Photos courtesy Leake Auction Companies.
Once every 10 years or so following Chevrolet’s introduction of the El Camino, somebody connected to the Pontiac division decided that it too needed a business-in-the-front-party-in-the-back sedan pickup in its lineup. As history in our universe has proven, a production-line Pontiac-badged El Camino never happened, but the 1968 LeMans Safari Pickup headed to auction next month shows what such a vehicle could have looked like.
Adirondack Auto Sales might sound like a used car lot with a shack in the middle and a rusty Jeep out back to plow the winter snow away, but owner Gordon Theisen – a World War II veteran, industrial arts teacher, and real estate developer – had a knack for sales and believed that the Pontiac lineup, which he dealt, lacked a vehicle that his customers would buy.
He tried appealing directly to Pontiac with his suggestion, but instead of an enthusiastic endorsement of his idea, Pontiac officials told him they had little interest. They did, however, tell Theisen he was welcome to build a proof of concept and present it to them, so that’s exactly what he decided to do.
And while Pontiac officials might have given Theisen a cold reception, he did manage to get a few hundred Pontiac dealers from the Northeast to back his idea, so in the fall of 1967 he bought both a Cameo Ivory 1968 Tempest four-door sedan and a Butternut Yellow 1968 Chevrolet El Camino new and instructed his staff to combine them into one.
“That was a large investment at the time,” said Jim Brady, a restorer who at one point owned the resulting vehicle. “But they really did their homework on how to put them together.”
Both the Tempest and the El Camino rode on 116-inch wheelbases, so it was a simple matter for the Adirondack Auto Sales staff to remove the El Camino body from its frame and mount it to the Pontiac frame. The entire Pontiac drivetrain (two-barrel 350 V-8, automatic transmission) and suspension remained with the Tempest frame, and the Tempest interior – down to the dashboard and steering column – made its way into the El Camino’s cab. Adapting the Pontiac’s front sheetmetal proved a little more involved than simply bolting it to the El Camino’s cowl: The fenders required some metal massaging to line up with the Chevrolet body lines, as did the tops of the doors. The shop painted the completed hybrid in Mayfair Maize.
Theisen finished the Pontiac-with-a-bed by that October and sent it to Pontiac’s engineering office in New York for evaluation. Again, Pontiac officials told him it just wouldn’t work badged as a Pontiac – Pontiac’s franchise dealers weren’t set up to sell trucks. GMC’s franchise dealers, however, were set up to sell trucks (and were largely paired with Pontiac franchises), so according to Brady Theisen’s pitch eventually developed into the GMC Sprint, which debuted for the 1971 model year.
(Of note: Pontiac’s engineering department in Michigan had previously built a Pontiac-nosed El Camino in 1959 and would do so again in 1978. Neither effort resulted in a production vehicle, but at least one example from each of those efforts still exists.)
While the leftover parts from the conversion eventually made their way through the Adirondack Auto Sales parts and service department, the pickup remained the dealership’s shop truck for decades afterward. Brady said the family pressed it into boat and trailer towing duties and it often hauled snowmobile’s for the family’s Ski-Doo dealership.
By the time Brady bought it from the original family following a Carlisle auction in 2012 (Theisen had died in 2001 at the age of 75), the Pontiac had just 34,000 miles on it but had already been repainted once and fitted with a black vinyl roof. He then spent the next year stripping the body to bare metal, repainting it in Mayfair Maize, reproducing the custom lower trim pieces, and cleaning the mostly original interior before selling it at Mecum’s Kissimmee auction in 2014 for $38,000.
Now the Pontiac (chassis number 233698P109210) has come up for auction once again, this time scheduled to cross the block as part of Leake’s Oklahoma City auction, which will take place February 24 to 26. For more information, visit LeakeCar.com.