The Santee and the Dolphin — cars engineered in San Diego

Why aren't we driving Santees today?

Fred Puhn with a Santee: "At Del Mar they’re coming out on the straightaway, and he pulls out and accelerates to pass, and pop !— the acceleration threw all the oil away from the oil pump and it blew up."
  • Fred Puhn with a Santee: "At Del Mar they’re coming out on the straightaway, and he pulls out and accelerates to pass, and pop !— the acceleration threw all the oil away from the oil pump and it blew up."
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

You can take the boy out of the car, but sometimes you just can’t get the car out of the boy. Especially if he grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, the hot rod and rock and roll days, the sports-car racing at Torrey Pines and Pomona and Riverside days. Depending on your inclination, back then you looked to Detroit or England or Italy or Germany for the latest hot machines. But for a while, even San Diego was making a run for a place in car-crazed America. Much of that energy came from the great numbers of engineers brought here by the aerospace industry. Enough tinkerers with enough spare time eventually will come up with something new; in the ’50s, that was likely to be a car, either modified or home-built. The Solar company even filled in the postwar down days by manufacturing midget racers.

Phil Binks and the Dolphin: “They took the chassis, and they just put Styrofoam blocks on it and started carving. Kind of like the way they make a surfboard."

Phil Binks and the Dolphin: “They took the chassis, and they just put Styrofoam blocks on it and started carving. Kind of like the way they make a surfboard."

Two local men, long ago bitten by the drive-fast bug, are preserving two examples of San Diego’s contribution to speed. If the economy hadn’t soured or a few lucky breaks had gone our way, perhaps today we’d be trading in our sport utility vehicles for a Santee or a Dolphin.

THE SANTEE

Fred Puhn, a National City resident, is awash in cars — the driveable; a cherry 1955 cream-and-rose Fiat Abarth race car, his wife’s two Morris Minors; a reliable 1956 Ford truck — and the not-yet-driveable: a 1935 V8-RI Maserati Grand Prix car, one of only four made, a true museum piece; a huge, bulbous-fendered, ’30s-era Diamond-T flatbed truck; a regal, zaftig 1948 Alfa-Romeo 6C 2500 SS coupe that Fred’s named “Sophia” for her opulent curves. A Maserati motorcycle and Maserati racing bike are part of the vehicular clutter. And Fred has documented the history of his cars as if they were members of the family.

But however rare the Maserati or subtly beautiful the Sophia, the car closest to his heart is the Santee. Fred designed it and helped build it and now owns every one ever made. One complete car, one near complete, one in pieces. The history of the Santee began with a helicopter.

“I graduated from San Diego State in 1961 with a B.S. in mechanical engineering, but what I really wanted to do was design cars. I was hanging around cars all the time, pit-crewing, working on cars, whatever I could to learn about cars. I finally took a job at Gyrotor, on Prospect Street in Santee. They were developing a patented helicopter rotor system.”

Gyrotor’s promising future began to fade when they began a patent infringement suit against Lockheed. Then two prototype helicopters were destroyed in a train wreck.

“So,” says Fred, “they ended up having some money from the accident settlement, but no product, not enough to build another helicopter. It was just an empty factory. So they decided they needed to build something to tide them over while they pursued the lawsuit. They only had four employees by that time. I was the chief engineer.

“Everybody at Gyrotor was sort of a car nut, and we were just sitting around talking, and somebody said, 'What America needs is a good cheap sports car. We’ve got the Corvette’ — the vice president had a Corvette, a big fat turkey, not a good sports car — ‘and there’s this [British-made] Austin-Healy Sprite. Why can’t America build an Austin-Healy Sprite?’ That’s what we started out doing, building a cheap, sporty road car that you could race, made for the masses, made in America.

“So I went home and got inspired. There was this beautiful Ferrari on the cover of Road and Track that I liked, so I carved a balsa wood model of it and painted it up and brought it in to work. ‘Wouldn’t this be a neat sports car if it was a $2000 sports car?’ And everybody was all hot for the idea, so we started pursuing it a little further.” The plan was to create a car from purchased parts to keep the price low.

“So we went to Crofton (a local specialty car company] and tried to buy an engine, and it was, like, $1500. A huge price for [such a small engine]. We tried to buy Harley-Davidson motorcycle engines, and they were real expensive. There was just no way we could buy components and get the price near $2000. We decided, well, this is going to be a $6000 car or an $8000 car. That was about the price of a Jaguar in those days. So it can't be a little piddler. It's got to have some horsepower.

