We call in on Robert Kahn to talk Speedsters and specialist 356 parts
Cars reigned as king in and around Los Angeles during the late 1950s/early ʼ60s, with Porsches representing only a small fraction of the local scene. If truth be told, kids at the time were more often than not interested in domestic automobiles, such as a 1957 Chevrolet or a hopped up 1932 Ford roadster. Drag racing had a huge following, too, as Robert Kann – you can call him Bob – will confirm: ʻMy first passion was drag racing. I just didnʼt know about European sports cars at the time. And where I was growing up, everyone was into street racing, so I was paying attention to that as well.ʼ
Like many So-cal youngsters, he eventually began tinkering with Volkswagens. ʻI had a 1966 Karmann Ghia modified by a VW dealer from the East Coast – it was my poor manʼs Porscheʼ, he continues. ʻIt had Porsche 356 wheels, adjustable shocks, a tach replacing the clock and a mild cam, although the engine was relatively stock. I road raced it and thought I was the king of the hill. But an encounter with a great friend during the early ʼ70s led me to take notice of his Speedster.ʼ
This newfound appreciation inspired him to buy his own, a ʼ58 model, back in 1976. The cost of $6500 might seem like a killer deal today but keep in mind that the average price of a new car was around $4000 to $5000 that year…
By now youʼve probably guessed it: this is the same car adorned with the ʻ76ʼ numbers on the doors shown here! It has played a huge part in Bobʼs life; in fact, he hasnʼt owned that many other Porsches over the years since, apart from a ʼ65 356SC coupé and a ʼ69 912, both sold long ago. He also acquired a Sahara Beige ʼ57 356A T1 coupé, which he restored between 2005 and 2012. Itʼs in the background of the picture on the left.
In the early ʼ80s, an interesting turn of events led Bob to rent a commercial facility, because he was in the midst of entirely remodelling his house and needed a place to store his vehicles. So, he found a perfect candidate in the nearby city of Los Alamitos, in the shape of a car-friendly complex in an industrial area. Although he has changed units four times within the building since, he still uses it as a hobby shop/place of business to this date! It covers 1400 squarefeet and proves ideal for his daily grind, either taking care of his personal cars or handling the Gtwerk orders.
Gtwerk is a niche business, hence Bob works alone at his own pace. He launched the company in 1996 somewhat by accident… He wanted GT louvres on his Speedster and
nobody made louvred aluminium skins at the time. It just happened that Urs Gretener, a Swiss-born neighbour toiling in his industrial complex, had the tooling and expertise.
Urs was schooled as a coachbuilder in Switzerland, finishing top of his class, so he possesses amazing skills. This led to more quality restoration products ideally suited for GT and outlaw project cars, aimed at 356 enthusiasts and vintage racers – Urs at GPE still supplies 90 per cent of these components to this day.
Browse through Bobʼs website (gtwerk.com) and you will discover a vast range of interesting competition-oriented components: louvred aluminium decklid skin, aluminium GT and 550 Spyder mirror housings, roll bar, finned gas cap, gas filler neck/rain tray, Gt-style brake backing plate conversions (with scoops and screens), GT bumper trim… And thatʼs not mentioning other goodies, such as leather window and hood/bonnet straps, alloy tonneau cover with headrest, Plexiglas windows, wheel spacers and plenty more. Additionally, Bob distributes GPE performance shocks and specialised Carrera components, oil tanks, coolers and steel oil lines in particular.
His inventory does not take much space, thus allowing him to play with his 356s at ease. There was a time when he used to install some of his own products on customersʼ cars, although it only happens on rare occasions nowadays. Bob also occasionally restored 356s for clients in the past, but he now shies from them as ʻthere are so many competent restorers in Southern Californiaʼ, he ponders. As our pictures will confirm, the shop is well equipped, including a lift – the perfect playground for any enthusiast who likes working on old Porsches.
But what of the Speedster? As mentioned above, Bob took a liking to road racing thanks to his Karmann Ghia, which led him to get his Porsche ready for track battles as
well. He first used it in POC (Porsche Owners Club, founded 1955) and PCA (Porsche Club of America) time trials, though he began concentrating on vintage racing in the early ʼ80s. The car enjoyed its share of race track time, including the renowned Monterey Historic, starting 1981 – Porsche happened to be the featured marque that year. The Speedster has also seen plenty of action at other tracks, such as Willow Springs, Laguna Seca, Sears Point, Las Vegas, Portland, Watkins Glen, Daytona, etc.
