Un­touched, un­re­stored but def­i­nitely not unloved, this Speed­ster is to die for

Classic Porsche - - Contents - Words: Delwyn Mal­lett Photos: Paul Knight

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.


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


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…

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