Untouched, unrestored but definitely not unloved, this Speedster is to die for
As is generally well known, the Porsche Speedster was designed specifically for the American market. The first car, finished in red as it happens (the other options were white or blue), landed in New York in September 1954 and by the time production ceased in 1958 the Zuffenhausen factory had completed a total of 4154. Of those it is thought that probably less than a handful were delivered with a full-width bench seat – indeed it is quite possible that our featured car was the only one.
To those who know him, it should come as no surprise that something so unusual would end up in the personal collection of Ritchie King, long time sniffer-out of rare Porsche items and proprietor of Karmann Konnection.
The Speedster was a reluctant answer to pressure from Porscheʼs US importer, super-salesman Max Hoffman, to produce a ʻbudgetʼ roadster to compete with the significantly cheaper, mainly British, competition. The target was to offer a car for under $3000. Hoffman, a keen weekend racer, also specified that it should be as light as possible and easily transformable into a track car to satisfy the rapidly expanding amateur racing scene promoted by the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA).
Hoffman was based on the East Coast, in New York, but the Los Angeles-based West Coast distributor John von Neumann was, if anything, even more of a racing enthusiast and was also agitating for a lighter, sportier, 356 (he had, after all, chopped the roof off the ex-factory Le Mans aluminium-bodied ʻGmündʼ coupé to make his own roadster…) for his competition-minded customers. Plus, of course, southern California had the perfect climate for yearround, top-down motoring.
After making a false start in 1953 with the far too expensive to produce, aluminium-clad ʻAmerica Roadster ʼ, of which only 16 were constructed, Porsche had a rethink. Rather than making an entire bespoke body, as they did with the ʻAmericaʼ, they modified a standard Cabriolet body by cutting off the screen surround and fabricating a new welded-in dash.
A new panel extended the rear deck forward over the space formerly occupied by the heavy Cabriolet roof, and the line of the door tops was also subtly altered, acquiring a downward incline. The final defining touch that provides so much of the car ʼs visual appeal and put the ʻspeedʼ in
Speedster was the exquisitely proportioned, perfectly curved and raked, chrome-framed windscreen.
As requested by Hoffman, the ʼscreen could be removed for racing, the surround held in position by short side pillars that bolt through the body. In practice, however, removing and replacing the screen was not a five-minute job and racers tended either to leave the screen in position or, after removing the chrome frame, replaced the glass with a low but still full-width Perspex screen utilising the short side pillars. Eventually many racing Speedsters dispensed with even the Perspex screen and used a tiny ʻSpyder ʼ aero screen over the instrument binnacle.
In pursuit of both ʻlightnessʼ and ʻcheapnessʼ all 356 luxuries, of which in fact there were few, were jettisoned. The doors were devoid of wind-up windows, replaced by canvas and plastic dropin sidescreens, door trim panels had no pockets and the dash lacked a glovebox. The multi-layered and heavily padded Cabriolet roof was replaced by the Speedster ʼs most controversial feature – its single-layer, claustrophobia inducing, boy-scout-bivouac of a roof.
Erected, vision to sides and rear is severely restricted to the point of danger, and on the move it threatens to selfdestruct at speeds approaching 70 mph. It did, however, possess the virtue of being so easy to erect that it could be pulled up single-handedly from the driver ʼs seat if a squall threatened – unlike the Heath Robinson affairs of most British sports cars of the day, which required dismounting and a lot of running around erecting frames and popping fasteners. By contrast, the lightweight bucket seats were a treat, holding the driver firmly and far more comfortable than their skimpy appearance suggests.
Having said that, in well-upholstered America, the bucket seats, today so much a part of the Speedster ʼs mythology, did not meet with universal approval and not all Speedsters were delivered with buckets as a matter of course. The barebones $2995 Speedster could be specʼd up to a certain extent by consulting the Accessories Catalogue, and in the 1957 edition you will find that the coupé seats could be yours for an additional $28.60. Leather headrests were $13.50 but for two-dollars less you could have them in leatherette or a mixture of leatherette and corduroy. The bench seat, with recliner mechanism, panned out at $26.20 – but the Speedster is, after all, a lightweight sports car where comfort is not a priority, which makes the choice of a bench seat all the more puzzling.
