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The Hunt for “POP 356”

This is the story of my hunt for the perfect 356 Porsche that began more than two years ago.  Studying the history of the early Porsche models became an interesting and fun adventure for me, although I already knew I loved Porsche cars.  My first Porsche was a 930 Turbo that I owned while my wife and I lived in Vermont.  Many know Porsche history better than I can relate here, but I have always been intrigued by it.

Ferdinand Porsche was 73 years old and in poor health when his first car was built in Gmund. It was Ferry Porsche, who along with other engineers designed the 356 Porsche.   To this day, the 356 Registry celebrates September 17th with a “Drive your 356 Day” in honor of the birthday of Ferry Porsche.  While living in Vermont back in the 90s, I recall taking my 930 turbo out for a drive in the mountains.  Very seldom did I ever feel the need to turn on the car radio back then.  It was enough to just listen to the sound of a Porsche engine as it took a curve in the road.  For some reason though, that day, I switched it on and suddenly the first sound out of the speaker was an announcement that in Germany, Ferry Porsche had died.  Shocked and dazed, I quickly turned the radio back off and never used it again.

To consider that the Porsche family endured some very tough times during the war and afterwards is an understatement.  Before the war, Ferdinand Porsche was the most sought after automotive engineer in all of Germany.  After the war and the imprisonment of both Ferdinand and his son Ferry Porsche in France, it was Ferry and others such as Karl Rabe who struggled to get their company back into business.  Supplies were nearly impossible to come by and with the occupation forces, namely the British, having taken control of Zuffenhausen, the business was reopened in Gmund, Austria.

As we all are aware, the very early 356 models were made entirely by hand in a former blacksmith shop and farm in Gmund, Austria.  Using a wooden buck to pound out the metal panels by hand, the resultant pieces were then fabricated into a flowing and classic shape.

The model lineup of the Porsche 356 can be broken down into several different iterations of the original handmade pre-production  Gmund cars.  The Gmund cars started production in 1948, coincidentally the year I was born.  The total production ran from 1948 to 1965 with approximately 10 cabriolets actually made in 1966.  The 356 was made from 1950 to 1955.  356A was produced from 1956 to 1959, 356B T5 from 1960 to 1961, 356B T6 from 1962 to 1963 and finally 356C finished production from 1964 to 1965.  Each of the distinct models show a progression of technical achievement and improvements that Porsche engineering is well known for.

As I studied the different years of production, I had to decide exactly what I wanted to do with a 356.  I’m not into concours showings, but at the same time I can and do appreciate a car that is more stock, as the factory intended it to be.  My true passion is to just drive and enjoy my cars.  This includes our club fun runs and exciting tours around the Kansas City area.   It is important to me that I be able to drive a car on tours that is reliable and safe.  Therefore, I concluded that the best years for me would be a car that has disc brakes and a more powerful engine.  This is why I decided to try and find a car of the last production 356 models of 1964 to 1965.

I do suggest that one gets a little seat time in a particular model of Porsche they are interested in.  I also highly suggest a hands-on examination and a PPI done on the selected car.  I, of course, did neither of these.  That’s OK, because after two years of hunting, I was truly in love with the 356!  I did get to sit in one down in Edmund, Oklahoma, at a friend’s house, on the way back from the Treffen in Austin this year.  That did it for me.  First of all, I now knew that I could get my big body into such a small car and secondly, it was better than I had imagined.  I did feel somewhat familiar with the 356 because, after all, it is a very close cousin to the VW Beetle and I have two of those at the farm.  So, what could there be to worry about?

Actually,  my main concern in hunting for a 356 was the worry of a badly rusted body.  This can be very expensive to repair and is, for me, a deal breaker.  I have restored several cars in the past and now, as I approach my 70th birthday, I just can’t do that anymore.  I concluded that the car of my dreams must be totally restored and ready to perform.  It is much better to buy a car with a good body and bad motor than the other way around.  It is even better if body and motor are both good.  This then separates “needs work” from the “needs nothing” and this difference is reflected in the cost of the car.

Color is important, both exterior and interior, along with options and the size of the engine.  Whether the car is a matching numbers car is only important to the show car circuit and not so much to me.  Engines would fail and back in the day, they were thrown out if not rebuildable and simply replaced.   Where the car is located goes with the rule of dry climate and lack of road salt, etc.  California, Arizona and some areas of the Pacific Northwest figured into my search.  Cars from the New England area need not apply.  Open cars and options such as sun roof models push the price to the unobtainable range and therefore did not make the cut.

I have always believed that I have fared better in buying from a dealer or a business that deals in classic cars than from an individual that I didn’t know from Adam.  If I get taken for a ride, my attorney can at least go after something of value from a dealer.  It also helps to be able to talk and ask questions from the dealer and get intelligent and helpful answers.  So, during the hunt, I am also evaluating the seller along with the car.  I bet that I have spent hundreds of hours, mostly in the wee hours of the night, looking at cars from all over North America.

