Show Stopper

This restored Reutter cabriolet is making its mark on the 356 concours circuit.

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May 20, 2010

Virginian John Wood and wife Anne are clearly dedicated to the Por­sche marque. “I have been interested in Porsches since my youth, especially the 356 body style,” says John. “About 15 years ago, I purchased a 1987 930 with less than 10,000 miles on it, and it has been downhill ever since.” In the intervening years, the Woods have owned two new Turbos, a 2000 911 Cabriolet, a 1957 Speedster, and a 1964 SC cabriolet that Anne drives on a regular basis. “We have also owned a restored 1954 coupe, a 1958 coupe, and now the 1953 cabriolet we are currently showing.”

That cabriolet (serial number 60045) is the freshly restored 356 you see here, and its story is a good one. In the summer of 2004, rumors began circulating in 356 circles that someone in San Jose, Califor­nia had a trio of early 356s for sale. John Wood was interested, and got in touch with the owner through fellow 356 Reg­istry and 356 Club member Dan Rowzie. Negotiations would take nearly a full year, as the seller had yet to work out arrangements with her late husband’s estate. Eventually, they were able to make a package deal for all three cars.

“The owners, Kenneth and Carol Krause, had purchased the bent-windshield cabriolet in 1966,” relates Wood. “Kenneth had passed away in the mid-1990s, but the old cab had been safely stored in a dry garage for 25 years. The other two cars were a 1954 coupe tub, which had been repainted some years earlier and was parked on the street, and an unrestored 1957 coupe that was also parked outside. Included in the sale were many boxes of original parts.”

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Wood, along with good friend Lewis Hauser (whose shop, Karosserie Limited in Fairfax, Virginia, had restored one of the Woods’ 356s), soon hopped a flight to the West Coast. Wood arranged to have a large moving van arrive at Mrs. Krause’s home, and while it showed up at the appointed time, loading the cars was a challenge. “We tied them down and padded them with shipping blankets, then loaded the extra parts wherever we could make space,” he recalls.

Adds Hauser, “It was a big tractor-trailer unit. After we loaded the cars, the driver made a couple of other stops on the way east to pick up some other shipments, but the cars reached Virginia in good condition.”

Wood and Hauser decided to tackle the 1954 coupe first, since it had already been painted and just needed assembly and finishing. About halfway through that project, Hauser also began to work on the cabriolet. Says Wood, “Our mission was to completely restore the car to factory specifications, using as many original parts as possible.”

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The cabriolet was about 90-percent complete, but there were some important trim pieces missing, such as the hood spear. “Lots of Pre-A owners used to update their cars with A trim, so we had a good A hood spear, but it was incorrect for this car,” says Hauser. “We also had to find correct Pre-A dashboard gauges, since they had been changed by a previous owner.” The original 16-inch wheels were also missing, and at some point the car had been “updated” with pieces from later models, including horn grilles in the nose (which did not appear until 1954) and teardrop tail-lights (which replaced the round “beehive” lamps in 1959). There was even a 1955 Continental badge on one fender.

The cabriolet came with a thick file of ownership records dating back to the early 1960s, but little is known about the earliest years of the car’s life. Wood’s patient research has revealed that the little droptop — the 45th of 394 Reutter cabriolets built for the 1953 model year — left the factory on its way to Porsche’s East Coast distributor, Hoffman Motors in New York City, on March 6, 1953, but that’s about it. “Mrs. Krause had no information on previous owners,” Wood says. “I’ll keep on looking.” He believes he’s on the trail of the original Reutter build sheet, which might provide a name.

Wood does have the original Porsche Kardex and later Certificate of Authen­ticity, which describe the car as a “USA-de Luxe-Ausführung” and a “USA De­Luxe Type,” respectively. The cabriolet was finished in black (C501) with a dark green leather interior. According to Wood, the de Luxe interior normally has leather-covered seats and door panels, with the rear seating area and rear quarter trim done in less-expensive leather­ette; Wood’s car, however, is trimmed in full leather. The cabriolet also featured a Telefunken JD52 AM/FM radio and Hirschmann antenna, a tachometer and remote oil-pressure gauge, a set of aluminum wheel trim rings, a windshield-washer system, two sun visors, a reclining passenger seat, an “Improved” jump-seat cushion, and an extra two kilograms of black paint. Front and rear bumper guards were apparently standard on the USA-de Luxe model.

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Neither the Kardex nor the COA mention the color of the original top. The black exterior with green interior color combination should have dictated tan canvas, but when Wood and Hauser disassembled the car they uncovered a small piece of seemingly original material that suggests the first top was olive-green. If so, it would appear that Porsche was amenable to meeting a customer’s request for a non-standard color combination in those days — perhaps not surprising, since these early Porsches were essentially hand-built. Adds Wood, “The plastic rear window was original, and even all the little trim screws had their slots perfectly indexed, just as they were when the car left Reutter.”

When first built, the Porsche was equipped with a Type 528 Super engine (serial number 40 255). Built around the infamous, and often short-lived, Hirth roller-bearing crankshaft, the 1488-cc flat four produced 70 horsepower. However, Wood and Hauser quickly determined that the original four had been replaced with a plain-bearing engine at some point early in its life. “Those Hirth-crank motors were fragile,” opines Wood. It’s known that Porsche replaced a lot of them, but the replacement is not mentioned on the Kardex, and the case is not numbered.

The engine was one of the first things addressed in the restoration. Wood turned to Geary Miller in upstate New York, who was at the time restoring a 1954 cabriolet. That car had come with a crateful of extra engine parts, including an almost-perfect plain-bearing crankshaft. Using the replacement case in Wood’s cabriolet, Miller built up a fresh engine around that crank. He also located a correct 1953-vintage coil, the only part missing from Wood’s car.

