With 55,000 racing miles under its belt, Ernie Nagamatsuʼs Speedster has every right to look slightly bruised and abused, every knock and scrape a proud trophy of a life well lived and a race hard fought
The tale of a 356 Speedster that has raced every year of its life…
Itʼs fair to say racing cars have a hard life. Itʼs inevitable that parts break, paint gets swapped and things get bent, so they are usually patched up, parts get replaced, or more often than not over the long term the cars get restored or even scrapped. Certainly the latter was a fairly common outcome in period, especially if the cars became uncompetitive and couldnʼt be developed to keep up with more modern machinery.
Back in the day many were regarded as just an old car that had seen a hard life and considered virtually worthless. Few people cared enough to put in the effort, time and money to maintain, let alone race, them.
But whatʼs interesting is that if you look at period racing photos from the 1950s and ʼ60s two things always stand out: firstly the innocence and risk involved (roll cages were nonexistent and the popular thinking of the day was it was better not to have seatbelts so you could be thrown clear of the rolling car!), and secondly the sheer volume of Porsche 356s on the grid, especially Speedsters.
Certainly in the US in the late 1950s it was not uncommon to see a grid with two-thirds comprising Porsche ʻbathtubsʼ. Their light weight, agility and reliability combined to make them the weapon of choice for privateer racers.
This is the tale of a ʼ58 356 Speedster owned by two men, one who started the story 53 years ago and one who continues as custodian of it right up to the present day – both racers through and through. The first of these was James Kilpatrick, a fighter pilot in the US Air Force who became a Brigadier General. He bought the Speedster on these pages with a friend in 1964 and immediately took it racing in the SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) E Production class. Itʼs been racing ever since.
Now thatʼs not a word of exaggeration – what makes this particular Speedster so rare and the story so interesting is that itʼs been raced continuously since 1964, year in, year out. Think about that; virtually every mile this car has ever seen has been on a race track. Every revolution the engine has made has been at racing speed. Every twist and turn of the wheels has been while under racing loads.
And to race a car every year consecutively for that length of time beggars belief. I just look at my own attempts to do a few races each year and canʼt begin to imagine what effort
was required to do that for all those years – 33 consecutive years, in fact, until James died in 1996!
Thatʼs a lot of race circuits, a huge amount of travel between events, and an immense undertaking to have the car prepared and ready every time. The preparation James did extended to all the mechanical work and even rebuilding the engine when required. You build an immense bond with a machine when youʼve taken it apart, rebuilt it and raced it year after year.
Now take a look back at the photos on these pages and marvel at the history etched on every panel and component. Thereʼs a period photograph of the Speedster back in the mid-sixties looking fresh and almost brand new (notice the number 7 decal lines up with the chrome strip down the car, a telltale sign of the fastidiousness of the owner...).
We tend to forget that these cars were once new, especially when theyʼve been preserved with so much history and patina collected over the years. So this isnʼt some badly repaired or beaten up old car, but a living, breathing time- machine, something that allows us to peek into the past and touch 55,000 miles of racing. Yes, fifty five thousand miles! We know the race mileage to be genuine because fighter pilots have it drilled into them to be methodical and meticulous in their preparation, so James documented every mile, every oil change, and every repair, starting with Del Mar Races, California, in 1964 and finishing with its final race in 1996 at Sears Point Raceway. The history file for the car is immense. There are build sheets, photos, articles, scrutineering tags and all manner of other bits and pieces. One of the articles, a piece from the local Fresno, California newspaper from 1978 provides a lovely snapshot of the Brigadier General and his car: ʻSo what does someone who flies planes at Mach II do to relax? He goes motor racing! Itʼs not just the racing that relaxes me, I enjoy the preparation of the car and just going out and being competitive.ʼ That really gives you an insight into the kind of person he was.
Thereʼs also a fantastic period photo of James harnessed
“WE TEND TO FORGET THESE CARS WERE ONCE NEW…”
up in the Speedster, looking every inch the fighter pilot – it could be the Aviator sunglasses but I think itʼs the intensity of his look that tells you the man did combat. That final race was also his final act – James passed away preparing the car in the paddock at the age of 71.
If youʼre going to go then I canʼt imagine as a petrolhead and racer going in a more suitable way, doing something you absolutely love. In honour of James and the Speedster, the San Francisco branch of the SCCA retired the race number 7 in their honour immediately after the race.
But racing life wasnʼt over for the Speedster. New owner Ernie Nagamatsu had been long time friends with the family and had known about the car for some time. He was just the man to take up the torch and keep it burning just as brightly. Like James, heʼs also a keen racer, having started over 35 years ago with Formula Fords in competitive SCCA racing in Southern California.
Ernie raced FF Swift DB-1S and eventually he started vintage racing, firstly with his 1964 Shelby Cobra, then Old Yeller II, a proper US Buick Nailhead-engined hot-rod of a race car, before picking up where James left off, continuing to race the Speedster in the US and elsewhere.
Ernie is a typical petrolhead but different from many in that he truly is a curator. His view is that he is just a caretaker, keeping the car and its history intact for todayʼs and future generations to enjoy. Ernie raced the car on and off until it was shipped to the UK in 2014 to be restored by Ian Clark and Sean Mcclurg.