Over the decades, the white car turned into a fierce vintage racer, with Bob attending six to eight competitions annually. ʻMy philosophy about vintage racing has gone full circle: I believe the vehicles should be entered as raced back in the day, not what they could be todayʼ, he adds. Even the paintjob has that certain period-correct look. ʻThe car has had a one-off mix of white since the early ʼ90s.
ʻWith a friend, racer Bata Mataja, we then brainstormed about painting my car, after studying late ʼ50s/early ʼ60s photos to see what Porsches looked like when they were raced back then. Many had some kind of fender teardrops or a mask in front of the car. We came up with the specific design on my car, after digesting these different looks.ʼ
Motivation comes from a 1620cc flat-four, a displacement obtained courtesy of a factory stroke (74mm) and larger pistons/cylinders (83.5mm). Bob used the case from a European 356 industrial engine, which doesnʼt differ much from those used on late 356/early 912 motors. That same motor gave up its crank, connecting rods and mildly ported heads.
A pair of trusty Zenith 32NDIX carbs supply the fuel/air mixture; they have been modified in the spirit of old racing Porsches, with machined down venturis complemented with custom velocity stacks. The car retains its original distributor and six volt electrics, while Urs Gretener fabricated the stainless-steel exhaust system. Power travels through a 1958 Speedster gearbox with early synchros, though Bob added a limited-slip differential, plus a 7:34 ring and pinion, allowing him to easily use third and fourth gears at most race venues.
As you might expect, the chassis received its share of alterations to competitively tackle most tracks, starting with a non-adjustable 19mm front sway bar complemented with new torsion bars. Bob additionally installed 28mm torsion bars in
“VEHICLES SHOULD BE ENTERED AS RACED BACK IN THE DAY…”
the rear, with a camber set around one degree. GPE/JRZ supplied the adjustable shocks used at the four corners, which definitely help keep the Hoosier 500 TD rubber on the ground. Wrapped around 4.5Jx15 356 rims, these tyres have been a popular choice with vintage racers.
The original body received the whole gamut of Gtwerk goodies, from the louvred aluminium decklid skin to the leather bonnet straps. In true racing fashion, the car lacks bumpers, although it received a five-point roll bar and a frameless windscreen. Bob produces the latter, inspired by the Speedster unit, but laid back about 7 degrees. He also repainted the shell during the early ʼ90s, keeping the same unknown hue selected by the previous owner. Check out the tonneau cover, too, as seen on many Speedsters back in the day.
Being track-oriented, the cockpit shows no frills and even retains its factory gauges, except for the ʼ65 356 electric tachometer which is more accurate than the standard cabledriven unit. Behind it resides a reproduction Derrington wood steering wheel – a simple carpet covers the floor as well. While a Speedster seat remains in place on the passenger side, the driver enjoys a more supportive GTS Classics bucket, newly installed and somewhat reminiscent of an Abarth Carrera/911r seat. Bob comments: ʻI used to have a Speedster seat, but would come home after a race with a blister on my left knee. The new GTS seat contains me and I donʼt move around as much. It makes the car so much better to drive.ʼ
After taking a break from racing, Bob has been back behind the wheel in competition for the last couple of years; he even managed to join the field at Laguna Secaʼs 2018 Rennsport Reunion, though getting accepted was no small feat considering the number of applicants.
Among the sea of competitors, the white ʼ58 Speedster stood out due to its long racing pedigree, very few entries having enjoyed as much track action in over four decades, and weʼre delighted to show it here in the pages of Classic Porsche magazine. CP
Gtwerk Catalina St. Suite G Los Alamitos CA 90720, USA Tel: (562) 431-1523 3841
Well-equipped workshop is home to Bob’s Speedster. The 1400sq ft building is located in a car-friendly complex in Los Alamitos. His Sahara Beige coupé is just visible in the background
Below left: 1620cc engine runs Zenith carburettors equipped with custom velocity stacks. Exhaust was made by friend Urs Gretener
Below right: Guess where Bob got his spacers? Gtwerk, of course!
Left: Race-legal fuel cell follows style of original Speedster tankBelow: Bob has been racing his Speedster for close to 40 years all over the USA, and most recently appeared at the 2018 Rennsport ReunionBottom: Bob produces a range of parts aimed at the 356 outlaw and race scene, including Carrera-style mirrors, centre-fill fuel kits and louvred engine lids
Above: Seat from GTS Classics holds Bob firmly in place, but Speedster bucket is retained for passenger use
Below left and centre: Carrera brake backing plate conversions are popular, as are the billet wheel spacers
Below right: Love the dashboard detail!