and utility bed, which was then bolted onto the Safari frame. Despite this seemingly simple step, the difficulty came in blending Pontiac parts with the Chevy shell and making it all fit on the wide-track chassis.

To complete the cab's exterior, the engineering staff had to carefully transfer El Camino window pillars to the doors from a Catalina pillared coupe. Not only did this permit the doors to work properly with the Chevy-designed cab, it minimized the team's labor in blending the elegant lines of a Catalina's quarter panels into the El Camino bed frame, as well as integrating the Safari wagon's tailgate, tail lamps and rear bumper. From the firewall forward, the front sheetmetal from the original Safari wagon was returned to the chassis.

As for the interior, the instrument panel, door panels and seat were obtained from the Pontiac parts shelves, and rather than a rubber mat on the floor, the prototype was graced with matching red carpet. Technically, the creation was called the Catalina Safari pickup; however, it rapidly managed to acquire the nickname "El Catalina."

Upon its completion in April 1959, the vehicle was reportedly presented to Knudsen--possibly accompanied by John Z. DeLorean--for evaluation. It should be noted, however, that management already had concerns about the actual size of the new hybrid market, since Ford sold just 9,950 Rancheros in recession-plagued 1958. Still, the team had begun work on a second Safari-based pickup. Published reports indicate that the engineering department had allocated enough materials to build three such examples, a fact that was later substantiated in an interview with the late Pontiac Motors engineer John Sawruk. By the time the cab and front sheetmetal had been completed on prototype number two, a decision was handed down from Knudsen: The project was cancelled.

One reason for the decision was obvious: In a divided 1959 market, Ranchero (14,169) and El Camino (22,246) sales only reached a combined 36,415 units, which suggested to the top brass that the limited niche market could not support a third entrant. In addition, Pontiac was still squarely focused on its growing performance image; a sedan-based pickup didn't fit the strategy.

With work stopped mid-stream, the second prototype was allegedly finished with a flatbed and used as a parts shuttle within Pontiac's Engineering Center until its destruction. As for the original prototype assembled by the Engineering Center, it, too, was originally scheduled to be destroyed--except that it was somehow saved from such an ignoble fate. Its next decade of history would have been clouded in mystery had it not been for Michigan resident Darrel Lotridge.

According to recorded interviews obtained from the Safari pickup's current owner, William "Tom" Girrard, Darrel first learned of the Pontiac's existence because of a chance encounter in September 1960. According to Darrel, "I was in the dealership known as the Pontiac Retail Store, which was a factory outlet in Pontiac, Michigan. While looking at the new models, I spotted this '59 white Pontiac pickup at the bottom of the ramp in the basement. It immediately keyed up my interest, and I walked down the ramp and did an inspection. While talking to one of the employees there, I was told that the truck was a hand-built prototype... and that it was the only one."

Darrel would not see the truck again until the fall of 1963. At that time, he learned it was still officially owned by the Pontiac Retail Store Parts Department and was used as a delivery vehicle. In the spring of 1968, the prototype began to appear sporadically at an apartment complex next to Darrel's parents' home in Auburn Heights, Michigan.

"One day, I approached the young fellow who was driving it... he said that it belonged to his dad. He also told me that he was going to college and this truck was his transportation. Upon inspecting the truck, I noticed rust was showing around different places, the grille and the concaved area of the tailgate had blacked out and the front seat had been changed to a pair of bucket units. Also, a pair of dual spotlamps had been added, while chrome wheels and baby moon hubcaps had also been installed."

Finally, after several attempts at purchasing the truck over nearly a decade, Darrel's patience came to fruition on May 15, 1969. "I had just left the hospital where my wife had given birth to our second daughter when I rounded a corner in west Pontiac and found the truck sitting in a front yard, for sale. The seller was Henry 'Hank' Gotham, who was the manager of the Pontiac Retail Store and father of the young fellow, Steve, who had driven the truck to college. It seems there wasn't room in Gotham's garage for another vehicle, and the city ordinance would not allow vehicles parked outside unless they were for sale. I made the deal immediately."

Its condition, however, was vastly different than when he first spotted it. "This truck was assembled as a market feasibility study and was never intended to be driven. The underbed was insulated with compressed paper about four inches thick, and the padding under the carpet was also pressed paper, hence the vast amount of rust that accumulated. The truck was in a serious collision at some point, and the entire front clip was replaced. At that time, it lost the black grille and dual spotlamps. The mileage was somewhere over 125,000, and I am not sure how much over, because the speedometer was inoperative when I made the purchase.

"While doing some research on the background of the truck, I uncovered that Hank did some kind of paper shuffle and was able to get his hands on the truck, and that he got it titled as an 'assembled pickup' with the State of Michigan. There was no VIN. In talking with John Sawruk, he stated that it was to be a unit put together for the major auto shows at the time (Editor's note: Darrel later confirmed this in an interview with Bunkie Knudsen) and there were enough materials gathered to build three of these units; this was the only one ever finished at the PMD Engineering Center.