“My friend had a 1961 Oldsmobilc Cutlass F85, aluminum V-8,180 horsepower. It went fast for a so-called compact. There were the Corvairs and the Pontiac Tempest and those kind of things, but that aluminum V-8 really intrigued us. It was a bulky engine, the size of a Chevy, but it only weighed 300 pounds, and it had power. So we went to a dealer and got the best price we could. It was, like, $600 for a Buick Special V-8.

“Then we looked for the transmission, and that’s when we started designing the car. I was going to put the transmission in the back, because that way we can move the engine a little farther forward and get some leg room. The E-type Jaguar had just come out, and you couldn't even sit in it. There was no room. That’s one of my pet peeves. So the car was designed around the cockpit. The first thing we built was a cockpit mockup. I said, 'I want it this long, I want the pedals right here, the steering wheel here, I want these seats this high... Now go design the rest of the car.’

“We ended up with a Pontiac Tempest four-speed transmission and rear end. The axles are modified Tempest. The door handles were off a Corvair, Buick pedals, Tempest gear shift linkage, Studebaker dashboard gauges turned 90 degrees. Corvette racing brakes. The wheels are Daytons. They’re heavy and really just flashy. There were no American cars with a small enough windshield, so we used one from a [British] Sunbeam Alpine, which actually was owned by Chrysler. We picked the windshield and designed the body contour to fit it.

“The aluminum Buick was stock except for dual carburetors to replace the four-barrel. The biggest advantage to the duals is, these carburetors have small floats, so when you corner vigorously it doesn’t slosh fuel all over the place. With the four-barrel float you get a lot of flooding. So this is more of a sports-car performer than with a four-barrel. And we changed the exhaust; the headers are standard, but I didn’t like the sound of the V-8, that low rumble. I like a sports-car sound. So I took both pipes and ran them into one muffler.

“I gave my balsa wood model of the Ferrari to an artist, who did a beautiful rendering. But this was just pure style. By the time we were ready to give the drawing to a real model builder, we had the specs. And each time it got changed. Like, the artist didn’t draw it right — didn’t allow enough clearance for the wheels, so the model builder had to modify that. Which didn’t look like what I started with. I was trying to copy a Ferrari, and it doesn’t look like a Ferrari.

“Anyway, we just copied things and worked fast. We copied the chassis off a Mercedes 300 SLR and modified it accordingly; we copied the front suspension from a Lotus and the back from the [locally made] Dolphin. We had Dolphin build us the rear parts so we could just buy them. We probably spent only a month engineering it. We wanted to get into production right away. But I just knew what I wanted. When one guy designs a car, you can do this. When you have a committee, it takes years.’’

When it was time to make the prototype, Fred admits, they did things the hard way, using an aircraft-building technique to make the body mold. “With all these specs, the model maker carved out a half-model of the car, from the center line to the outside, lengthwise, so there were no symmetry problems. It was one-tenth scale. And we carefully marked station lines [vertically) along the model at specific intervals and cut the model into sections along the station lines." Fred eagerly describes the rest of the painstaking process: make the mirror image of each cross-sectional slice; enlarge them ten times, to actual size; make sheet-metal templates of each enlarged slice; mount the templates in a frame, using a surveyor’s transit for accuracy, fill the intervening spaces with chicken wire, burlap, and plaster; shave the plaster into the car’s final contour, scribe marks in the plaster to locate doors, gaps between hood and body; paint and wax the plaster model to a high sheen; apply plaster and stiffeners over the model, then pop the mold off when it’s dry.

From that make-do mold, the Gyrotor crew made a fiberglass display body. They glued it to the chassis they had built and displayed the new 1962 Santee at the Del Mar Fair. Eventually, the Livesay company in Lakeside made a proper fiberglass production body mold.

Fred recalls the details of the first Santee off the line. “At 1850 pounds, with 200 horsepower, it accelerated faster than anything you could buy in 1962. The cruising speed was 125 miles an hour, which was also the top speed. You could start from rest in any gear. And it got 25 miles to the gallon. A regular Buick Special got 20, the Santee was lighter and smaller. It accelerates like a rocket, it corners like a race car. It stops better than a racing Corvette because it has the racing brakes in a car that weighs half as much. And it has lots of room

in the cockpit for a sports car, or any car for that matter.” Early in the Santee’s development, Gyrotor decided to separate the helicopter assets from the sports-car project. They formed a new corporation, Santee Automobiles, Inc. All the Gyrotor employees except the president went to work for the new company. They sold stock to finance the development of the car.

