Dig Deep

A restored one-owner Speedster conceals trick bits beneath the surface.

Photo: 356 Speedster 1
November 30, 2009

al Citro’s eyes glint when telling the story of a June 2008 afternoon in Charlotte. His 1958 356A Speed­ster had been judged in the Full Res­toration class at the Porsche Parade, and it had fallen just shy of the mark.

It wasn’t the level of his car’s restoration that held it back; the car was immaculately prepared, resplendent in #5711 Orange. No, as is often the case in concours, it came down to a couple things: The owner’s manual and a few tools were missing — and a full-flow oil conversion, though well-hidden, was still too conspicuous for prying judges’ eyes. Total score: 289.1. Solid, if not spectacular.

Al was nevertheless pleased with the car’s debut. Months later, it’s not the judges’ thoughts that leave Al brimming with pride; it’s what followed the scoring. “After the judging, they told us we could take the cars back to the staging area,” he begins, indicating relief that the long day was ending. “Then the president of PCA came to us and said they wanted to display the car for the concours banquet, which shocked me. I asked, ‘Do you really mean my car?’ and he answered, ‘Yes, the Porsche family likes it.’” The following night at the banquet, more surprises were in store for Al and his family.

“It got to the end, and we were getting ready to leave the table,” recalls Al. As his family gathered their belongings, the Master of Ceremonies began to talk about the People’s Choice Award. “He started to describe the winning car and we all started looking at each other because it sounded like ours.” It was. The fun didn’t stop there. By the end of the evening, Al’s 356 had nabbed one more distinction: Honorary Judges’ Choice.

Al’s wife Sally, who was unable to attend Parade, was waiting patiently by the home phone for news: “(Al) didn’t call me at all, and I kept thinking, Has something happened? My son-in-law had called every day to tell me what was going on. Well, he called me that night and said, ‘Your husband is floating on a cloud.’ But Al never did actually call me.” Her husband of nearly 49 years sheepishly explains: “Well, I was in such a state of shock, I couldn’t come to grips with it.”

Photo: 356 Speedster 2

The prize-winning Porsche, chassis number 84215, digs deep into the Citro family history. The year before Al met Sally, he bought it new. What’s more, it’s the only Porsche the Citros have owned.

In the spring of 1958, Al was driving a 1956 MGA when the adage “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday” nudged his gaze toward something else. “I had been to many race tracks, and that’s how I became familiar with Por­sche,” he says. “I didn’t know anything about them, until I saw them race.” At the time, Al was working at Denver’s Lowry Air Force Base for Martin Com­pany on the U.S. missile program. A trip to Vern Hagestad VW yielded what he desired. “Actually, I wanted a silver one,” he recalls. “But Hagestad told me, ‘Well, Por­sche has this orange color, and I think you’ll like it.’ He showed me the paint chip. It was something different, and I liked that.”

A twist of 356-related fate would bring Al and Sally together. A temporary assignment detoured Al to Orlando for most of a year before returning to Den­ver. During the winter after the return, he came across a female colleague he’d been friends with in Florida. Remembers Al: “I ran into Jannie and she said, ‘Here is my phone number — give me a call when you get a chance.’”

Weeks later, he would. “I was driving home from work and I’d forgotten that I’d put the fuel tank on reserve,” he says. “I had to go through farmland in the middle of nowhere, and I was driving along when the engine sputtered. I thought, I’ll just put it on reserve. Well…I was already on reserve!” A stroke of good fortune brought the 356 to rest in front of a general store. Al went to the phone booth and dialed the only phone number he had.

“I called Jannie, and she came and got me.” She invited him to a New Year’s party, explaining she had a new roommate she wanted him to meet. “I went to the party and I asked Jannie, ‘Who’s the girl in the red dress?’ She said, ‘Oh, that’s my new roommate, Sally.’”

Photo: 356 Speedster 3

Sally takes up the story from there: “Jannie said to me, ‘You know, Al has a Porsche.’ And I asked, ‘What’s a Por­sche?’” She laughs now at the thought. “I liked it, except I had a horrible cold on our first date and he had the top down in January in Denver, Colorado! Though it was maybe 50º that day, I said, ‘I have this cold, could we put the top up?’ and he said, ‘It’ll blow the germs out.’” For Al’s sake, luckily it’s been uphill from there. Well, mostly uphill…

“I didn’t have a driver’s license, so he taught me how to drive,” says Sally. “It was no easy feat because I’m so small; I couldn’t reach the pedals. I had to bring the seat all the way up and use a pillow.” Says Al: “Just for kicks, on weekends, we would drive to Bakersfield (the two moved to Santa Barbara after getting married), just for something to do. When you go to Bakersfield, you have to go through the mountains. One time, I said, ‘Why don’t you drive the car?’”

