Ah…those rear wheels. Willhoit calls them “top secret,” but reveals they are 15×7s, made out of billet aluminum, and welded in a two-piece configuration. In style, they mimic the factory 15×5.5-inch steel front wheels perfectly. The wheel studs are longer and bull-nosed, a nice detail. Tires are steel-belted, D.O.T.-legal Hoosier Speedster radials sized 205/60R15 out back and 185/65R15 up front. RSK front drums with vented backing plates and aluminum shoes provide “adequate” stopping power. Ventilated drums with vented backing plates do duty in the rear.
So what’s this thing like to drive? I can almost hear you asking, because it’s the question on my mind, too.
“Underway at low rpm, it’s very docile,” says Moran. “You can carry on a normal conversation at 4000 rpm and hear everything. My wife thinks it’s the nicest little car, yet it has this bipolar personality. I liken it to a hand grenade with an unlit fuse. When you stand on it, the coupe’s progress just explodes with a deep and resonant exhaust note. In comparison, the Speedster is raucous — more like an attack dog. It’s this tiny thing that looks benign but is anything but.”
When I take a ride in both, my experience matches Moran’s. The Speedster has a really low soft top and, even at five-foot ten, I have to duck my head to see anything. It feels petite and spunky, with a responsive engine that has a comparatively narrow powerband. The coupe comes off as more of a dual-purpose car, a mix of muscle car and boulevard cruiser. There’s plenty of room, the windows are useful, the shifter is more easily reached, and the power delivery is astonishing. The 2.0-liter four has torque everywhere, and the braking and handling seem well matched.
“The powerband is widened at the low end by the longer stroke and 77-mm crank and raised on top with the bigger cam,” says Willhoit as he puts the coupe through its paces. “In the Speedster, power falls off at 6500. In the coupe, the motor keeps pulling hard right up to the 7500-rpm redline. It’s very easy to drive (either car) fast, but the coupe feels more capable and refined. The torque-biasing differential makes accelerating out of corners easier, (and) you can putt around town and be happy.”
Gazing at the ’58 coupe in the mellowing California sunlight, one word comes to mind: sublime. Reflections are mirrored perfectly in its flawless black paint. The rear arches are subtle yet muscular. The fit and finish are exquisite. The stance is just right, and attention to detail is first class.
When I meet up with Moran a bit later, he’s dressed in all black. Of course. As he talks about his sunroof coupe, I keep waiting for him to tell me how clean the bathroom in Willhoit’s shop is, but he sticks to higher matters — though they explain the spotless loo, too: “John has what I would call a highly developed sense of creative inference. His artistic creativity and vision are so rare in someone mechanically inclined that I value him immensely.”
And, as for the car? “It’s the best 356 I have owned,” says Moran the perfectionist. “It keeps me wondering if we can build a better one…”