Many moons ago we stum­bled upon a 356 Speed­ster in Casablanca. Could any­thing be more ex­otic?


The 911 pre­cur­sor sans a roof in Casablanca

RIGHT TIME, RIGHT PLACE: it’s a con­cept in­dis­pens­able to con­vert­ible own­er­ship, or even slightly less ex­otic pur­suits like test­ing a con­vert­ible. I think we’ve found the right place.

Rick’s Café, Casablanca. No, not the movie but the ac­tual Rick’s Café in the ac­tual city of Casablanca. We’ve spent the last eight days tak­ing in ev­ery­thing this in­cred­i­bly ex­otic coun­try has to of­fer – took the ferry across the Mediter­ranean to Tang­iers, sipped mint tea at Hafa Café over­look­ing the shim­mer­ing waters of the Straits of Gi­bral­tar, crossed the At­las moun­tains on Morocco’s most dan­ger­ous road, mo­tored through the gates of the Sa­hara at Guelmim catch­ing the sun rise over the sands of the Sa­hara, got our­selves beached in the dunes whilst recre­at­ing our very own Dakar stage, found the best driv­ing road in the world go­ing south to Lay­ounne with the sands of Africa on the east and Med on the west, drove a Series 1 Landie in those sands, got scammed by street artists at Je­maa el-Fnaa, saw the most beau­ti­ful women in the world spilling out of a night club in Marrakesh and drank cof­fee so thick you can stand a spoon in it. Now we are at Rick’s Café, the man­ager play­ing ‘As Time Goes By’ on the ac­tual pi­ano used in the movie, the pro­duc­ers recre­at­ing that iconic scene from the movie where Humphrey Bog­art’s Rick, re­splen­dent in his white tuxedo, tells his house pi­anist: "Play it again, Sam". Only thing miss­ing? In­grid Bergman.

To­mor­row we head back home, but be­fore that Morocco has one last sur­prise for us, a part­ing shot if you will.

THE RIGHT TIME. SIX IN THE MORN­ING. Don’t know how, but whether it’s ris­ing or set­ting the sun paints the skies of Casablanca an in­cred­i­ble smor­gas­bord of reds and yel­lows. It’s all too beau­ti­ful for words, but words are be­ing saved for the car my friend Rafik has just rolled up in. A Porsche 356 Speed­ster. The only one in Africa. I’ve only seen these in the Porsche mu­seum in Stuttgart and I can’t imag­ine there be­ing one in Morocco of all places; can’t be­lieve Rafik has no prob­lem with me driv­ing it!

The roads around the Has­san II mosque – the sec­ond largest mosque in the world – are closed for early morn­ing jog­gers but no­body minds us mov­ing the bar­ri­ers to po­si­tion the Speed­ster for pic­tures. This, af­ter all, is a thing of in­cred­i­ble beauty. It wasn’t made to be beau­ti­ful, the 356 was de­rived from the Beetle with its body shaped purely by aero­dy­nam­ics and then Porsche’s Amer­i­can importer im­plored the fac­tory to strip down and chop off the roof for his cus­tomers in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. The re­sult is the Speed­ster, a time­less clas­sic and one that put Porsche on the map. This was a car de­signed by Ferry Porsche on pen and pa­per, not a com­puter, with pan­els hand beaten over wooden bucks. Per­fectly pro­por­tioned, beau­ti­fully min­i­mal­ist and lov­ingly main­tained. We could stare at it all day but it’s the right time not just for our cam­eras but for us to hit the roads be­fore Casablanca’s streets start get­ting crowded. And so we head out on the cor­nice, sort of like the Marine Drive of Casablanca, to ex­pe­ri­ence wind-in-the-hair mo­tor­ing.

Rafik leads the way and isn’t hold­ing back. Or at least it feels like he isn’t hold­ing back. I guess he thinks if I’ve driven around his coun­try for a week with­out run­ning into the law so I should be okay down the cor­nice. Well, okay then. I give it gas. Gen­tly I let the ac­cel­er­a­tor go all the way to the floor. Con­tem­po­rary re­ports put the power out­put of the Speed­ster at be­tween 75 to 105bhp but the thing is the Speed­ster is re­ally light, light enough not to need power steer­ing, and it makes for a sprightly car. With the flat-four be­hind my head, be­hind even the rear axle, and lovely open pipes, there’s an over­abun­dance of all those sen­sa­tions that make open top driv­ing

such a joy – the sounds, the smells ooz­ing out of a car older than you, the me­chan­i­cal con­nec­tion to ev­ery­thing. You take it easy with the gearshifts, even though this has syn­chro­mesh you pause for a bit from first to sec­ond, from sec­ond to third, let the gears breathe, wary of gears gnash­ing and it be­ing the end of your drive. Your mind fo­cuses on the task of driv­ing the Speed­ster cleanly, yet quickly. Revmatch the down­shifts. Be wary of the brakes. Re­mind your­self that the 356 you raced on Need For Speed al­ways crashed back­wards into the wall.