"Some years later, one of the engineers that worked on the original project obtained the remaining parts and assembled a second truck privately somewhere in either western Illinois or eastern Iowa; it was painted red. This truck was seen out in the central U.S. several times over the years and went through an auction in Indiana the summer of 2006, and from there I have no further information about it."

Darrel's interviews with Sawruk and Knudsen are worthy enough to squash any conspiracy hints of additional prototypes, but many still find it hard to ignore multiple sightings west of Detroit. "Young Steve Gotham was going to the University of Nevada and traveled to California on several occasions. Obviously, the red truck that was assembled privately from leftover parts could also explain the sightings in the Midwest part of the country," mused Darrel.

Once acquired, Darrel put restoration efforts in motion. Sadly, though, things did not go according to plan for the new owner. "The first fellow had the truck for a while, during which time I went to the Pontiac Retail Store Parts Department and ordered every new component they could find for me; they were extremely familiar with the truck. Then my restorer died of a heart attack. The second restorer that worked on the truck did so for several months. He did a lot of the body work after I took the entire body and had it dip-stripped because of the amount of rust we were finding internally. Another problem we found when we pulled the body was that the rear of the frame had a crossmember completely pulled out and the side rails were damaged and bent. I found a complete 1959 Pontiac station wagon in Blithe, California, and brought it back; we used the frame plus some of the floorpan and other miscellaneous parts.

"Then the second restorer quit his job and moved to Georgia. Along comes restorer number three. He did a lot of the leading of the new body panels and sheetmetal repairs. After a couple of years, he sold out and retired. And so it went. One shop I was all ready to take the truck to burned to the ground. And from there, it was just one problem after another trying to get the perfect job."

With the truck still incomplete and an exact number of attempts at reassembly undisclosed, Darrel sold the Safari pickup to Tom Girrard on June 30, 2008; the car was located just 100 miles from where it was originally assembled in 1959. Tom commented that it took two trailers to transfer the disassembled car and its attendant parts from Michigan to noted Hopkinton, Massachusetts, restorer Tom White, who was commissioned to oversee the completion of this noteworthy and important Pontiac prototype. "The car was never primered or undercoated, so I knew from the start that repairing the sheetmetal alone was going to be a major undertaking," said owner Tom.

"Right from the start, we knew that with a car of this much importance, we had to do our very best to duplicate what the engineers had achieved when it was originally assembled. There was nothing standard about this car. It used a wagon gas tank, a Safari frame, convertible quarter panels, and the floorpan was altered to fit the chassis. In addition, we found that there were massive changes to the cowl in the area of the steering column, and there was a lot done to accommodate the drivetrain. There's no VIN, just a body tag and an engineering serial number. The body tag reads 2180, which really does not exist in Pontiac books. The first two digits decode directly to Catalina, but the last two are the GM code for the El Camino," commented restorer Tom White.

According to Tom, even though several attempts at a restoration had been made previously, his staff essentially started with a shell on a rolling chassis. "There was a lot of fabrication work requiring careful patience. It wasn't as simple as taking a floorpan from this car and a quarter from that one. What bodywork had been accomplished was the brazing of parts rather than welding. We basically had to recut and reweld everything back together properly. There was also a staggering amount of lead and brass on the body that needed to be eliminated."

Several discoveries were made along the way, such as the altered Safari tailgate. Because rear glass was not required, the wagon panel was modified to eliminate the window channel and flow into the surrounding body panels uniformly. That said, the tailgate--as is often the case with wagons--was ravaged by rust. Additionally, the 389-cu.in. engine displayed the "SR" casting, which is translated as "service replacement." It effectively means that if a Safari wagon had been pulled from the assembly line as the prototype's foundation, it would have a serial number that would match a vehicle's VIN.

"The interior was made from scratch: door panels, escutcheons, everything. For instance, to replicate some of the trim, we had to modify pieces that would have normally been used on a Bonneville. At times, it was difficult to tell which original parts came from a Bonneville or a Catalina. In the end, we were very satisfied with the results; we were able to match everything to what Pontiac Engineering had achieved back in 1959," recalled Tom.

Restorer Tom managed to complete the Catalina Safari pickup restoration and deliver it to owner Tom in time for the 2011 Pontiac Oakland Club International meet--it was the first public appearance for this historic prototype since Darrel purchased it in 1969. The efforts of the two men to bring it back to life were justly rewarded at the meet: The Pontiac scored a staggering 400 out of 400 points, claiming Best of Show in the process.

The winds of change may blow fickle, cutting off the El Catalina before it had a chance to flourish in the Ute marketplace, but the rescue and restoration of this stunning prototype show us what might have been. "

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Message thread:

PIC: Some El Camino style variety by Dick Johnson #16150
I love the '59 PontiaCamino (EOM) by Jerry Gorsuch #16150.1
Conquest made a very limited run of those in 1/43 (EOM) by John Kuvakas #16150.1.1Moderator
As far as I know, the '59 IS a legit factory prototype. From Hemmings Classic Car a few years ago... by Gene Herman #16150.2
Thank you Gene for a very interesting history. (EOM) by Steve Jacobs #16150.2.1

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