Over the last few years collectors have started to take an interest in car transporters. If you check the auction results from Monterey you will find a few race car haulers that went for big money. We would all love to have a Ferrari team transporter, but the price tag may create a hurdle. There are more affordable options out there though and today we have a story about one man’s hunt for an unusual one-off car hauler. It took him on quite a journey and it all started with a photo. This tale was originally published in The Cobra in the Barn and is now offered here for free. Enjoy!
Jim Degnan already had a unique car transporter, a converted Olds Tornado airport limo, when he saw another one and decided he had to have it. Degnan didn’t see the actual hauler, but a picture of it, while flipping through a box of discarded magazine photos at a flea market. It was a Cheetah transporter, custom made by Norm Holtkamp in the early 1960s, and modeled after a high-speed Mercedes-Benz hauler.
There was no guarantee that the car still existed, yet Degnan set out to find it. He guessed that if it was still around, it would be in Southern California, so he started to make some calls.
He first asked his sports car and hot rod buddies to see if they knew the whereabouts of this vehicle. “Then I spoke to Tom Medley, who was the cartoonist for Hot Rod Magazine’s Stroker McGurk. Medley knew that Norm Holtkamp was the original builder and that he still lived in California. So I found his phone number and called him.”
That’s when Degnan got the whole story.
Norm Holtkamp, a former midget racer from northern California, began thinking about building a high-speed race hauler after seeing a Mercedes hauler profiled in a 1950s edition of Road & Track magazine. He was intrigued with the concept—especially because the Mercedes hauler, powered by a 300SL engine, could carry the team’s W196 Grand Prix car or 300SLR racer from Stuttgart to Le Mans at 105 miles per hour.
As a former driver, crew chief, and tuner, he saw the Mercedes hauler as something of a challenge. He wanted to build a faster one, one that could haul at up to 112 miles an hour.
Holtkamp started his project with a Mercedes 300 sedan chassis because he believed the electric load-leveling suspension would adjust and keep the ride-height stable. He added Porsche torsion bars that were manually adjustable, but kept the stock Mercedes front and rear axles, spindles, and differential in place.
He purchased the 1960 Chevy El Camino cab new directly from the GM Truck Assembly Plant in Van Nuys, California. The engine he chose came from a 1957 Corvette, hopped up to 300 horsepower, and he mated it with a Chevy three-speed transmission.
The original bodywork (which has changed over the past forty years) was crafted by famed panel beaters Troutman and Barnes of Los Angeles. They made all the body panels, including the full belly pan, from aluminum and designed them to be removable (in as quickly as seven minutes).
Holtkamp finished his creation, the Cheetah, in nine months. He had hoped to begin production of a small number of the haulers, perhaps four or five each year, for weekend racing enthusiasts. But his proposed $16,000 price tag (in 1961!) didn’t have racers beating a path to his door.
Holtkamp drove the Cheetah to several West Coast sports car races, hauling the Willment Formula Junior for the Retzloff Racing Team. But he wasn’t pleased with the transporter’s handling. By one account, Holtkamp once hit the brakes coming down a hill and did a backwards wheelie—the rear wheels came off the ground so far the hauler’s nose hit the pavement. It’s probably that incident that made him decide to lengthen the wheelbase by a few feet and move the engine rearward toward the center of the vehicle. Sadly, with that change, most of the beautiful Troutman and Barnes bodywork was discarded.
Holtkamp never fully completed the lengthened Cheetah and sold it as a project to California hot rod parts manufacturer Dean Moon sometime in the early 1970s. Moon had the connections and the wherewithal to complete Holtkamp’s dream if anyone did. His first planned modification was to replace the Mercedes four-wheel drum brakes with Airheart disc components. That was an ill-fated idea—while the Cheetah was at the Hurst Airheart Company, the 1971 earthquake hit.
Yet maybe fate wasn’t so ill-willed. When the earthquake hit, the building literally fell to pieces around the Cheetah, and except for one small dent, the transporter was virtually untouched. The brake conversion was never completed, however, and the Cheetah was eventually moved back to Moon’s shop in Santa Fe Springs. There it sat, outside, on jack stands, for about eighteen years.
Degnan’s call to Moon Equipment verified that the vehicle was still there. He also learned that Moon had just passed away, and all the stuff in his buildings was being sold off. In no time, Degnan wrote a check to the estate and Holtkamp’s creation was his.
“I had my Olds transporter, so we used a forklift and hoisted the Cheetah onto the back of it,” he says. “It must have been quite a sight—so unstable that I would only go thirty-five miles per hour on the freeway all the way home. But I was younger then . . .”
After he got it home, Degnan brought it to a mechanic friend who installed power steering, power brakes, rewired it, and dropped in a standard 350-cubic-inch Chevy engine.
The Cheetah now runs and drives, but Degnan isn’t quite ready to break any speed records with it. “I’d be hard-pressed to drive it faster than sixty miles per hour,” he says. “It was Holtkamp’s desire to build a Mercedes beater; one that could haul race cars to the track in record time, but clearly, this car is not it.”
The Cheetah has sat for many years in the back of Degnan’s shop. The vehicle still needs all the bodywork completed that was discarded when Holtkamp lengthened the chassis. For Degnan, it’s a clear case of, “better watch what you wish for, because it might come true.” He has the transporter of his dreams, but now what?