1951 356 Gläser Cabriolet

It ain’t over til it’s over—or how to restore your restoration.

Photo: 1951 356 Gläser Cabriolet 1
April 4, 2008

The prodigal car arrived back in Indianapolis toward the end of April — having previously spent only one night at home since venturing east in December of 1997, then west in October of 2003. Rolling #5142 out of the trailer revealed a clunk at the left rear and an unpleasant scraping when the tailpipe encountered the driveway. Everything looked pretty good in a casual walk-around — especially the newly installed interior and top that had only previously been seen in photographs.

Then the critical, show-quality eyes came out. It was obvious that a number of issues would need to be addressed. Some were things not done yet, others had to do with inevitable wear and tear that occurs when any project doesn’t get completed quickly enough. The first items to be addressed would be the necessary mechanical repairs and adjustments. Leaving the body and trim as the final step seemed mandatory at this point, since potential for damage apparently increases geometrically the closer a car gets to being finished. The aforementioned clunk was added to the too-long tailpipe, lack of battery, and pigeon-toed front-wheel alignment.

The battery problem was remedied at the local Napa Auto Parts store, after which the powerful 1300 Normal fired up with minimal effort. The idle was pretty high and the clutch engaged too close to the floor. The brakes felt pretty spongy and the steering had more play than preferred. The engine leaked oil substantially, but not the gearbox, leading us to be concerned it might have no oil in it! It was time to call in local talent Bill Hoke, a man who can fix anything. He has proven his abilities over the years, repairing all things peculiar and bizarre thrown at him. After failing to convince him it would be better to do the work where the car was currently parked, he was presented with a list of the issues above along with requests for lubricating and adjusting the king- and linkpins up front plus a check of the electricals.

Photo: 1951 356 Gläser Cabriolet 2

Oops! Someone forgot to paint the upper latch.

The work was completed in short order and resulted in steering, idling, and stopping with far more precision than before. The clutch-engagement point was still a bit low, but the car could be convinced to go into first and reverse, though the latter was not in the familiar 356 location, alongside first. During the troubleshooting process, the genuine 1951 water-stained owner’s manual suggested that we look for reverse next to second gear. Not surprisingly, there it was. As it turns out, there was oil in the gearbox. The engine leak would have to wait, as it was determined that splitting the crankcase would be necessary to correct it. This was last done in the early 1980s, when Richard Miller originally rebuilt the tiny flat four. Oh, and as for the clunk? Well, it turned out to be a loose road wheel, of all things!

During the car’s brief visit in October of 2003, one of the few local residents to see it was body and paint specialist Doug Livelsberger. Like Hoke, Livelsberger has not limited himself to any particular niche. Along with restoration work, he does collision and industrial services, which allow him to keep up with current trends. Unfortunately, our timing found him in the process of opening a new facility, Aeon 1, in Mooresville, Indiana. His assessment indicated that the paint chips and dents meant he’d either have to spot in color and do a full clearcoat or repaint the whole car — as there are no cut-lines. Either way, it would be necessary to remove all exterior trim and some of the interior, as well. After much discussion and angst, I decided to have him “work around” the rear of the newly installed top rather than remove it. At this point, everything was put on hold until his new shop was ready.

One of the few things remaining to be done was to have the rearview mirror re-silvered. Our local phone book had listings for mirror suppliers, but it had none for re-silvering or restoration. One mirror supplier referred us to a gentleman on Indy’s east side who provided this service. Removal of the mirror from its housing was easily accomplished by loosening two screws. The beveled glass part of the mirror was flawless, so only the reflective surface needed attention. At just $15, this proved to be one of the more reasonable jobs in this restoration.

Photo: 1951 356 Gläser Cabriolet 3

Ryan Moreland buffs the first coat of a repainted #5142.

Another interior item requiring attention was the ashtray. The inner housing had not been installed and, when the spring steel cigar-holder area had been re-plated, it had been bent too far back. It broke when being repositioned. We decided to braze it at the correct angle and see if it would hold up.

A completion deadline of September 14, 2007 was looming, but we continued to wait for Livelsberger. By August, it was time to get going. Flaws in the paint mostly consisted of chips down to the light red primer, though there was a shallow dent in the rear lid and a troubling “negative” dent on the right rear quarter panel that had cracked the paint. The bottom of the rear bumper was also damaged at some point, most likely before the engine was installed back in 2005. As the re-paint process began, seeing the car devoid of windshields and exterior trim again was troubling. It had also been necessary to remove the door trim, since the jambs had to be painted. The extent of the flaws ended up necessitating a “complete” — which was again accomplished with a Sikkens basecoat/clearcoat paint system. The color had to be rematched, since the previously matched fleet color had been discontinued at some point after 2003.

