Socal’s go-to 356 specialist, Jack Staggs.
Located halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego on the southern California coastline, San Clemente’s appeal really depends on your perspective. Its warm waves are a lure for surfers, the Spanish colonial-style architecture a magnet for tourists, while the old Pacific Coast Highway reaches its conclusion amid the town’s beachside houses. But for Porsche enthusiasts, San Clemente is synonymous with two things: Jack Staggs and the 356.
“I currently work on close to two-hundred different 356s. Thousands have passed through my garage doors over the years,” he tells us, leaning into the shade cast from his workshop roof. “There’s just something about a 356, right? You get them sorted, and they don’t break down. It’s not like being the owner of a Triumph, an MG or a Chevy. 356s are remarkably durable.” Reputation counts for a lot, of course. Tucked away in an otherwise unremarkable yard not far from the water’s edge, his premises — at first glance, something which could easily be described as organised chaos — exhibits no signage, no fancy waiting area nor a glass-fronted showroom, and yet, 356 owners pulling up at the now-iconic umbrella (we’ll get to this shortly) between the roller doors of his workshop need none of it. For life-long local Jack, almost half a century as an independent Porsche specialist speaks louder than glitz, and the roots of his business go back even further than that.
“My dad drove Volkswagens when I was a kid,” he tells us. “He owned a 1959 Bug, which he bought new, and a 1961 Camper, which was pretty much a homebrew doer-upper. We went everywhere in that thing, including camping trips and hitting the water at nearby San Onofre, where he was in the surf club, back when it was a private members organisation. Consequently, I learned how to surf when I was seven. He even made me a board,” reminisces today’s much older Jack, nodding at the surfboards tucked up between the thousands of spare Porsche parts taking up residence in his workshop. “I helped my dad service his cars and, by the time he bought a fairly new 356 C, he had me doing pretty much all his mechanical work.”
Jack’s first paid job was the overhaul of the flat-four powering his uncle’s 1964 Beetle, which covered an additional 130k hassle-free miles before being sold. Friends gradually bought cars and asked the young petrolhead for his assistance when their rides were in need of attention, and though he knew working on aircooled engines was his calling, the delay to setting up his own business was, of course, school. Not that traditional
learning brought a complete halt to his ambitions — at just fifteen years of age, he built a beach buggy out of an accident-damaged Beetle, before buying a 1962 Type 2 Camper and spending available holidays skiing in Aspen, fixing cars for cash in between days on the slopes. Alongside the surfboards in his workshop are a series of skis, all souvenirs from this period of his life.
Socal remained home, however, and after briefly working at a garage near the Staggs residence, he took a job at the Los Angeles headquarters of George Barris, the car customiser famous for assembling the 1966 Batmobile and the Munster Koach. Building Hollywood’s bestknown cars would have been a dream gig for most young mechanics, but the move was short-lived. “I couldn’t ignore the desire to start out on my own,” sighs Jack. “A friend’s mother owned a triplex in San Clemente with an empty garage and was looking for a tenant. It was the shot at becoming my own boss I’d been dreaming of and the rent was very low. As far as I was concerned, taking the place and saying goodbye to Barris was a no-brainer.”
After kitting the unit out with a workbench and inviting prospective clients to pop in and discuss their requirements, things seemed to be going well, but after his landlady discovered he was using the premises as a place of work (as opposed to somewhere to tinker on his own vehicles), the rent went up by a whopping fifty percent. A steady stream of 356 repairs took care of the increase in cost, but he couldn’t escape the feeling he was throwing money at a unit that, though initially cheap, wasn’t really fit for purpose. It was this frustration that encouraged Jack to take on his current workshop after seeing it advertised in the back of a local newspaper all the way back in early 1973. He even has the original tenancy agreement framed and hanging on the workshop wall. Of course, the place has expanded a little since that time — business continued to pick up and, as the need for spare parts and specialist tools increased, the workshop expanded into its neighbouring units. In a bid to cater for the more mundane vehicles on the road (newsflash: not every owner used their 356 as a daily back then), recruited employees grew their specialism beyond air-cooled Volkswagen and Porsche products, extending knowledge to the inner workings of cars produced by other European manufacturers, but Jack’s heart remained firmly in the world of Porsche. It is, perhaps, for this reason he experienced a high turnover of staff. “These guys would learn all about a particular make or model, then leave to go and work for a company catering exclusively for those cars. At one point, my staff count included me alone! For this reason and many others, I realised it was cost and time inefficient to focus on anything other than the 356. No more dilapidated
cars from outside the Porsche stable. My friends told me I was crazy for narrowing my focus to a car out of production for more than a decade, but it wasn’t long until I was busier than ever,” he shrugs.
