Ford had experienced years of success with the ‘Ute’ in Australia. In 1957, they decided to bring the concept to the United States with the introduction of 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, 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.
Chevrolet responded by offering the El Camino in 1959. Pontiac took an interest as well, and decided to put together their own prototype.
Pontiac started with a 1959 Safari station wagon chassis. They obtained an El Camino cab shell and utility bed, which was then bolted to the Safari frame. 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, taillamps 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.”
The truck was completed in April 1959, and presented to Pontiac for evaluation. Pontiac had acquired enough parts to build three of these trucks, and had started work on a second truck, but word came down from Pontiac, and the project was cancelled. 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.
The prototype was save from destruction, and ended up at the Pontiac Retail Store, which was a factory outlet in Pontiac, Michigan. The truck became the parts department delivery vehicle.
On May 15th, 1969, the truck was discovered for sale in a front yard, and sold. The seller was Henry ‘Hank’ Gotham, who was the manager of the Pontiac Retail Store. Hank had done some paper shuffling and was able to get his hands on the truck. He was then able to get it titled as an ‘assembled pickup’ with the State of Michigan. There was no VIN.
The buyer was Darrel Lotridge, who had wanted the truck since first spotting it at the Pontiac Retail Store in 1960. The truck was in poor condition, and was sent to a restorer. Unfortunately, Darrel run in to problems with different restorers, and the restoration was never completed.
Darrel sold the Safari pickup to Tom Gerrard on June 30, 2008. Tom shipped the truck to restorer Tom White in Hopkinton, Massachusetts.
According to Tom White “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,”
Tom White managed to complete the Catalina Safari pickup restoration and deliver it to owner Tom Gerrard 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.
At some point in time, one of the engineers that worked on the original project obtained the remaining parts (that was to be the third truck) and assembled a second truck privately somewhere in either western Illinois or eastern Iowa. This truck was painted red, and was seen out in the central U.S. several times over the years. It went through an auction in Indiana the summer of 2006. Its whereabouts now are unknown.