Photos by Larry Edsall
With Chevrolet putting its El Camino on hiatus after the 1960 model year, some people at Pontiac saw an opportunity to pick up where Chevy was leaving off. So they took a couple of 1959 Catalina Safari station wagons and turned them into pickup trucks.
They started with the front clip and dashboard from a Pontiac Catalina, the cockpit enclosed by the roof from an El Camino. One truck was given a very basic, work-style flat bed. But the other one featured the stylish rear quarter panels from a Pontiac convertible, with the station wagon’s tail gate fitted between the twin-fin fenders.
But the program didn’t progress beyond those two trucks and Pontiac never got to put what it planned to call the Safari pickup into production. Instead, Chevrolet returned the El Camino to its dealers’ showrooms for the 1964 model year — and for many more to follow — and the prototype Pontiac pickups were relegated to shuttling parts.
Like so many people in the 1950s and 1960s, Darrel Lotridge made a point of going to the model year vehicle introductions at his local dealership. In Lotridge’s case, that dealership was the Pontiac Retail Store, a factory-owned auto outlet in Pontiac, Michigan, the Pontiac brand’s hometown.
Lotridge had gone to see the new 1961 Pontiacs, but while wandering around he saw something very unusual parked at the bottom of a ramp that led from the dealership service department to the basement. What Lotridge saw was the El Camino-like Pontiac pickup.
“After that,” Lotridge said, “I’d see it around town every now and then. GM was delivering parts with it.”
Like other prototype vehicles, the truck was scheduled for destruction. But, Lotridge said, “Hank Gotham, who ran the retail store, did some paper shuffling” and instead of going to the crusher, the truck went to Gotham’s driveway. As it turned out, Gotham lived next door to Lotridge’s parents, so he not only got to see the truck frequently, but he saw all the modifications Gotham’s son and daughter were making to it.
Fast forward a few years and now it’s May 15, 1969. Lotridge remembers the date because he’d spend the night in the hospital for the birth of his daughter.
“I was on my way from the hospital to my work site and the truck was in Gotham’s front yard — for sale,” Lotridge remembered. “I was the first guy there.”
Lotridge owned the truck for 39 years, and began its restoration. Because something heavy enough to have bent the rear member of the frame had been towed, he had to replace it and used the frame from a Pontiac Bonneville wagon he found in a junk yard in Blythe, California.
Over the years, he said, he had hired six different people to do the restoration work on the truck.
“Two died. Two retired and moved,” he said.
He made arrangements to take the truck to a guy with a shop in Kentucky, but before he could get the truck delivered there, the shop burned.
Frustrated, “I put it in my garage,” and pretty much left it there, Lotridge said, adding that in 39 years of ownership, he’d driven the truck only 10 miles.
Lotridge shared his story on the show field at the recent Concours d’Elegance of America, where the 1959 Pontiac Safari El Catalina was on display, finally fully restored. The truck was part of a special concours class of High-Style Haulers: Pickups of the Jet-Age.
The restoration of the El Catalina had been completed by William “Tom” Gerrard of Big Sky, Montana.
Gerrard had called Lotridge several times about buying the truck, but he didn’t pester and Lotridge finally realized that the truck needed to be finished and so sold it to Gerrard, who was so meticulous that he found and bought two Pontiac Bonneville station wagons to use as donor vehicles so every bolt and clamp on the El Catalina would be period correct.
To make the truck a little more luxurious, Gerrard used a dashboard from an upscale Pontiac Star Chief.
Since completing the restoration, Gerrard had driven the truck only another dozen miles.
Some people contend that there was a second complete Pontiac El Catalina, one seen frequently in the far west. The explanation, Lotridge said, was that Gotham’s son was driving the car while attending the University of Nevada. (Lotridge had extensive talks with former Pontiac general manger Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen about the Safari pickup program, which took place under Knudsen’s watch, and is convinced he and now Gerrard have it.)
However, he said, there is a second version, a clone in Iowa. It wasn’t built at Pontiac but was done later by a retired Pontiac engineer who had been part of the original conversion project.
As for Lotridge, he’s happy to see the El Catalina completed. Besides, he added, he has yet another Pontiac pickup project that he’s working to restore.
“I have a 1979 Grand Am pickup,” he said, adding, “GM has the other one in its Heritage Center.”
Lotridge explained that he spotted the modified Grand Am in a dumpster and paid the driver $1,800 to deposit the truck in Lotridge’s driveway instead of at the disposal facility.
Upon hearing Lotridge’s story, Gerrard immediately offered to reimburse Lotridge $1,800 — and even a little more — if he wanted to sell that one as well.