Once they had the prototype for the street racer, they started on a new model. Car number two was the Santee Super Sports, designed for the track. “With the race car we did things differently. We put a Corvette transmission against the Tempest differential. It’s lighter and has closer gear ratio. It has an open drive shaft like this, no cover. That wouldn’t even be legal today. And we used a few more foreign parts. The master cylinders, the shocks are all foreign made, but we didn’t have to do that. We did it just for lightness. This car in the end weighs 1400 pounds. It has a top speed of 160. It just went like blazes.

“Again, I wanted to get rid of the rumbling V-8 sound, but this time I reconnected the pairings on the headers and ended up with what today they’d call a ’bundle of snakes’ exhaust ora 180-degree exhaust, with the pipes criss-crossed under the car. That improved the performance a little, but mostly it made it sound like today’s Indy-car V-8s, with that scream.

“And because the car had the weight distributed 50-50, sort of at either end of the chassis, it was stable. It wanted to keep going in a straight line. It’s a little sluggish going into corners and didn’t have the bite on acceleration that the rear-engine race cars did, but it’s almost impossible to lose it. It sort of slowly drifts out, and you have plenty of time to correct. If you’d put in a rear engine and disc brakes, you’d have a car as fast as the newest Lotuses that were winning all the professional races.

“We had some great practices up at Riverside. In our first time out, Carroll Shelby [nationally famous racing driver] was way down at one end of the pits, and we were at the other. We were just driving around the track very slowly, breaking in the engine. Not making any fuss or going fast. Just 60 or so. They weren’t paying any attention to us. They were testing a 260 Cobra. So after lunch, we said, okay, it’s time to go fast.

“So John McCann [Gyrotor president) gets in the car and cranks it up. He comes around at 7000 RPM, full-bore through turn one, 120 miles an hour, and all of a sudden you see all these heads in the Shelby pit go zap! It sounded just like a Formula 1 car. It was screaming. After a few of these laps, John came in. All the guys came down to look at the car, and I remember Shelby looking in and looking at all those little tubes [the frame] in there and saying, 'Man, that sure is light.’ At that time, on paper, we could beat a Cobra 260.

“As a factory team we only raced once. At Del Mar. It lasted one lap. Willie West was driving it; he was a winning driver at the time. We’d barely gotten to the track on time, we’d been up all night changing the springs. Willie’d had no practice that day and had only driven it a few laps at Riverside.

“Anyway, for the race they lined us up in the front row. This was the new, exotic, big, loud car, so they put us up front. Then Willie says, 'Gosh, I’ve never done a standing start before. What do I do?’ And we said, well, the car’s got a lot of grip. The main thing is you don’t want to stall the engine. So right at 7000 RPM, you just dump the clutch. So he did.

“He took off in a cloud just like a dragster, leaving black marks all the way toward turn one, then a gap where he shifted, then two more black marks all the way to where he hit the brakes. And he hit the brakes too early, because he didn’t know how those big brakes were going to respond. Three or four cars went zooming by, among them Frank Monise in a Lotus 23. He had the track record. He ‘owned’ Del Mar. So Monise got the lead.

“So Willie goes past one car, and he passes another car, and he gets right up behind Monise, and they’re coming out on the straightaway, and he pulls out and accelerates to pass, and pop!— the acceleration threw all the oil away from the oil pump and it blew up. It didn’t explode. It was just a soft pop. We checked it out and said, gee, it looks like the cam’s broken. We’ll fix this. We went back to the shop and took the heads off and it was a disaster. The inside was destroyed. So that was it. The race. As a factory.’’ And 36 years later, Fred can still smell the fuel and the oil and the rubber.

So what happened? Why aren’t we driving Santees today? “That’s pretty simple. In 1962 there was a giant recession. The company was trying to sell stock to finance the expense of tooling up for production. We’d estimated the cost at $100,000. Today it sounds like nothing. But in 1962 it would be like raising a million today. A challenge for a small company, but not impossible. But the timing was terrible. Everybody was pulling in their horns. It was really gloom and doom in San Diego. Houses were being repossessed. It was terrible.

“I remember the day we knew it was over. There were four of us living in an apartment down the road from the plant in Santee. We paid $50 a month rent, so each of us was paying $12.50 a month, and we were sharing the food. We went home from work one day and opened the cupboard and there was no food. We weren’t being paid at that time, so we went back to the office and sat down in the president’s office and said, ’John, it’s over. We’re out of food.’

“I ended up with a set of drawings. John McCann had paid for and owned the Super Sports. The rest of the assets, including the first car we built, the road car, went to one of the creditors, Homer Sams. Homer kept the car for years and didn’t drive it much at all.” Fred checks the odometer. “Only 8141 miles. Of course, most of them were 120 miles an hour, fiat out. I once went to visit Homer and asked what he’d take for the car. He wanted $4000, but I just didn’t have it.