Sally cringes. “The road was terrible, only wide enough for a car-and-a-half. And it was gravelly.” For those familiar with the handling of early-generation, rear-engined Porsches, it’s not hard to guess what happened next.

“Oh yes, and I forgot to tell her about that,” mentions Al of the twitchy nature of the Speedster. “We were going uphill and I figured that if we started to slide, it would be easy to control. But I didn’t go into the details on how to do that and we came up on this sharp curve…”

“I wasn’t going very fast,” Sally intercedes. “But I was going too fast for the gravel and I froze on the gas.” Some­how, Sally managed to avoid the cliff on one side and pointed the Porsche toward the less-daunting ravine on the other. “I got caught on a small tree.” That was the only thing that prevented the 356 from plunging down the deep ditch. “I thought we were going to get divorced right there,” she admits with a chuckle now. Despite the Porsche’s precarious position, Al and a ranger were able to get it safely back onto the road, surprisingly devoid of damage save for a cracked windshield.

Photo: 356 Speedster 4

The car served the Citros well over the years, through a son and a daughter, moves from Cali­fornia back to Colo­rado and then several eastern states before landing in New Jersey in 1970. Along the way, it logged well over 100,000 miles. By the time the two reached New Jersey, Al had a leased car, so he didn’t drive the Porsche that much.

“I left it outside mostly,” he comments. One afternoon, a young neighbor girl let herself into the car and took it out of gear, allowing it to roll downhill into a stone retaining wall. The left front fender took the hit. “When I came home, I wasn’t too excited to see that. But it wasn’t a bad enough ding to get too excited over.”

Still, interjects Sally, “When you get that first ding in the car, there’s just something that takes it out of you. And he never had the same enthusiasm about keeping the car just right after that.” The Speedster migrated into the garage, Al planning to eventually restore it himself. “I even started taking it apart when we were in New Jersey, which was probably not a good idea. Some of those parts are still missing…”

Weeks turned to months and years. Little was done. Says Al: “When we came to Florida in 1990, we got a four-car garage. Sally had the idea that I could bring the car down and work on it when we came here on vacation.” The Citros rented a trailer and hauled the Porsche down the East Coast. There it sat in the garage, untouched until 2005. That’s when Sally finally gave Al an ultimatum: Either fix the car or get rid of it.

“I knew he’d never sell it, so I called my son-in-law,” she says. “He got on the Internet and found a few places to take it.” A local shop got the car running, albeit a bit roughly, before additional research landed the Citros at Heri­tage Motorcar Restoration in Largo, Florida. There, Jason Lee and Jason Hiler managed the lengthy project to return the Speedster to its former glory.

Photo: 356 Speedster 5

Jason Hiler focused on the “look good” part of the equation. Al was concerned that the ravine excursion that broke the windshield had also tweaked the tub, so Hiler put it on a chassis jig. “For such an old car it might have even been within spec, but we put it perfect,” says Hiler. Considering its years of daily use, the 356’s body was fairly solid.

“It needed front pans and longitudinals as well,” continues Hiler. “The rear pans weren’t too bad, but we decided to replace them anyway.” Body panel rust was mostly limited to the back of the front fenders and the area right behind the doors. “I didn’t have to touch the doors, the hood, the decklid. It has the original battery box, the original rockers…”

After repairing the left front fender, focus shifted to paint. Glasurit had the code for Porsche’s #5711 Orange. Hiler says the door hinges had never been repainted. “With something to match to, it was perfect the first time. I didn’t re­spray the hinges; we just left them straight from the factory, so people could see.”

But for the horn grilles, all chrome parts are original to the car and were redone at Paul’s Chrome Plating in Pennsylvania. The hood handle and front bumper guards were re-anodized by David Russell Ano­dizing in Florida. Says Hiler: “He’s not set up to restore the items, just to anodize them — so I had to do all the prep. He was nervous about working with these old parts, but they turned out nice.”All seven script items were replated in hand-laid gold to the tune of $1,200. “It was great having Al as the original owner,” continues Hiler. “He remembered exactly how everything was supposed to be.”