The paint was applied on August 29, little more than two weeks before the big day. Over the following two weeks, the clearcoat was applied and inner lids and door areas were painted. Reassembly followed, interspersed with a proper polishing out of the painted surfaces with 3M Perfect-It 3000 rubbing compound. The paint-blend lines of the inner panels have been a significant problem in the past. Obviously, our car was painted with doors and lids still installed, so the car had to be re-taped to eliminate overspray on the finished exterior. The preferred product for this process is 3M’s Soft Edge Mask-ing Tape, which uses a foam tape with unique adhesive allowing the paint to flow to a more tapered edge. This is easily removed with light buffing.

Photo: 1951 356 Gläser Cabriolet 4

Overspray on lower edge of newly installed top would have to be addressed.

We took an opportunity during the downtime to take our cute little 18-foot trailer to Hoke’s racing shop to modify the rear door to lessen the rear door-ramp angle. This was accomplished by lengthening the fold-over plywood ramp extension and increasing the rubber door-bumper height by around three inches. The modifications would hopefully allow the newly shortened tailpipe its needed clearance.

By the time Thursday, September 13 rolled around, things were getting pretty tense. We’d been putting Bill Hoke off for over a week, anticipating the final clutch adjustment to get the engagement point further away from the floor — making it easier to engage reverse. At around 5:30 PM, #5142 rolled out of the trailer and onto the lift without its tailpipe scraping.

Putting the 356 on a lift provided a good opportunity to remove cobwebs and dust from the bottom of the car accumulated in the past four years. Except under the engine, no oil was present. The suspension components were wiped down, as were the brake backing plates and inner wheel rims. Rolling out of the trailer back at home, #5142 coughed and died — it was out of gas. Unfortunately, a brief trip to the nearest gas station to purchase three gallons of 93 octane was apparently just long enough for a local mulberry-eating feathered friend to stop by for a closer look and leave a present.

Photo: 1951 356 Gläser Cabriolet 5

The big to-do.

Remaining assembly was scheduled to begin at 8:00 AM Friday, September 14. At this point, #5142 still didn’t have bumpers, headlights, or windshields. Nor were they with the car. At around 2:00 PM — don’t ask — reassembly finally commenced. Unfortunately, the windshield was left behind at the shop, and the guy from the glass company who removed it was on vacation! The repaired bumpers were put back in place and the headlights were reassembled and installed. An emergency trip to Hobbytown USA was made to acquire two shades of tan enamel paint to be mixed to repair a chip on the pinstripe of the spare wheel. During the supply run, Livelsberger took the opportunity to remove the overspray from the rear of the cloth convertible top. This was accomplished using a small brush with fiberglass bristles and patiently flaking off the dried paint. Had the paint been heat-cured in a paint booth, this could have been done almost immediately.

By 7:00 PM, it was time to put the windshield in. With the center post in place, the seal was draped around the two halves and a length of nylon cord was placed in the groove in the rubber. The installation process sounds simple enough: put each half of the glass into the slot in the center post and apply pressure while pulling the string out, which pulls the rubber lip over the metal flange on the inner frame. The right side went pretty well, but the left side ended up around a half-inch too far to the right. We elected to pull it to the left while beating on it. After about 15 minutes, it had moved about half the desired distance, deemed close enough based on other tasks not accomplished.

These consisted of installing the door handles, window cranks, windshield wipers (new ones were supplied at the last minute by VW guru Terry Shuler), long neglected hinge covers, Gläser badges, and hood seal. The left-side piece of the engine-compartment upholstery had to be glued back in place, necessitating another trip, this time to the hardware store for spray adhesive. Oh, yes, the gas tank needed to be repainted after removing the cute brass tag put there by the muffler shop that repaired it in California!

Photo: 1951 356 Gläser Cabriolet 6

Blue tape marks problem areas in front trunk, like chips, poor paint, and incorrect colors.

All this wrapped up around 9:00 PM, leaving only a slightly dirty, heavily fingerprinted car. Livelsberger left us a squeeze bottle of Malco Plum Crazy High Gloss Hand Glaze and wished us well. At 6:00 AM the following morning, the clean-up with glaze, glass cleaner, and Wolfsteins Ragg Topp convertible top cleaner commenced. A much prettier 356 was loaded into our trailer at around 8:30 that night for its 300-mile journey to the Glenmoor Gathering in Canton, Ohio.

