The Cheetah Transporter Chase

Flea Market Photo

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.

Mercedes Transporter

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.

Cheetah Van

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.

After Earthquake

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.

Behind Moon's

“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?

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Comments

  1. J.R.

    That front end looks like a front end of a older G.M. van, can’t think of that name ?.

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    • David

      A Corvair Greenbriar? Thats what it looks like to me

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    • Chuck

      It states that it’s a 1960 El Camino Cab.

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    • Charles

      It looks like a Corvair van in the front, however the 1960 El Camino cab is a full sized body close to 6 feet wide. The Corvair was a mid-sized to smallish van, not much different in size to a modern mini-van. So the resemblance is probably just coincidence.

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  2. J.R.

    That’s it David, I was going to write that, thanks buddy, have a great day.

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  3. Craig

    @ J. R.- A Corvair Corvan Greenbrier?

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  4. Don

    Corvair Greenbrter van

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  5. Steve

    I know this is a “one off” but I know where there is another one or a copy here in Florida and I have a pic.

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  6. john wiley

    the cab in this pic looks like a 1959 or 1960 elcamino to me

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  7. Skip Cambre

    I swear this is what Geoff Hacker has in his driveway in St.Pete. I’ve see it in person at his house and it all seems to add up. Geoff is the admin of http://www.forgottenfiberglass.com/.

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  8. Highway

    Read the article. It states that it is a 1960 ElCamino cab.

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  9. Chad O.

    The shape of the nose is very similar to the Greenbrier, but the bumper is from a ’59 Biscayne, as are the headlights. It appears, with its unique shape, the front section is a clamshell, most likely fabricated from many pieces of aluminum welded together. What a find! Even though it is a one-off, restoring this would be fun. There are no “rules” when undertaking a project like this, as artistic license is permissible, since there is no “blueprint” to follow!

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  10. Chris

    It kind of reminds me of the Deora.

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  11. Dan Farrell

    The cab n the transporter looks a lot like a 59 El Camino.

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    • Chad O.

      Did you read the story before you commented? It clearly states he purchased a 1960 El Camino cab from the GM Van Nuys plant, to build this.

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  12. Doug Mullen

    Used to work with a fellow that imported Brit formula cars back in the 80’s, He did buy and bring over a Mercedes lorry that used to be the hauler for the Lotus F2 team. Got me wondering now if I should track it down!

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  13. Dolphin Dolphin Staff

    “I’d be hard-pressed to drive it faster than sixty miles per hour,”
    ————————————————

    I remember seeing it in either R&T or C and D back decades ago when it was new. A very interesting “futuristic” design, the term was back then. But I’m guessing the wheelbase is too short, with too much weight outside the wheelbase, especially up front. The extreme cab-forward design probably wasn’t for the best, unfortunately.

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  14. Charles

    Those would be great for a museum. They don’t look stable enough to drive, especially in the heavy traffic and speeds that people drive these days.

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  15. Geoffrey Hacker

    Hi Gang….

    Scott Miller and others are correct – The Cheetah Transporter is safe and sound at my home in Tampa awaiting restoration plans. Scott…want to help?

    🙂

    Geoff Hacker
    Tampa, Florida

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    • jim s

      what is the story on the Cheetah from the time it was in Degnan’s shop to you having it now?

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      • Jesse Jesse Staff

        Yes, please update us Geoff. We all love to hear where the “In the Barn” cars are today.

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  16. Steve

    Geoff, When I first saw this in your front yard I almost caused an accident slamming on my brakes! I had to stop and take a picture. very cool now to see the history behind it.

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  17. Geoffrey Hacker

    You are welcome to stop by any time. Happy to give you a tour of any cars we’re working on 🙂

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  18. RealDonn

    And the the plot thickens. “the “Bonneville Boss” transporter, was designed by Dean Moon”.

    http://www.carthrottle.com/the-proud-american-and-bonneville-boss-rocket-truck/

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  19. scot

    ~ i will wait for the unit to be completed and for Geoff to report the facts, but i would wager that when the hauler made its nose-dive there was little or no weight over the tail.
    . further, with the stretched wheel base, Girling discs, and a modern bias proportioning valve in the brake system, it would not be as dangerous as presumed.

    (hey GH, howya’been?)

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    • scot

      . ‘what I also like about LSR competition is that the rulebook is frighteningly thin.
      you want to run a modified school bus? propelled by axial flow turbine? fueled by hydrazine, LOX and bio-methane from your chicken farm? fine by the rulebook, just make sure it passes safety and don’t do anything stupid. how can you not love a form of racing like that?’
      that paragraph is like Pavlov’s bell ! !
      ~ great link, RealDonn. [and Tony Borroz ]
      why are all related finds Ford Mustangs?

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  20. George at AutoLinc

    A similar transporter was built and featured in one of the car mags years ago, late 60s I think. It used the Corvair Greenbrier cab and (I believe) extended chassis. The rear sheetmetal from a ’59 Chevrolet. The engine was a Porsche 911. The design was well integrated. I’ve been fascinated with the memory of this thing all my life, it looked so cool.

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  21. sirokeydokes

    Why not just put some “dolly wheels” under the nose, and that way you could hit the breaks as hard as wanted, and would not have to move the power train.??

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    • Joe Howell

      Like “Wheelie bars” reversed

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  22. jim s

    another very interesting story. thanks. did one of the model companies make a scale model kit of this hauler?

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    • michael

      I had one of those models in my younger days. My friends looked at me as if I was crazy. Aren’t we all?

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  23. Jeff C. Keane

    The conceptual sketch shows the GM Corvair Greenbriar nose. However, the actual cab/ nose,(had you read the story slower…) Says HOLTKAMP purchased a 1960 model year ElCamino complete cab from the GM plant in Van Nuys, CA. That’s the nose that you see without the front sheetmetal in both the collapsed building, and “current” pic.

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  24. Jeff C. Keane

    Mr. Hacker, I’m curious- when you bought the thing from Holtzkamp’s estate, did it come with all the “remaining” T&B sheetmetal (especially the custom nosework) from AFTER the lengthening was done? Or, did/do you need to still create some for it?

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  25. Steve

    Geoff Hacker did not purchase it from the Holtzkamp estate. If you read the article it clearly states there were 2 other owners after Holtzkamp. It now sits in Tampa with the Grenbrier style nose inttact.

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  26. Jeff C. Keane

    Yes Steve, Quite correct. I MEANT Mr. Degnan who appears to be the last owner mentioned
    in the article. (Holtzkamp, Moon; who passed, Degnan; I just got their names twisted up in recall- that seems to happen as I get on in age… : -/ )Thanks for that and the partial update. Although, I was actually hoping to hear from Mr. Hacker, since he actually has been working on it. Did you stop and discuss the vehicle with him?

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  27. michael

    Love reading stories about one-offs

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  28. Michael Sharp

    I wonder what happened to the Olds car hauler that Jim Degnan hauled this Moon beast home on??

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