The current seats are correct Speed­ster equipment, but they’re not original to the car. “Al thought the originals were too uncomfortable, so he gave them away and put in coupe seats. We found some Speedster seats and had them redone.” Rather than convert to leather, Al chose to stay with vinyl that matched the original. The interior carpeting is the correct square-weave, but the years had cracked the steering wheel’s rubber rim, so it was replaced with modern materials. Finally, the dash gauges were all rebuilt by Palo Alto Speedometer in California.

Photo: 356 Speedster 6

Meanwhile, Jason Lee focused on the mechanical part of the equation. “Al said he wanted the engine, on the outside, to look completely original.” That left some wiggle room on the inside. “We put a lot of development into modern materials there.” Lee and his team took the 1600 Normal to 1800.30 cc with a bore of 88 mm (an increase of 5.5 mm) and the stock, 74-mm stroke.

“We squared the case and we bored the spigot to 92.710 mm,” says Lee. “A stock spigot would be 90.259 mm, but by boring we were able to make the cylinders very thick (for better cooling characteristics).” LN Engineering made cylinders to Lee’s specifications, maintaining a strict tolerance of .0015 mm for cylindricity, circularity, and concentricity.

“That’s a very high tolerance within the world of racing,” says Lee. “By going with a thick-wall cylinder, we also had to bore the cylinder head register to 95.250 mm to fit the cylinder into the head.”

New titanium alloy valve-spring retainers were machined, with Lee claiming the alloy is “approximately 300 percent stronger than stock.” The valves were custom-made in-house using Inconel. Says Lee: “Because it is such a strong material at operating temperature, we were able to make the valve stem a lot smaller than a stock 10-mm stem.” Due to the high operating temperatures of an air-cooled engine, Lee says he also focused on valve-guide materials.

“The old-style valve guide material gets fairly soft at temperature, so the factory valve guide is very long to keep the valve from flexing,” he says. “Using my material, I was able to design a valve guide that doesn’t protrude into the intake runner and the exhaust exit to block flow.” Lee says the challenge lies in selecting a valve guide material with both good stiffness and good lubricity.

Photo: 356 Speedster 7

HMR also co-developed the connecting rods, partnering with U.K.-based Arrow Precision. Emphasis was placed on precision balancing the connecting rods, as well as the pistons, crankshaft, flywheel, and pulleys. “The stock flywheel and crankshaft can normally be five to nine grams off,” explains Lee, who required component balance within .05 gram. Speaking of mass, he boasts that, between the connecting rods, pistons, and pins, he “shed in the neighborhood of 300 grams per cylinder. That’s a lot of load savings from the main bearings.”

The result of this attention to detail is a smooth-running powerplant that, with a mild compression ratio of 9.8:1, produced 93 hp at 5240 rpm and 113 lb-ft of torque at 4080 rpm on the dyno while running on pump gas. Al wanted to stick with the stock Zenith carburetors, but Lee believes a Weber conversion might yield another 20–30 horses.

A twist of the ignition key in the middle of the dash brings the 1.8-liter mill to life. At first, nothing in the jangling patter muted by the stock-spec Dansk muffler is beyond the ordinary. Even under load, it’s difficult to detect a slightly deeper growl. On the other hand, the 45+percent improvements in power and torque make for a real kick in the seat as the engine pulls solidly throughout the rev range. Through a sweeper, this Porsche feels eminently sure-footed on its Boge shock absorbers, which provide nice damping and smooth lateral transitions.

As the miles pass, you notice the silky smooth nature of the 1.8. Gone is the familiar flat-four massage in the small of your back. Redline is set at 6300, but this foot isn’t about to prod the revs beyond 5250 during a short stint behind the wheel. After the drive, Lee is quick to ask, “Did you take it past six grand?” He’s visibly deflated by the answer, but perks up when the smooth-as-glass powerplant is mentioned. “The more balanced the components are, the smoother the engine is,” he enthuses. “When something is a few grams off at one gravity, it is completely different than when it’s a few grams off and rotating at 5000 rpm.”

As for the Citros, it’s clear that they’re pleased with the results of the near three-year project to resurrect a car that has seen them through their life together. Certainly, digging deeply into some Por­sches reveals far more than merely interesting mechanical bits.

Also from Issue 179

  • Porsche at the Monterey Historics
  • Keep the Faith: Cool Beige 356 Outlaw
  • Interview: Brian Redman
  • First Drive: 2010 911 Turbo
  • 1,953-pound 911 SC
  • GT3 Cup-powered 1976 911
  • Market Update: 928
  • Icon: 908/02
  • 2010 911 Sport Classic
  • Project 914 3.6: Paint!
  • Tech Forum: Porsche airbags
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