The journey was uneventful, except for faulty final directions from our friends at Mapquest. We eventually rolled in at around 5:00 PM and host Myron Vernis directed us on where to unload and park our truck and trailer. In the late afternoon sunlight, the dirty spots and the morning’s glaze residue became apparent and were addressed. The car was then covered, ending the “day before” activities. Sunday morning dawned clear and very cold with fog and light frost. Since the car had never been started under 70° F or so, the morning drive into Glenmoor from our digs in Akron was a little apprehensive. We shouldn’t have worried; a couple of cranks and it fired up nicely.

The mile or so drive to the show field inspired shifting to second gear for the first time, which went well considering the lack of synchronizers. We followed a brown Siata onto a somewhat waterlogged show field, courtesy of a sprinkler system that provided unauthorized watering at around 4:00 AM. Other cars in our class included the aforementioned Siata, a stunning 1958 Aston Martin, a 1963 Jensen CV-8, a one owner Lotus Europa, a Lotus Eleven that had at one point been seized by the IRS, a red 1970 XKE, a Sunbeam Tiger, and a Mercedes 190SL. The Aston was the clear competition for #5142, but we were just there to have a good time and show off a bit, right?

Photo: 1951 356 Gläser Cabriolet 7

The repainted car, with blue tape on its doors to mark screws that need to be hand-painted.

Last-minute cleaning included putting that stuff on the tires that makes them look shiny. There was some clearcoat overspray on the right-side windshield and both front wheels. We figured no one would notice. We used remaining fingernails to dig rubbing compound surrounding the torsion bar covers out and had someone with small hands attach the mounting nut for the right-side windshield washer jet, which had come loose.

The group judging our class included Meadow Brook Chairman Larry Smith, Los Angeles-based foreign car aficionado Raymond Milo, and the legendary George Barris. The significance of the car and coachbuilder was discussed, and a brief look at the engine was offered to show the lack of overlap seams on the rear lid. The front lid never had to be raised during the judging process, a good thing as it was discovered that the presence of the spare tire seemed to be interfering with the release mechanism about an hour before the show. Oops!

When ribbons were placed at around 1:00 PM, the Lotus Eleven and the Siata had red Award of Distinction ribbons, while the Aston Martin had a big yellow one, which ended up being the Director’s Choice, certainly well deserved. Oh, yes, by the way, #5142 got the blue one.

Photo: 1951 356 Gläser Cabriolet 8

Racks hold parts not yet on the car, including the body bumpers.

So while it seemed like this day would never come, it’s time to announce that this project is finally finished. Over the winter, we plan to dismantle and better detail the engine, then fix a few minor cosmetic issues. Currently, next year’s planned outings include the Amelia Island Concours in March, Meadow Brook in early August, and the 356 Registry East Coast Holiday in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in September. Myron Vernis tells us Porsche will be the post-war featured marque at the Glen-moor next year, in recognition of its 60th anniversary. Protocol dictates that only a special circumstance would merit our return with #5142. But, since we were treated so nicely, we just might have to take our next project there, perhaps in 2018.

In the meantime, we hope to meet Excellence readers on the 2008 show circuit and give them an insider’s tour of an early 356 brought back from the dead. For now, we hope you’ll enjoy Hal Thoms’ photography, taken just before #5142 left California for this, the closing chapter of what was to be a two-year project — nearly ten years after the first article was submitted.

Photo: 1951 356 Gläser Cabriolet 9

Doug Livelsberger applies hand glaze to buffed clearcoat.

Photo: 1951 356 Gläser Cabriolet 10
Photo: 1951 356 Gläser Cabriolet 11
Photo: 1951 356 Gläser Cabriolet 12
Photo: 1951 356 Gläser Cabriolet 13
Photo: 1951 356 Gläser Cabriolet 14
Photo: 1951 356 Gläser Cabriolet 15
Photo: 1951 356 Gläser Cabriolet 16

Also from Issue 163

  • Rennsport Reunion III
  • Driving the Brumos 914-6 GT at Daytona
  • Wingho’s Wild W3 (964) Three-Seater
  • French Kiss: An Early 911 With Panache
  • Tightening Up the 997 Turbo
  • 356 Notchback Revitalized with 911 Power
  • Market Update: 924, 944, and 968
  • 400,000-mile Carrera 3.2 Reborn
  • Cayenne GTS: The Best Cayenne
  • Base 997 Coupe Short Test
  • Porsche Icon: 908/2 Spyder
  • 911 Master-Cylinder Re-do
  • Gasoline Direct Injection
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