While spotting an El Camino or a Ranchero is no rare sight, Pontiac’s take on the half-car-half-truck ute is literally one of a kind. That’s because Pontiac never actually pulled the trigger on building them, leaving just one completed 1959 prototype that the company finalized for development testing and evaluation. Although it was originally a roughly cobbled-together love-child of a ’59 Catalina Safari and an El Camino, this truly special 1959 Pontiac “El Catalina” has benefitted from the commitment and hard work of its owner and restorers to bring it to life as GM might have once intended.
How the Pontiac El Catalina came (not) to be
While the Ford Ranchero and Chevy El Camino proved to be successful niche offerings, GM resolved to leave Pontiac out of the mix, determining the small overall market fully saturated with two competitors. As Pontiac focused its attention on cultivating a personality of performance (which bore fruit with the Super Duty program and later the GTO), it pulled the plug on the El Catalina before the second prototype was completed.
Hand-built, but never meant for full production
The engineering team that assembled El Catalina started with a ’59 Catalina Safari station wagon for the underlying architecture, but the truck bed and cab shell had to come from the El Camino. According to Hemmings,, this was not straightforward, as it required blending several parts from the two brands, including inserting the El Camino’s tailgate and rear end into the wider Catalina chassis. The El Camino’s window uppers had to be grafted to the Catalina’s doors to work with the El Camino roof, for example, and the car uses Catalina finned quarter panels.
Under the hood was a two-barrel, 280-horsepower version of the Catalina’s 389-cubic-inch V-8 engine, which came with the optional four-speed Hydra-Matic automatic transmission. For color selection, designers went with a gorgeous white-on-red with white, red, and gray upholstery.
A long journey to the present
As Hemmings tells it, El Catalina had quite the journey from rejected prototype to painstakingly restored beauty. It did a stint as a delivery vehicle at a Pontiac dealership in the early ’60s (the Pontiac Retail Store) in none other than Pontiac, Michigan, while also serving as the manager’s son’s college transportation. By the time it fell into the hands of its next owner, Darrel Lotridge, in 1969, it had been parked outside for a while and was in dire need of repair. Lotridge had been after the car for years.
He had plenty of rust to contend with, as well as many defects related to the fact that the car was never meant to be driven in the first place—the underbed insulation was apparently made of compressed paper, which was also used for the carpet padding. It had also been in a major front-end crash, and the front clip was replaced by that time.
As the restoration began, it hit roadblocks of its own. The first restorer passed away from a heart attack before the second gave up after a few years and retired midway through the body work. And before it reached the next shop, the shop burned down. More faltered attempts ensued.
In 2008, the El Catalina was sold to Tom Gerrard, who completed the extremely difficult restoration. It wasn’t as easy as cherry-picking GM parts, and there was a lot of custom fabrication required particularly for the interior. It was all worth it, though, since from the time it was completed in 2011 it has been cleaning up at car shows with several first-place finishes.
Mecum also now indicates the car has a four-barrel 389 making 300 hp, but it's unclear what accounts for the switch from the original two-barrel as indicated by Hemmings.
So what’s this baby worth, anyway?
Mecum is presenting this truly unique 1959 Pontiac El Catalina for auction at the upcoming Indiana (Auburn) event. And although the auction house is not offering an estimate, Hagerty Price Guide publisher Dave Kinney puts it at $85,000–$125,000. “Lots of big Pontiac collectors would like to have this—it’s one of a kind,” Kinney says. “And given it’s selling on a Friday at Indy and that Mecum knows Pontiacs well, it has a good chance of performing high. But if it goes closer to $75,000 it would be a massive bargain.”
Want your chance at the ultimate Pontiac ute? You’d most definitely be able to prove that this El Catalina is truly a unicorn.
AUTHOR: Eric Weiner