SANTEE AUTOMOBILE CO
SANTEE SS & SPORTS Car , Buick 215 Aluminum V8
Engineer and designer Fred Puhn with his 1963 Santee SS, which was built in San Diego by Santee Automobiles, Inc. The SS raced for the first time at Del Mar in 1963 with Willie West driving
"Santee Automobiles was founded in 1961 to build an American high-performance sports car, on a level with the best from Europe. The Chief Engineer was Fred Puhn (of Quasar and Monocoque Wheels fame). I joined Santee Automobiles soon after start-up and became the Santee's Project Engineer." (Fred and I went to engineering school together at SDSU.) "With a team of 5-10 we built a prototype production car and I financed (company funds were tight) the lightweight racing version, the Santee SS. The production car had a 185 HP Buick 215 CID aluminum V-8, Pontiac Tempest transaxle and Corvette metallic drum brakes (there were no US-made disc brakes in 1961). We designed a fiberglass body, rigid space frame chassis, and F-1 type independent suspension." Santee Automobiles, Inc., was an upstart San Diego business when it began building V8-powered sports cars in 1962. The firm, which starved to death in the recession of 1964, built three cars. All of them exist today and one is on view at the San Diego County Fair in a historic motor sports retrospective. The Santee Sports was competitive with a Shelby Cobra, said its chief engineer and designer Fred Puhn, now 71. The longtime San Diegan had just graduated from San Diego State in 1961 and designed the Santee in 1962, he wrote in an email. “We used the tried and true approach to engineering a new product — we copied features from the best designs around and added just a bit of our own ideas.” As chief engineer, Puhn used a state-of-the-art race car chassis for the Santee Sports, but with a street-tuned, Buick 215-cubic-inch aluminum V-8. The Santee Sports had 200 horsepower and weighed 1,850 pounds so it ran quicker than anything on the road, Puhn said. “It handled like a race car because it had a race-car chassis.” Using a Pontiac Tempest four-speed transaxle gave the car balanced 50/50 weight distribution and eliminated the usual big transmission hump in the cockpit, he said. The shapely fiberglass body was inspired by Italian race cars of the ’50s, slightly retro but very functional. “The streamlining was quite good and the Santee Sports could cruise at 125 mph,” Puhn said. “Wind buffeting was so low that you could easily converse with the passenger while driving 100 mph. But the low (aerodynamic) drag and light weight gave the Santee 25 miles per gallon economy when driven at legal speeds.” The list price at the time was $5,995. The Santee SS, the car on view at the fair, was pumped up to 300 hp, weighed just 1,400 pounds and had a top speed of about 160 mph, Puhn said. “It is the fastest car I have ever driven.” And he’s raced many two-seaters since 1964 and has raced the Santee SS at the Coronado Speed Festival and hopes to again. He could out accelerate a Jaguar E-Type or a Chevy Impala 409 V-8 in a drag race. The independent rear suspension gave very good traction, he said. Using Corvette brakes, the Santee SS stopped quite well — and was 1,000 pounds lighter than the Vette. Santee Automobiles, Inc., was a contender but without backing from a major manufacturer, as did Carroll Shelby from Ford, Puhn said. “Santee might have been like Shelby and even more because the Santee was a more modern design.” Fred Puhn, designer, racer and owner. Puhn owns two of the surviving cars. The third car is being restored by professional Charlie Wallace for his enjoyment. Wallace also restored Puhn’s SS and is now also restoring the Sports. The complete history of the company -- “The Best Sports Car America Never Produced” -- is published in latest issue of Automobile Quarterly. “After 50 years, it is wonderful that the story of this little local auto company is finally being documented,” Puhn said. Every July 4, the founders of Santee Automobiles get together. In attendance will be company president, John Raifsnider, project manager (and racer) John McCann, parts manager Myron Murset and Puhn.