As I mentioned in my column in last monthʼs Classic Porsche (if youʼve already read it, forgive me for repeating myself here), the bench seat is a hefty affair, a kind of Siamese-twin arrangement of two ordinary seats joined at the hip. The bench does as promised, spanning the width of the cockpit, but the backs are quite separate allowing a different rake for driver and a single passenger.
However, as the objective of the seat is presumably to accommodate a third passenger, he or she will be inconvenienced by the presence of a gap between the seat backs and the proximity of the inner reclining mechanisms at coccyx level. Legs will also have to be splayed either side of the central tunnel and gear changing will invariably result in a potentially embarrassing familiarity between driver ʼs hand and passenger ʼs nether regions – particularly in second and top gears.
“ALL 356 LUXURIES…WERE JETTISONED…”
The rake of the backrests will also have to be mutually agreed between driver and outer passenger if the inboard passenger desires equal support for both shoulder blades. The seat also required the addition of a hefty external cable stretching from the driver ʼs release lever to the one on the far side of the car to facilitate fore and aft adjustment.
As not every Speedster customer intended to go racing but just liked the car ʼs sporty look, many succumbed to the promise of a softer ride offered by the more luxuriously upholstered coupé seats. Steve Mcqueenʼs first new car and soon-to-be ʻracer ʼ, a black 1958 ʻSuper ʼ Speedster, was delivered with coupé seats and also the heavier – and expensive – chromed Rudge knock-off wheels. He even had a radio fitted. Perhaps racing was not on his mind when he bought it but he soon jettisoned the bumpers, fitted a cut down screen – and Speedster buckets – and hit the tracks.
Given that in 1959 Richieʼs Dad had the first 356 S90 B coupé in England, followed in 1963 by the first SC, his own journey to a fascination with all things Porsche was not as direct as one might imagine.
Having left school with, by his own admission, little in the way of qualifications he eventually took a three-month Government course in sheet metal and welding and got into the burgeoning Hot Rodding scene. Invited to France in 1980 to perform a ʻchopʼ on a ʼ49 Mercury, he discovered a group of Cal-look VW enthusiasts and was smitten, and a rusty VW Karmann Ghia soon arrived. Richieʼs welding skills saw the Ghia transformed into a ʻhalf hot rod, half Cal-look, Moon-discʼd specialʼ and set him down the VW restoration and parts supply path. Karmann Konnection came into being in the mid-1980s supplying parts, and restoring and modifying Volkswagens.
Inevitably Richieʼs interest in Ferdinand Porscheʼs ʻpeopleʼs car ʼ led to him acquiring an early example of its iteration as a sports car in the shape of a 1952 356 coupé. A quarter of a century ago the UK classic Porsche restoration scene was far from what it is today and seeking parts for the car Richie headed to the United States on a mission to ʻtrack down the pre-a guysʼ – making friendships that would eventually see him becoming a dedicated and knowledgeable Porsche enthusiast, and Karmann Konnection eventually metamorphosing from Beetle specialists into specialists in early Porsches..
Richieʼs personal collection of Zuffenhausenʼs output has also expanded since then and currently includes a ʼ51 coupé, ʻ58 Coupé, a ʼ58 Carrera, a ʼ58 Speedster and Roadster as well as a brace of early 911s from 1965 and ʼ68. He also has one of the Stuttgart hot rod ʻhybridsʼ, a Mercedes 500 E powered by a Porsche V8, a collaboration between the two Stuttgart brands. Richieʼs wife Angela, not to be outdone, also has her own ʼ58 Speedster.
