THE COUNTERTOPS ARE BLACK, SHINY, SPOTLESS. The floors are shale tile, and there is brushed aluminum everywhere. It has to be asked: If the shop bathroom looks this nice, what will the car be like? About what you’d expect: The 1958 356 sunroof coupe sitting just outside the door is impossibly black, shiny, and spotless.
A visit to John Willhoit’s Long Beach Porsche restoration and hot-rodding shop can be a little intimidating. There’s no oil or grease — anywhere. That might be why Dick Moran of Orange County, California, has chosen to have Willhoit restore more than a few of the Porsches in his collection. You see, the two appear to be cut from the same cloth…both of them are perfectionists.
When you see one of Willhoit’s cars, there is no denying the quality of the work. And a lot of work went into this one. “This latest addition to Moran’s collection needed to be really special,” Willhoit recalls. Moran bought the coupe because he wanted a closed version of his 1956 ‘GT look’ 356 Speedster (Excellence February 2005). That would take awhile.
“I reminded John recently that he didn’t have any grandkids when we started the coupe’s restoration,” says Moran. “He now has two, and the oldest one is five years old! This was definitely the longest ‘resto’ we’ve ever done, but it was also the most challenging in making the car look and perform the way it does now.”
The project began in earnest back in 2004, when Willhoit asked Moran a question every Porsche owner dreads. “Do you want the good or the bad news first?” When Willhoit gave his verdict, it wasn’t pretty: “Well, the bad news is we’ve finished taking the ’58 apart, and it’s full of rust. The good news is I have a donor tub to pull sheetmetal from.”
Most people might have asked about moving the project over to the donor tub, but Moran’s coupe was an interesting car. “According to the previous owner, this was the first 356A made with an electric sunroof,” says Willhoit. “He also told me it was the 1958 Paris Auto Show car.” Unfortunately, it had no verifiable history and faded Glacier White paint. Worse, it was in poor condition. Very poor.
“I paid next to nothing for this car, and I still paid too much,” says Moran with a wink. “It was badly neglected and hadn’t been driven in 40 years. There was so much rust that, when Willhoit finished putting the two 356s together, there wasn’t much left over from either.” Before it was done, the ’58 coupe would undergo a color change and gain one-inch-wider rear fenders in the back, bigger wheels, and a 2.0-liter, fuel-injected flat four.
Larger engine? Flared body? Widened wheels? What’s the goal with this thing, anyway? you might be asking. Think 356 Outlaw with a 2,500-hour body, many real GT parts, and a powerplant putting out 170 hp at nearly 7000 rpm. Think GT3-ish 356. While the project evolved over eight years, one thing was decided early on: The ’58 coupe would be painted factory Black, just like Moran’s hot-rod ’56 Speedster.
For Moran, there’s always been something special about a black Porsche, and he’s owned more than a dozen in the past 30 years. “Black has been my favorite color since I was kid,” he states flatly. “I wore black uniforms all through school and have only black clothes now. My first Porsche was a Black 911 SC. The next model I owned was a 911 Turbo I ordered new in 1986. It just had to be Black on Black with a Black headliner.”
Before any black paint could be applied to the 356, however, Willhoit had to cut out all the rusty pieces and match good sections from the donor tub. He also reinforced the coupe’s longitudinals, as he does with most of the 356s he restores. That part went fairly easily, but the coupe’s sunroof was another story.
“An original ‘electric’ sunroof-optioned 356A coupe is a very rare car,” says Willhoit. “It’s quite interesting because it uses the switch found on later 356B T6 cars, but, in this case, it’s mounted on the dash. The motor is a giant thing located in the engine compartment. It pulls cables in tubes to open and close the roof, much like an early 911. There are only a handful of cars with this type of roof, and this is the only 356A I have seen with one. It was a real adventure getting it to work properly.”
To widen the rear fenders by one inch on either side, Willhoit ended up making complete quarter panels. The front and rear lower edges are reinforced with wire like the factory GT cars, and the rear bumper has been lengthened to fit the new fenders. Willhoit fabricated a hood and a louvered decklid out of aluminum but left the doors in steel for safety reasons. The rocker moldings, hood handle, and rear reflectors were deleted for a cleaner look.
The body was metal-finished with no filler. After hundreds of hours of prep, it was painted by Willhoit shop manager Chris Mayring. The bumpers are set up like a factory GT with aluminum trim and no guards. The windshield is Sigla glass, but the side, quarter, and rear windows are Plexiglas. The final touch is a vintage Talbot aluminum driver’s side mirror.