His hallmarks haven’t changed much over the years; never keen to see useful things go to waste, he rescued a workshop tyre changer from a scrap pile in Dana Point forty-five years ago, while his well-known umbrella salvaging began with the donation of junked patio furniture from a neighbouring business soon after he moved in. A second-hand umbrella has been a recognised fixture of his shop frontage ever since.
“It’s cheaper than a sign and creates shady lunch spot between the shadows of my upturned garage doors,” he laughs. “My desk is newer. I used to stand up and work right where it sits, but somebody gave me what started life as an old typewriter table and it seemed to fit in here perfectly. That said, I hate paperwork. I’d rather do an oily job twice than paperwork once!”
HOT OFF THE PRESS
Of course, with one-car focus and a growing reputation, the shop quickly found its place within the local enthusiast community, helped by the connections Jack has made through being a member of the 356 Club of Socal since he attended his first meet in Yosemite in the mid-1970s. It’s been a formative relationship — one that had him editing the club magazine for a time, as well as an association which helped to develop his brand. “I figured I should put an advertisement in the magazine, to support the club with some money, but also to raise awareness about the services I offered. It was at that point I realised my business needed a logo,” he explains. “The guy whose wife was helping pull the magazine together sat down and drew it for me in ten minutes. Outlaw style was proving popular in Socal at the time, which is why I wanted the Porsche crest, but without the Porsche name on it. I certainly didn’t want to be getting phone calls from lawyers in Stuttgart! We added a skull and crossbones, and my logo has been that way since 1977.” His workshop has remained largely unchanged since then, too — Jack knows the 356 arguably better than the engineers who developed it in the first place, and this expertise steers a carefully curated selection of parts tucked into every crevice and hung on every hook his place of work can muster. It means he can summon a replacement component for any of the usual failure points and keep momentum going on customer builds,
rather than be held up waiting for deliveries. Besides, with a little well-informed re-engineering, some of what’s been boxed up here for decades is likely to be more durable than freshly manufactured stock.
HAVE PORSCHE, WILL TRAVEL
Surprisingly, his approach has brought in a wider customer base than that of a regular independent garage serving owners of different makes and models. Put it this way, there’s a long waiting list for a spot in Jack’s workshop, and those two-hundred or so regulars come in from as far north as Seattle and as far east as Florida. Pleasingly, because his aim is to make 356s more usable in modern driving environments, many of the cars he works on arrive under their own steam, and visits are often social. For example, drop in on the 356th day of the year (or the closest weekend to it) and you’ll find the shutters open, food on the grill and a swap meet going on outside. It’s Jack’s way of extending inclusivity.
“These days, most of my work is fixing stuff other people have goofed up,” he says, smiling. “Once I’ve done my bit, the mechanical health of an engine is simply down to the owner making sure they observe the correct servicing and maintenance schedule. I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to jump in a sorted 356 and drive to Oregon, which is a fifteen-hour drive from down here in Orange County. Of course, I’d check the oil and tyre pressures of the car first!” Touching on what he says about the nature of work he experiences in the present, following decades when 356s weren’t worth a huge amount of money, many laid-up four-cylinder Porsches are being awoken from slumber by owners aware their cars have become valuable assets. New arrivals tend to be long-neglected 356s dragged out of barns and lockups, hauled crosscountry into San Clemente to be brought back to life.
“It can be quite exciting,” he beams, “until I discover a hornet’s nest or a crispy rat carcass waiting to greet me!”
He’s only half-joking. “It’s not unusual for us to find rats in 356 interiors. There’s a false floor where you put your feet up against the firewall. Guys will bring a car down that’s been sitting for thirty-five years or longer, and there will be a dead rat in the pedals. My employee, Kerry, started saving them up — he is in possession of the world’s finest collection of former rodent inhabitants of the best sports car ever made!”and, in this corner of Socal, Jack is turning out some of the best 356s left on the road. It’s a legacy of durable revivals he hopes will keep the 356 experience alive for future generations. Of course, he’s also putting his money where his mouth is — the most regular visitor to his shop is his own 356.
“The biggest problems I’ve experienced with my Porsche have been a loose axle nut, the aftermarket tape deck packing up and heater system failure. There’s just something about the 356,” he says. “Porsche knew how to build its cars to last.” And that’s one San Clemente perspective everyone can agree on.