A decade ago Richie parted with his then current Speedster and immediately regretted it, and began looking for a replacement. Richie spotted that one of his Los Angeles contacts, Bob Campbell of 356 Services, was offering a somewhat unusual variant and a deal was struck.
Built in October 1956, the 1600 ʻNormalʼ Speedster was imported to the West Coast via von Neumannʼs Hollywoodbased Competition Motors and delivered to its first owner, in Pasadena, in 1957.
The California climate has been kind to the car and although repainted in the 1970s it has never been restored and is rust-free, the engine however is not a ʻmatching number ʼ – a current fetish that I fail to understand given that the mating of body and engine at the factory was a random affair – but a period correct substitute.
The exposed metalwork of the roof frame, which usually takes a bashing, still carries the original beige paint
and the fabric of the roof is also original apart from a replacement plastic rear ʻwindowʼ. Us-spec cars required sealed-beam headlamps and some owners, as here, chose to replace the clear non-fluted outer lens with the racier so-called ʻSpeedster ʼ slotted cast metal grilles that follow the contour of the original outer glass.
It also carries the USspec tubular bumper overriders adopted in attempt to protect the curvaceous and vulnerable bodywork from the unsolicited caresses of the homegrown Detroit iron.
The car also came with an October 1956 edition of the driver ʼs handbook and its original service book. Previous owners include an obligatory Hollywood producer – who, one can only speculate in light of recent scandals, may have indulged the ʻcasting couchʼ dimensions of the seat.
One past owner of note was Bruce Meyer, renowned car connoisseur, collector, and lifelong enthusiast, who bought Steve Mcqueenʼs aforementioned Speedster from him in the late sixties and then, seven-years later, after persistent requests from the star, in a gentlemanly move sold it back. (Mcqueenʼs son, Chad, now owns it.)
Itʼs surprising that in the ensuing 60-years the Speedster has managed to retain its unusual seat as the temptation to fit Speedster buckets must surely have crossed the minds of more than one of its subsequent owners, particularly as the leather began to deteriorate. As you can see from the photographs of the interior, the seat is not in good shape – in fact itʼs taken a severe thrashing – and therein lies a dilemma: preserve or restore?
Ritchie has kept it that way as he sees it as an essential part of the car ʼs history but also admits that these days classics are as much for showing as going and his solution would be to put the seat to one side ʻas isʼ and fit buckets for regular use, and refitting the bench seat for special occasions as an undoubted conversation starter. Barnfind fans will love it. CP
“ONE PAST OWNER OF NOTE WAS BRUCE MEYER…”
Above right: Original USspec towel-rail bumpers required the use of taller cast-aluminium overriders
Below right: It looks right at home, being unrestored and bearing the scars of a hundred oil changes and many years of servicing
Below left: The engine is not the original to the car but is of the correct vintage
Above left: Replica ʻblack plateʼ licence plates may not be 100 per cent Uk-legal but suit the car perfectly!
Above right: Woodrim steering wheel shows signs of many years (and miles) of wear, but whoʼd want to change it?
Below right: Original body plates ars still in place, as attached 61 years ago
Below left: Carrying the scars of a life well lived, the Speedster is far from being a concours queen – and is all the better for it
Above: An unusual (unique?) choice for a Speedster, the split-back bench seat is original to the car. To retrim or to leave alone – thatʼs the dilemma facing the owner
Above: Us-spec ʻtowel-railʼ bumpers frequently get consigned to the corner of the garage, but help give Ritchieʼs Speedster a true period, unmolested look
Below left: Amazingly, the hood frame is all original, as is the hood itself, apart from a replacement rear ʼscreen
Below right: Extension to the fuel tap on-off valve is a useful period addition
Above: Such a handsome profile – the Speedster was a hit right from the beginning, and it doesnʼt take much to see why…
Below left: Speedster side trim was unique to the model, but could be applied to other models on request
Below right: Period rally badge adds to the flavour…