In Barn Find Hunter Tom Cotter’s first book, The Cobra in the Barn, he wrote about an oddball car carrier that was almost forgotten by history. Known as the Cheetah Transporter, the funky-looking race car hauler was a kind of American hot-rod take on the 1954 Mercedes-Benz Rennabteilung transporter that brought the 300 SL to various races without needing a trailer.
When Geoff Hacker read about it in Tom’s book in 2006, he scrambled to buy the Transporter, which he has now owned for 12 years.
As detailed by Hemmings, the wild cab-forward beast was the brainchild of a man named Norman Holtkamp, who wanted to build his own version of the Mercedes hauler. He started with the chassis from a crashed Mercedes 300 S, which Hacker and Tom see clearly as they poke their heads inside the Cheetah Transporter’s innards in the newest Barn Find Hunter video. Holtkamp apparently valued the chassis’ self-leveling suspension, which he kept stock, but he quickly got to work dramatically slashing the wheelbase from 110 inches to 94 inches.
From there he envisioned the cab, extending the frame ahead of the front axle and attaching the front end of an El Camino body-in-white sourced from GM. Custom aluminum panelwork by Dick Troutman and Dick Barnes, based on designs by Dave Deal, were hammered out and used to fashion the nose and rest of the body behind the cab. Holtkamp swapped in a 283-cubic-inch Chevrolet V-8 and three-speed manual transmission, mounted behind the driver.
As Hacker tells Tom, the Cheetah suffered from weight distribution issues, particularly with no car on the bed. Under braking, the front end would tip forward and the rear would lift right up. The original solution was to add a pair of heavy-duty water tanks as ballast, which actually fixed the problem pretty well. The Cheetah Transporter appeared on the cover of Car and Driver in 1961, and Holtkamp drove it here and there until he decided to continue tinkering with it in the late ’60s.
Hoping to improve the stability issues, Holtkamp had the idea to lengthen the car’s wheelbase to 124 inches, widen the track to accommodate bigger race cars, and move the drivetrain farther back. Nevertheless, before Holtkamp’s handiwork was finished, he sold the Transporter to Dean Moon, a well-known aftermarket parts maven. As Hemmings explains, Moon wanted to switch to disc brakes, but while it was in the shop the February 1971 San Fernando earthquake brought the facility down on top of the Transporter.
It miraculously escaped with just a minor dent, and then Moon’s plans evolved into including a big-block ZL-1 engine to make the Cheetah the world’s fastest car hauler. Alas, that never happened. And when Moon passed in 1987, collector Jim Degnan bought it and managed to swap in an automatic transmission and 350 V-8 to finally get the old thing running and driving.
That was the end of the story until Hacker bought it from Degnan in 2006. And since Tom’s visit, the Cheetah Transporter is finally on the verge of restoration.
“My goal is to really get the look right and return it to the original design, including the short wheelbase,” Hacker says. “It’ll probably be an 18-month job, and we’ll keep the water tanks for sure. Even if we use disc brakes instead of the original drums, we’ll keep the Mercedes hub caps so it looks right.”
As for the motor, Hacker is thinking either a 283 or 350 V-8 paired with an automatic transmission.
“And once it’s done, I even have the wooden molds, or bucks, for the long-wheelbase version,” Hacker says. “Who knows, we could follow the original up with the longer one and have a pair of Cheetah Transporters.”