With the advent of the internet, searching for cars has become a fantastic experience.  Back 20 or 30 years ago, one was lucky to find the car sought after listed in the cars for sale section of the local or regional newspaper.  Word of mouth or clubs such as ours provided a valuable source of information, ,but nothing like it is now.  A word of caution however, is in trusting digital pictures on line.  I’ll never forget , over twenty years ago, the guy who trucked our VW Convertible from California to Vermont telling me that “Hey buddy, it looks like you got a good one cause most of the internet cars are junk!”   Words to remember.  I can recall the days of poring through the latest Hemmings Motor News the minute it appeared in my mailbox and calling as fast as I could on the car of my dreams.  Of course, it had already been sold.  And, so the hunt would continue.   Swap meets, car shows, even junk yards figured into the search.  Not now.  Not with the mighty “interweb”!  It also doesn’t matter necessarily where the car is to be shipped from.  Now, with professional enclosed car transporters a car can easily be delivered from LA to KC in two days.

I zeroed in on dealerships that carried Porsches.  Most did not have 356 models and if they did they were always over 200K.  By joining the 356 Registry, I was introduced to a whole new group of people who loved playing with 356s.  They have a talk forum to answer questions, a parts for sale section and, of course, a whole group of cars for sale.  Open cars command the most money and the early 356A cars are also way up there.  Luckily for me, the latter models with the disc brakes are also usually the lowest in price.  Doesn’t make much sense considering that it is an acknowledged fact that the last two years produced the absolutely best models of the entire run.  (Sorry Sean, just my biased opinion!)

Along with finding many dealers in California, one can also start identifying the best restoration garages.  Everyone has probably heard of Wilhoit, Emory, etc.  These groups produce the very best in their areas from full concours to really wild 356 Outlaws.  Jay Leno has a YouTube channel that has featured many of these great builds over the last couple of years.  I also discovered that original survivors with a patina were commanding a very high value.  I did look at several and, in fact, during the All German car show just a few weeks ago, I got a lead on a very nice car in Colorado.  It was an all original numbers matching car that had been used for years as a daily driver.  It was in need of a new paint job, new tires and brakes and probably an engine and transmission rebuild was in the works.  A complete new interior with all the gauges restored would be in order and of course the clock and radio didn’t work.  Wait a minute.  For what they were asking and what had to be done to be the car I wanted, it would cost more money than what I was willing to spend.   By the time all that work was done, it would be more expensive than buying a completely restored car. Decisions, Decisions.

After many nights of hunting on the internet, I finally came across a car that satisfied almost all of my criteria.  It was a 1965.  It was a SC not a C.  It had a two-year bare metal complete tear down restoration.  It had a new engine, clutch, brakes, interior, etc, and it was in the colors that I liked. Due to an added bonus of Carrera 2 exhaust along with an original license plate, my ultimate choice made the move to the top of the list.  Hey, maybe this is the one.  OK, I’d better sleep on it and mull it over.  It was on eBay and as a lot of things on eBay, it’s here today and gone tomorrow.  I decided to take another look and yes it was gone.  OK, missed that one and the hunt continued.

I couldn’t get that car out of my mind.  I used it to now compare to anything that I came across.  Nothing was even coming close. Another story of my life, I thought.  Weeks went by and I happened on the exact car again on eBay.  I thought it had been sold.  It had a “buy it now” price.  I made it through the night, tossing and turning about the car.  Talked  to my wife over coffee and she helped me make the decision to contact the owner and check it out.  Well that’s not totally accurate; she really got tired of me whining like a little girl and finally said I could do it, but be careful.

I waited until 9:00 am west coast time and made my call.  I was pleasantly surprised to talk to a wonderful man, who had a restoration business and also a parts supply company.  He was originally from Finland and had been in the US since the early 80s.  He took the time to go through every single item that had been done during the two-year restoration and it was exactly as he had described it in the listing.  He told me of his deep concern to do things correctly and properly and to make the car as accurate to the model as possible.  I not only said yes, but hell yes.

The rest of the story is a matter of faith and trust.  I must have talked to him a dozen times after I sent a deposit to hold the car.  He took the time and did everything that I asked, including having the local Orange County Sheriff’s department do a vin number exam and fill out the paperwork for the inspection.  So, what was I getting?  I believed I was going to get a complete professional restoration that I could trust to be the car that I had been searching for.  You must realize that California, especially Southern California, has all of the many specialty shops that can provide the correct gauge restoration, the correct interiors, chrome, etc.  Given that I was expecting a totally professional job, I would be fibbing if I told you that I wasn’t sweating bullets when the Reliable Carriers truck started unloading the car in the local grade school parking lot at 11:00 pm just two nights later.  Happily, the trucker’s wife, (whose name was Faith), smiled and said, “Don’t worry; it’s one of the best we have seen”.  She got into the car and started it up and turned on all its lights and I knew that “Pop” was going to be alright.  We had driven the VW convertible down to the school to pick up the 356 and Faith’s husband had joked “It’s just like what you drove here in”.  I replied that a lot of VW’s could be bought for what that 356 cost!

You’ll see plenty of “Pop 356” in the future, especially as the days get longer and the nights shorter.  You’ve not lived until you’ve driven in the dark with 6 volt headlights.

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