Now the term ʻrestoredʼ is probably inaccurate, certainly if you look at the bodywork in the photos, but the remit from Ernie was to preserve the car but do what needed to be done to enable it to continue to be raced as itʼs done from new. As is usual with race cars it had obviously seen a hard life and had been crashed multiple times: in fact James once rolled it and buried it in the sand on the edge of the circuit!
It had at some point also been converted to coil-over rear suspension, no doubt to keep the car competitive. Ernie wanted to race in Fia-sanctioned events so that meant it had to be returned to swing-axle rear suspension, so the car saw much time on Seanʼs jig, being pulled straight.
While converting the rear suspension back to the original swing-axle set up, Sean also modified the roll-cage, retaining the main cage but replacing the mandatory Scca-style roll hoop that blights many US cars with a simple but effective period-correct roll-over hoop.
The next area of focus was the electrics, which better resembled a birdʼs nest than a wiring loom. Given reliability was a major focus for Ernie, a new custom-made loom was installed. Meanwhile Ian was going through the motor and gearbox. The engine had been rebuilt a few times by James
and many race miles had taken their toll, so Ian replaced most of the major mechanical components such as barrels and pistons (JE 12.5:1), crank (Scat Ultra-lite) and rods (forged Carrillos). Ian also rebuilt the Solex 40 P11 dual-throat carbs and rebuilt and ported the cylinder heads. It now produces a reliable 150bhp.
One of the modifications made in period was to convert the car to disc brakes rather than original drums, as was permissible in SCCA racing to allow the car to race against more contemporary machinery. Itʼs a modification I can sympathise with as drums arenʼt great for racing – they provide a lot less retardation and go ʻoffʼ after any prolonged use in an endurance race. I know as Iʼve gone straight ahead at the end of the main straight at Oulton Park when the pedal went to the floor!
Itʼs taken us an age to get the expensive GT drums to work, so discs are a more cost-effective way of getting a far better braking capability than could ever be achieved with drums. With this set up Ernie raced the car all over the US taking in the major Porsche and historic race events, and has taken the car all over the world, as far as my home country of New Zealand where it was tremendously well received.
Itʼs fair to say that Ernie is a wonderful ambassador for Porsche and this car in particular. Without fail he sets up the display boards that tell the story of the car and he always finds time to chat to spectators and racers alike about the history of the car. He also permanently wears a smile that is infectious, just like his enthusiasm for the car and its history.
We chatted at the Silverstone Classic in the paddock where we were both competing in the Royal Automobile Club Tourist Trophy race for pre-ʼ63 sports cars (which, by the way, is the longest contested race in motoring history) and it was wonderful listening to him recount the stories and history of the car. It reminded me that these cars collect history every time theyʼre driven, not just from grainy black and white photos from years gone by. Someday someone might look at photos of your car in the same way youʼre looking at these…
Anyway, Ernie kindly let me squeeze into the car – the
“ERNIE’S A WONDERFUL AMBASSADOR…”
cockpit is tighter than my coupe because the roll cage sidebars are higher to reinstate protection lost with no roof, but you simply open the door, stand on the seat and slide your feet under the steering wheel to get in. None of this human origami is required in a coupé!
Ernie also retains the original Speedster seat on its sliders that puts the seat up slightly higher than my modern Recaro race seat, but without the roof there is a lovely sense of space and visibility as the lack of roof pillars provides great visibility. The cockpit is sparse but functional, with a smaller than standard steering wheel (almost mandatory in a 356 race car to avoid crossing your arms mid-corner) and the car retains a set of aircraft gauges – I doubt they provide any info on the car ʼs performance but they are a lovely touch and remind you that this car was originally owned by a fighter pilot.
Unfortunately circumstances got in the way of me driving the car that day, but what I can tell you is itʼs beautifully balanced and a joy to race. How can I know this? Well, Sean Mcclurg did the chassis set up on both my car and Ernieʼs, and Ian built both our engines, and I know my car is a hoot to race. With less weight and disc brakes Iʼve no doubt that the Speedster would be a blast.
Certainly it kept a fighter pilot used to flying at twice the speed of sound entertained, so you can be pretty sure itʼs fun to drive! If you get the chance to see this car in the flesh then take a good long look at it and drink in the details. Chat with the proud owner and listen to the stories – this is one hell of a Porsche and a veritable time machine. Long may it continue to race. CP
Above: ʻOl Yeller IIʼ is Ernie Nagamatsuʼs other historic race car. Speedster bears the scars of a life spent racing with the SCCA and around the world
Below left: Current ʻcustodianʼ of the Speedster Ernie Nagamatsu (left) shares a few stories with fellow 356 racer Steve Wright Below: Tech decals hint at a life hard fought…
Top left: Engine was rebuilt by Wolfsburg Performance Services using JE pistons, a Scat Ultra-lite crank and Carrillo conrods to give a reliable 150bhp Above left: Cockpit still retains a pair of aircraft gauges fitted by the original owner. Note hefty s
Above: Ernie battles with a pair of Lotus Elites at the recent Silverstone Classic
Above: While fully-restored Speedsters may be making top money at auction, you canʼt put a price on the history of a car like this…
Below: James Kilpatrick was a fighter pilot in the US Air Force. He bought the Speedster in 1964 and immediately took it racing with the SCCA