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After nearly 50 years apart, Cheetah Transporter heads into restoration

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photos courtesy Geoff Hacker.

For nearly 50 years, the curious Cheetah Transporter has remained in a state of flux, unfinished amid a transition to a long-wheelbase disc-brake version designed to make it safer to drive. That version, however, will never come to fruition with the recently started restoration of the Transporter back to its original short-wheelbase configuration.

“I don’t really think we have a choice,” said Geoff Hacker, who has owned the Transporter since 2006. “I really want to make it longer, but there’s so much photography out there of the original version. Besides, if our mission is preserving and saving history, then that means we’re going back to the original.”

That original version, by the way, had a pretty short wheelbase. Norman Holtkamp, influenced by the 1954 Mercedes-Benz Rennabteilung cab-forward transporter’s ability to haul race cars without requiring a trailer, decided to build his own version to schlep race cars around Southern California’s tracks. He even started with the chassis from a crashed Mercedes-Benz W188 300 S — which he chose for its load-leveling suspension system — but cut the wheelbase from its stock 110 inches down to 94 inches, shorter than a two-door Chevette’s.

Holtkamp kept the Benz’s rear swing axle but swapped out its drivetrain for a Chevrolet 283-cu.in. V-8 and three-speed manual transmission. He also added extensions to the frame forward of the front axle to mount the cab. According to Hacker, Holtkamp managed to get a full El Camino body in white direct from GM’s assembly plant in Van Nuys, California. Holtkamp then cut off the bed, sold it to a local who wanted to build a trailer with it, and handed the cab and chassis over to Dick Troutman and Dick Barnes.

Based on a design that Holtkamp commissioned from Dave Deal, Troutman and Barnes took some aluminum sheets and began hammering out an abbreviated nose for the cab and the rest of the body aft of the cab, starting with a pair of scoops for the engine and gently sloping down to a tail panel with six taillamps. A full bellypan stretched from nose to tailpanel.

Inside the body, Troutman and Barnes included about 150 cubic feet of space, about the same as a contemporary station wagon and enough for a pair of gas tanks good for 45 gallons and a massive water tank for ballast. Atop the body, they installed a winch and a custom pair of ramps built from 1/4-inch aluminum.

Completed circa 1961, the Cheetah Transporter, as Holtkamp called it, garnered a good amount of media attention and even made it to the cover of the December 1961 issue of Car and Driver. Holtkamp briefly considered going into production with the Cheetah, though the $16,000 price tag threw cold water on those plans.

Despite photographs showing the Cheetah Transporter at a number of Southern California race tracks, Holtkamp apparently drove it sparingly for a couple years, racked up about 3,000 miles, then parked it. According to its profile in Tom Cotter’s The Cobra in the Barn, the Cheetah Transporter was prone to endos, though Hacker said it only became unstable without a car on the back or water in the ballast tank.

To make it more stable, sometime in the late 1960s Holtkamp removed the rear bodywork in order to stretch the Transporter’s wheelbase out to 124 inches. At the same time he pushed the drivetrain further back in the chassis and widened the track for the ramps to fit larger race cars.

He never finished his modifications, however. Aftermarket parts entrepreneur Dean Moon bought it off him and shortly after decided that, along with all of the modifications Holtkamp started, the Transporter also needed a full set of disc brakes to replace the Mercedes-Benz’s original drums. He sent the Transporter to Hurst/Airheart’s shop for the discs, but before Hurst completed the swap, the February 1971 San Fernando earthquake collapsed the Hurst shop building around the Transporter.

The Transporter emerged from the remains of the shop with just one small dent, and Moon apparently had plans to have Eddie Miller of Edco Disc Brakes finish the disc brake conversion, finish the long-wheelbase conversion, and install a ZL-1 Chevrolet big-block V-8 for an attempt at the race car carrier world record at Bonneville (maybe even race heads-up against the Rennabteilung). Those plans, however, dissipated, and the Transporter sat outside of his shop in Santa Fe Springs, California, unfinished, until race car collector Jim Degnan bought it after Moon’s death in 1987. Degnan, according to Cotter, got the Transporter running and driving with a Chevrolet 350 and an automatic transmission. However, he wasn’t able to do much more before selling the Transporter to Hacker in December 2006.

Hacker said he and business partner Rick D’Louhy did drive the Transporter around the block shortly after buying it. “It’s the most bizarre thing when you go over a speed bump,” he said. “You’re going along like nothing happened, then all of a sudden out of nowhere you start aiming for space.”

Aside from collecting information on it, Hacker hasn’t done anything with it until this past weekend, when he dropped it off at J.R.’s Speed Shop in Venice, Florida, for the restoration. While he plans to have the staff at J.R.’s re-shorten the wheelbase and return its ramps to their original narrow configuration, he said he may, for the sake of stability, leave the engine further back in the chassis.

Fortunately for Hacker, the mounds of period photography will make the task of replicating the long-gone Troutman and Barnes bodywork simpler. He said he’s leaning toward a 383 stroker Chevrolet small-block and keeping the automatic transmission and still has plenty of 300 S chassis parts and 1959 Chevrolet interior parts to source.

The restoration should take up to a couple years, Hacker said, after which he plans to show it and put it on the road. “I don’t see it as a utility vehicle, but it could from time to time do things like that,” he said. “The guys at J.R.’s would kill me if I don’t do a Bonneville trip with it.”

And, Hacker said, he’s also having the panelbeaters at the shop hold on to the bucks they’ll use to shape the body, just in case Hacker decides down the road to build another Transporter, maybe a long-wheelbase version…