“Years later, it must have been in the early ’70s, I saw an ad in a magazine. There was a race car for sale in San Francisco, and the description sounded just like the Santee Super Sports. So I called the guy up. He didn’t know what it was. He just said it has an Olds engine, the heads are off it..."

Fred pieced together the odyssey of the Santee Super Sports. “McCann sold it to some guy in Hawaii for $2000. It raced there. I have some movie films of it. He’s racing for first place against a Cobra. But it didn’t get a lot of publicity and faded into obscurity. Later it somehow got shipped over to Oregon, because I remember seeing an ad for it for sale, and it was called the Santee in the ad.

“Somehow or other the car got given away to somebody to he used in an auto shop project. That’s when the carburetors went, the pistons are all different, and somebody bolted on a fan. And then the guy stuck it in his backyard. This was in the early ’70s. And this was around the time vintage-car racing started.

“One day a guy interested in vintage racing was driving through an alley, and he saw the Super Sports sitting in the backyard. And he said, I don’t know what it is, hut I’ll bet I could sell it to a vintage racer. So he bought it for $300. And he sold it for $900 to the guy in San Francisco that I bought it from. Then I bought it for $1800. Nobody knew what it was. They just thought it was an interesting old race car, and in the early ’70s, that’s what everybody was looking for. I trailered it back home and stuck it in the garage.

Then I got really hot to get the other. I had the money, so I called Homer. His wife told me he'd died and the car was gone, but her son probably knew where it was. I called the son, and he said the car had been traded to a contractor for some work, but he thought he remembered the contractor’s name. So I called the guy, and he had the car in his backyard in Rancho Santa Fe. He said, ‘Well, I'm into Cadillacs and Corvettes, I don’t have enough garage space, and it’s been sitting under a tree for six or seven years...’ I had to negotiate with this guy for a year before he decided he would sell it to me, even though he obviously didn’t value the car very much. But I got so whiny about it, he finally sold it to me for something like $3000.

“So we go out to get it, and it looked really dreadful. It had been sitting under a eucalyptus tree for six years, and the cockpit was completely filled with leaves and twigs because the tarp had rotted. And it was sunk into the ground up to the rims. The body was resting on the ground. We had to dig it out. So we got it home and excavated all the leaves and stuff out of it. The upholstery was pretty much wasted, except for the door panels. The steering wheel fell apart, but Homer’s son gave me two new spare steering wheels and the Santee logo emblems.

“We got under the hood and got rid of the rats’ nests and filed the points, put in a battery, a little gas, got in, turned the key, and it started right up. We just drove it on short trips, and it always got real hot. One day I parked it, had just turned the key off, and it exploded. The pressure had built up in the cooling system, and it blew the hose right off. The pressurized glycol that was the coolant blew back onto the firewall, and through these holes, and onto my feet. I had second- and third-degree burns and ended up on crutches."

“So this is all there are. The company was only doing this for one year. But in one year, we were able to start with a clean sheet of paper — there were maybe a dozen people working on it — and end up with the Santee. We just worked furiously for a year, days and nights, weekends, 70-hour weeks. Just thrashing. I could never do that again."

THE DOLPHIN

Phil Binks, retired from the aerospace industry, drives one of his three Dolphins in vintage car races around California. “My dad made the mistake of taking me to a race when I was nine, and I got the bug. I always wanted to go racing. Then I came out here to California in the early ’50s with the Navy, and of course that was when racing was big. There was even racing at the Strategic Air Command bases. General Curtis Lemay was a big racing fan, and that’s why they could race at the SAC bases. He had the enlisted men working at the races, and finally one of them complained to his congressman, so they shut that off.

“I had an MG-TD and later one of those bug-eye [Austin-Healy] Sprites that I raced. But it was my brother-in-law who bought the Dolphin as a kit in 1962, and I had to put it together. We worked at Convair on the Atlas project, and in ’64, when everything kind of took a dump, he decided to go back to Illinois to go to school and took the car with him with the idea of racing back there, but he never did. I got the car in ’76 and have been racing it in vintage car races since ’78.

“The engineer and designer was John Crosthwaite, an Englishman. He had worked for the Cooper Works and Lotus race team in England and later at the Sebring track in Florida. When he came to San Diego, he met Bud Hull, an engineer and former commercial tuna fisherman who had some capital to invest, so they made a lot of race cars and lost a lot of money.”

Crosthwaite came to California to work on race cars in an enterprise called Lotus West but moved on to a San Diego Fiat dealership when that failed. Robert “Bud” Hull of La Jolla met Crosthwaite when Hull was racing a Porsche Speedster and G Modified Cooper in club races. When Formula Junior (smaller, more affordable race cars) became popular in the late ’50s, Hull and Crosthwaite formed Dolphin Engineering Company on North Johnson, near Gillespie Field in El Cajon. The company was named after Hull’s favorite animal.