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In the meantime, Hauser rebuilt the transaxle, installing new seals along with a new clutch and pressure plate. He also refurbished the brakes and suspension. The real time, however, was spent on the interior, top, and body. Hauser says that black is the most difficult color to get right, because it shows flaws so easily, but adds, “We made it as nice as we possibly could.”

Carefully stripping away the old paint, Hauser found that the cabriolet had been repainted red and then white, the color it wore at the time of Wood’s purchase. He was pleasantly surprised to discover very little rust on the half-century-old automobile. “I guess what they say about California cars is true — they aren’t exposed to the high degree of moisture and road salt we have back East,” says Hauser. “Besides, it had only been driven occasionally for about ten years before it was parked.”

The tin worm had attacked a few areas, including the left rear floor panel, which needed to be replaced, and the lower doors and one door jamb, which had to be repaired. A small part of the battery box was patched, as well. The one serious rust problem appeared in the rear cowling behind the passenger compartment, the result of water seeping past the edge of the fabric top over the years. “There was a large curved piece of wood that the rear body wraps around,” explains Hauser. “I’ll bet that piece was just dangled on a string and Reutter constructed the rest of the car around it!” A replacement section had to be fabricated.

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Hauser also found that the cabriolet had been hit hard in the rear and then repaired. The later-model taillights may have been added at that time, and while 1953 was the first year that the 356 carried bumpers separate from the body, they didn’t protect the tail very well.

“That hit threw everything out of line at the back of the car,” says Wood. “Lewis spent countless hours patiently repairing and straightening the body shell and getting everything properly realigned. I’m just tickled to death at the way it came out.”

The interior carried a few non-standard, but apparently original, touches. The ashtray was covered in dark green leather (“I’ve never seen another 356 with that feature,” says Wood), while the dashboard face features unusual “eyebrows” over the speedo and tachometer. East Coast restorer Dennis Frick believes the eyebrows first appeared when the instrument lettering changed from white to green during 1952. They were apparently intended to help reduce the reflection of the instruments in the windshield.

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“The large-instrument eyebrows are pictured in the earliest Pre-A parts book as an item that can be had ‘for later installation,’” says Frick, “while the large eyebrow is listed in the late Pre-A parts book as a normal part, quantity two.” According to Frick, some of the cars also have eyebrows over the smaller instruments, but these are not mentioned in the parts books.

While taking apart the interior panels, Hauser and Wood discovered a small piece of the original green leather in perfect condition. This was sent to Tony Garcia at Autobahn Interiors in California to use as a color sample. Garcia recovered the front and rear seats and aluminum door panels, and also cut and prepared the new green square-weave carpeting and German canvas top.

Hauser admits to spending perhaps 300 hours on the top installation, making sure everything fit perfectly before cutting the hole for the new back window. The top bows and folding metal framing took up a lot of that time; while the metal parts were still in perfect condition, much of the original wood in the front and rear bows had to be replaced. Frick supplied new aluminum tack strips. “One of the most difficult items to locate was the rubber gasket for the original plastic rear window,” says Wood. “We finally found a reproduction in Italy. All in all, the top was the hardest part of the restoration.”

The original Blaupunkt four-button radio was refurbished by Wilford Wilkes in Pennsylvania, while Victor Miles took care of rebuilding the headlights, taillights, and license-plate lamp. Wood sent the original but crumbling wiring harness to Tom Birch in Los Angeles, who supplied a perfect replacement.

Correct wheels are always an issue when concours judges get up close and personal, so Wood needed to find a set. “I was able to track down four correctly dated 1953 16-inch wheels and another from 1954, which I use for the spare,” he says. All the wheels were painted in a metallic dark green, the same color used on the dashboard and door caps. Wood was also able to locate and restore a set of “turbo” wheel trim rings, whose ventilating louvers differ left side to right.

Some of the simplest items proved to be the most challenging to locate. “I was very fortunate to find the car’s original brown canvas tool pouch stuffed down between the gas tank and the bulkhead, but the original tools were missing,” says Wood. “Over the past couple of years, I was able to obtain correct tools and the jack, which I had Ray Wills restore.” The old leather strap on the tool bag carries a wonderful patina befitting its age.

Getting the title was also a lengthy process. “For some reason, the DMV kept finding something wrong with the applications — the date was wrong, or Mrs. Krause hadn’t signed in each required space — and they kept sending the applications back to us,” Wood remembers. “I’d take care of the problem and re-submit them, and of course they went back to the bottom of the pile each time. Even with proper bills of sale, the whole thing took more than eight months to sort out. It was very frustrating.”

Finally, after four long years, everything was finished. The elegant black cabriolet made its concours debut at the 356 Registry’s 2008 East Coast Holiday in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where it captured both Best in Class and Best in Show. Its next major appearance was the 356 Registry’s 2009 East Coast Holiday in West Baden Springs, Indiana, where it again took top honors in both class and show.

Although this was Hauser’s first cabriolet restoration, it was clearly a success. “Everyone seems to like it,” he concedes modestly. Wood says that the car’s wins at both 356 Registry Holidays, where judging is very tough, have been “quite an honor for both Anne and myself. I will continue to show the car as long as people want to look at it.”

Also from Issue 184

  • The ex-Eric Strenger 914-6 M471
  • 997-2 Turbo hits 60 mph in 2.6 sec.
  • Chatting with Tony Lapine, father of 928
  • Three great used Porsches for $12,000
  • First race for GT3 R & GT3 R Hybrid
  • 911 Carrera 3.2 Club Racer
  • 944 Header Installation
  • Modified track/street 964 Carrera 2
  • 911 SC Tales of Woe
  • M96 IMS failures and fixes, Part 2
  • Market Update: 1974–89 911s
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