When it came to the cabin, Moran had unique requests. “I wanted an outside temperature gauge that looked period-correct but worked properly,” he says. “Another antiquarian item we ordered was a three-way combination gauge that provides oil-temperature, oil-pressure, and fuel-tank readings together, much like a 904.” These gauges, along with a 160-mph speedometer and a tachometer with an 8000-rpm redline, were created by North Hollywood Speedometer.
The black-anodized dashboard plate is engraved with “356GTRS” and was commissioned because Moran felt the regular plastic block-off plate wasn’t in keeping with a custom build. Other interior tricks include a custom tunnel-mounted shifter, a leather-wrapped RSK steering wheel with a double-stalk blinker and headlight flasher switches, simple door panels with leather pull straps, and GT door handles.
A removable factory roll bar is joined by three-point seatbelts and GT seats with lightweight alloy frames made by Fibersteel of Azusa, California. The headliner is (what else?) black, while the rear interior is carpeted in charcoal German square-weave. The rest of the floors are covered in pebble-grain vinyl, lightweight ribbed rubber matting, and Coco floormats.
Both Moran and Willhoit knew engine choice was the key if they were going to meet their goal of combining good looks with startling performance. Previously, Willhoit created a 1925-cc powerplant for Moran’s Speedster. With electronic fuel injection, it made a claimed 152 hp and 140 lb-ft of torque. Moran wanted more.
“I’m a very visual person and wanted (the coupe) to reflect the GT flavor of my Speedster, but I also wanted it to be a more powerful cruiser,” says Moran, who deemed a full two liters of displacement appropriate for the 150-pound-heavier coupe.
Instead of taking the usual 2.0-liter route with Mahle cylinders on a later 912 crankcase, Willhoit decided to go for 2002 cc using custom 91-mm, Nikasil-coated aluminum cylinders made by LN Engineering with a custom 77-mm Scat crankshaft. The latter uses Clevite two-inch rod bearings, while Carrillo connecting rods locate 91-mm JE pistons set up to yield a compression ratio of 11:1.
The camshaft offers 260° of duration at .050-inch with .390-inch of lift, and operates Willhoit’s favorite combination of 42-mm intake and 34-mm valve exhaust valves via pushrods rendered in 2025 aluminum. The valves are stainless steel and benefit from dual valve springs with Willhoit’s own guides and retainers.
Sprouting from the cylinder heads are thinly screened 48-mm throttle bodies made by TWM. Each cylinder is fired by a pair of 10×19-mm spark plugs. The twin-plug distributor and fuel rails were developed by Willhoit and work with a magnetic crankshaft-triggered ignition system and Motec engine management, which provide batch-fire ignition and fuel delivery. An M&W dual-output CDI ignition box makes the former possible, while a Bosch 12-volt alternator allows the use of these modern systems in a normally 6-volt 356A. An aluminum crank pulley saves a little rotating mass while an ATI harmonic damper smoothes the big four out.
Air flow, from intake to cylinder head to WR sport muffler, was optimized based on Willhoit’s earlier research to maximize torque. The final numbers are 170 hp at 6900 rpm and 143 lb-ft at 5100 rpm — claims that suggest this air-cooled, eight-valve, pushrod four can rival the torque of the factory’s 2.0-liter development of the exotic, four-cam Fuhrmann four.
To ensure all that torque gets to the ground, Scott Hendry of Scott’s Independent in Anaheim packed a 716 transmission housing with C-B-A-B gears, a 7:31 ring-and-pinion, and a GT torque-biasing differential. This is mated to the engine with a lightweight flywheel rendered in 4340 chromoly, a Kennedy Engineered Products Stage I aluminum pressure plate, and a dual-friction clutch disc.
With the powertrain finalized, attention turned to the chassis. The forward spring rates are 20-percent stiffer than stock and are kept in check by Bilstein Sport dampers. The spindles have been decambered by 1.5°. A Willhoit Restorations anti-roll bar measuring 17.5 mm was installed, as were aluminum tie rods with heim joints. In the rear, 26-mm torsion bars and Elephant Racing bronze spring-plate bushings with early 911 spring-plate covers stiffen things up. These are damped by Von shocks with a lower heim joint to clear the wider-than-stock wheels.
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…”