Then you let off the gas, re­lease some of the brain power that’s go­ing into driv­ing what must be a very, very ex­pen­sive car, and just take it all in. The beau­ti­ful road, the rich hues across the sky, the cool sea breeze, and a car that was called the most sig­nif­i­cant tech­ni­cal ac­com­plish­ment of its time.

Run through a few in­ter­sec­tions and we drive into a very ex­pen­sive res­i­den­tial area, lined with those palm trees that tell you, in no small mea­sure, that you’re in an af­flu­ent coastal city. The roads here have a few corners and I back right off. If you’ve spent your for­ma­tive years play­ing Need For Speed, you’ll know what a bitch the 356 is. And like hell I’m go­ing to ex­plore the han­dling lim­its on a pub­lic road, in a


for­eign coun­try, with an over­abun­dance of beau­ti­ful palm trees to hit. But I must also tell you about the Speed­ster’s han­dling be­cause that’s a huge part of its leg­end, the rea­son they say quite a few 356 own­ers didn’t last long enough to grad­u­ate to the 911.

The en­gine, a flat-four, is mounted be­hind the rear axle, a pen­du­lum style rear axle that was su­per­sen­si­tive to how you played with the throt­tle. Stay on the gas and you’d be okay. Lift off and the sus­pen­sion ge­om­e­try changed, caus­ing the tail to swing a great wide arc call­ing for lots of wheels­man­ship and op­po­site lock to stop it from go­ing back­wards into the hedges. It was a driv­ing style raised to an art form by Porsche fa­nat­ics, us­ing that swing­ing tail to make short work of tight stuff, drift­ing through corners, earn­ing pho­tog­ra­phers at race­tracks their pay checks. I’m told these lat­ter 1600 Speed­sters had re­vised sus­pen­sion parts and ge­om­e­try that made it more neu­tral – still a car that slides and drifts but one that does it more pre­dictably. Af­ter all, the fastest way to drive the Speed­ster was with a drift­ing tail. This wasn’t a car that cor­nered on rails. It in­tro­duced con­tem­po­rary au­to­mo­tive testers to power over­steer; it was prob­a­bly the rea­son why ac­com­plished testers of that era were (and had to be!) as ca­pa­ble on the race track as they were with their pens and type­writ­ers.

It takes a su­per­hu­man ef­fort not to poke around these traits with some­body else’s Speed­ster. Turns out I shouldn’t have wor­ried. You see this isn’t a Speed­ster from the six­ties, this is a replica built in Canada in the eight­ies! In­te­mec­ca­nica has been build­ing au­then­tic repli­cas of clas­sic Porsche’s and this one was or­dered by a movie di­rec­tor in Cal­i­for­nia be­fore ship­ping it down to Casablanca where it has found a home at RM Classics. It has a VW flat-four en­gine, more so­phis­ti­cated sus­pen­sion and brakes; but ev­ery­thing else is pe­riod per­fect. The padded bath­tub of an in­te­rior. The per­fect re­la­tion of steer­ing to seats to ped­als. The ease with which you heel-and-toe, more of­ten than is strictly nec­es­sary. Four speeds on a short throw gear­box. The di­rect con­nect from the steer­ing, a helm that tells you ev­ery­thing you want and also the stuff you don’t want to hear. The feath­er­like weight. I guess when you push it she will also bite back but I didn’t ask ques­tions for which I didn’t want an­swers. Even the en­tire driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence is au­then­ti­cally clas­sic, that ping-y ca­dence of the VW en­gine feel­ing gen­uinely post-war Ger­many.

From the 356 came the 911, also with the en­gine hung out be­hind the rear axle, also with ar­rest­ing han­dling traits. And the Speed­ster name stays alive on spe­cial edi­tion 911s, a trick that Porsche hap­pily em­ploys to fill their cof­fers. Just like Rick’s Café con­tin­ues to do roar­ing busi­ness, from tourists liv­ing out their movie fan­tasies, yelling at who­ever’s on the pi­ano to, “Play it again, Sam”.

Above: Why do all Porsche’s, be it a 911 or a Cayenne, have the tacho in the cen­tre? Be­cause it all started with the 356! Left: Cabin is a padded bath­tub

Fac­ing page top: Casablanca’s iconic Has­san II mosque. Fac­ing page be­low: Enough room in the nose for a tooth­brush. Above: A sil­hou­ette that could only be the Speed­ster’s

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