The first model of the Dolphin was produced in 1959. According to one of Binks’s advertising brochures from that era, the production engine was a rear-mounted, 1100 cc four-cylinder Fiat, with Fiat 600 four-speed synchromesh gear box, rack-and-pinion steering, 85-inch wheelbase, 47-inch track, a single-seat fiberglass and aluminum body, with multi-straight tube space frame. It weighed 884 pounds and cost $3895 complete. According to the brochure, the Dolphin Formula Junior was “designed and built in America for the driver who desires the enjoyment and thrill of grand prix racing at a fraction of the cost. One of the first true production road-racing machines built in the United States.”

In contrast to the Santee, the first Dolphin body mold was made fairly easily. Says Phil, “They took the chassis, and they just put Styrofoam blocks on it and started carving. Kind of like the way they make a surfboard. Then they lay the fiberglass over that to make the mold.

“They made nine of these early Juniors. The one I drive was made in 1960 and has a Ford engine. Dolphin made some complete, some as kits. In the kit you got the body, the frame, the suspension, wheels, tires, steering, seats, radiator, but none of the bulkheads on the inside or anything like that. But all the rest of it had to be fabricated — the body had to be mounted, that kind of stuff.” In fact, Phil’s kit car had originally been raced by the factory. “Its last race was a grand prix in Mexico City. They brought it back, took some parts off to make the new car they were designing, and used the rest in the kit. The windshield in my Formula Junior still had the Turista stickers on the windshield.”

The Dolphin International came out in 1961 with a redesigned fiberglass body based on the low-slung Jack Brabham Cooper and Dolphin-designed magnesium wheels. In two years, the company sold 26 of the new model. Crosthwaite left Dolphin late in 1961 to help design Mickey Thompson’s rear-engine Indy 500 cars.

Dolphin had a three-man factory race team, and “they raced against Lotus and Cooper, on the West Coast, and did quite well,” according to Phil. “Formula Junior started out to be a cheap class, but, like everything else, it ended up becoming the chassis of the week and the engine of the week, and it just sort of steam-rolled from there.” The smaller companies producing Formula Junior cars had trouble staying in business. In response, Dolphin designed its third model, the Dolphin Sports Racer. The frame was widened, and the track went from 47 to 51 inches. The scoop-front nose was taken from a mold of the Dolphin International, the rear was from a Lotus, and the center section was variable, depending on engine model. With 750cc and 1100 cc Coventry Climax engines, the car did well in competition, winning two national titles. The company sold about 15, most as kits.

Phil Binks admits he’s now “the repository for a lot of Dolphin stuff”: photos, documents, three cars including the only complete early-model Formula Junior, and the body molds for the Sports Racer. And if a Dolphin has been located somewhere in the country, Phil knows about it. One of the most interesting cars is now on its way to race in Germany.

“There was a hybrid car, a Porsche-Dolphin. Otto Zipper, who is the Porsche dealer in L.A., he kept trying to get Porsche to send him a Burke-spyder, a model designed to compete in hillclimbs, shorter wheelbase and 150 pounds lighter than the regular RS Spyders. The factory told him, no, you can beat them with the regular RS. Well, it was 200 pounds too heavy, and it had drum brakes, and it didn’t handle as well. So Zipper took an engine and drive train down to Dolphin and said, ’Build me a sports racer.’

“Ken Miles, who had been a well-known Porsche race driver, had gone over to race for Dolphin, so it was logical that Dolphin would build it. So Dolphin built the car around it.” The Porsche-Dolphin weighed 1100 pounds, 160 pounds less than the Porsche RS. In 1963, after a few false starts and a little tinkering, the Porsche-Dolphin broke a lap record at Riverside and finished 45 seconds ahead of the next Porsche, an embarrassing defeat for the German factory.

“Porsche called Zipper and said if he wanted to keep his dealership, he wouldn’t run the car again and wouldn't sell it. So Zipper just had to eat it.” It reportedly sat in his warehouse for years. “Eventually the car was purchased out of L.A. and ended up in Milwaukee. It’s now been purchased by a man from Germany, and he’s restoring it hack there to race in Europe.

“Dolphins were all lightweight. And the later ones had a very low center of gravity, so they cornered well. And the later Junior was a fairly slippery design, aerodynamically. And the car had better brakes and handling than some of the Lotus models. And they all handled well. But Lotus was winning nationally and getting all the press.” Dolphin went out of business in 1964.

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