Show and Tell

Restoring an early 1954 Pre A

Photo: Show and Tell 1
November 15, 2013

This writer first crossed paths with the eye-catching Pre-A Cabriolet shown here over a decade ago, when his older sister mentioned that a neighbor had an old red Porsche hidden away in his garage in the Palos Verdes area of suburban Los Angeles. By my next visit from Portland, I had obtained the owner’s telephone number, and soon afterward a short walk up the street brought me to Jim Scrimger’s home, where an open garage door revealed the beehive tail lights of an early 356.

Jim pulled off the rest of the cover and told me briefly about the red drop-top that had kept him happily occupied for many years. It had been restored, but keeping it fresh remained an on-going proposition. Some years later, Jim and I crossed paths again at the San Diego Porsche Parade, where the Cab was part of a special display of 356s. More years would pass before we agreed that it was time to share the long adventure that has been Jim’s ownership of the car. Again, my elder sister was the catalyst, mentioning over coffee that Jim’s wife Vicki had made a humorous reference to the Porsche as “Jim’s mistress,” an extra-marital interest that kept him close to home in his retirement. How many times have we heard that?

Jim relates that he’d owned many other Porsches previous to this Pre-A; as a bachelor and then as a college student, he’d had a 1964 356C, an early 912, a 1966 911, a 1962 356B, and then a 1968 911 Targa with a Sportomatic box, which Vicki drove while Jim was on active duty as a U.S. Navy officer during the Vietnam war. They kept the Targa until about 1979, then found the ideal buyer—a Porsche fanatic who suffered the effects of polio in his left leg and saw the electric clutch as perfectly meeting his needs.

Photo: Show and Tell 2

The Targa had served Jim well while he was employed as a manufacturing systems specialist, but the realities of raising two children and making a living got in the way of having a sports car; instead, there were family-friendly station wagons and company cars to fill his transportation needs. Still, the desire to rejoin the Porsche community lingered in his mind.

One day, Jim learned through Loren Pearson, a friend and neighbor, of an old 356 Cabriolet stuffed into someone’s garage in nearby Hermosa Beach. Pearson was then the owner of a company that specialized in NLA parts for air-cooled VWs. He also had an interest in Porsches and mentioned to Jim that one of his customers, John Hoyem, dropped by on a regular basis hunting for very early Porsche parts. Pearson learned that the car in question was a 1954 Cabriolet that fell into the “I’m going to get it running one of these days” category. The owner’s wife was running out of patience (How many times have we heard that?) and was prodding him to concentrate on the four other cars that were a bit closer to functionality. Pearson thought the old cab might be available if Jim was interested. Of course Jim was interested, but there were several major roadblocks in the way: He was taking graduate school night classes at the University of Southern California on the G.I. Bill. He was busy all day working as plant manager for the Willis Oil Tool company, which produced high-pressure oilfield equipment for major oil companies around the world. He and his wife still had two small boys at home. He was trying to finish remodeling his house. There just wasn’t much spare cash available for such a purchase. That’s a fistful of reasons to put his dreams aside, so Jim just moved on with his life, periodically mentioning to Vicki that he sure wished there was some way he could pick up that old Cabriolet. (“I whined about it a lot,” he admits.)

After several months of grousing, Vicki, a certified marriage counselor, grew weary of Jim’s “I gotta have it!” litany. In early 1983, while Jim was away on a week-long business trip to Denver, Vicki called his friend Loren Pearson and asked for help. With Pearson’s assistance, they determined that the cabriolet could be acquired from for a modest $5,500. After a few more months of negotiating, money changed hands, and Pearson was able to start the car and drive it the few miles to the Scrimger’s house in Palos Verdes.

Photo: Show and Tell 3

When Jim arrived home from Denver, he opened the garage door and was stunned to see what he also laughingly calls his “new mistress,” chassis number 60426, a very early 1954 model year Reutter Pre-A “bent-window” Cabriolet that displayed some 58,000 miles on the clock. “Happy birthday,” his wife exclaimed; “and by the way, this takes care of all future birthdays, as well!”

It also served as recognition for Jim’s having completed his graduate degree in Manufacturing Management. Her reasoning, he adds, was, “I’d be broke most of the time, hanging out in the garage instead of heading off to, um, other temptations, and that the expense was much less than dealing with a case of Porsche-Separation-Anxiety Disorder.”

With his “new” old Porsche snuggled comfortably in his garage, Jim began to research his new lady friend and assemble a what-to-do-first list. The car needed “almost everything” to regain its former respectable appearance and condition, says Scrimger. He began to search for as much early factory literature as he could find. The annual L.A. Literature and Toy Show proved a good source; he was able to pick up an original 1954 owner’s manual that had once belonged to Bob Garretson. He also found copies of factory shop manuals and parts books that would help guide parts identification and reassembly.

Photo: Show and Tell 4

We would learn that the car was wearing Arizona license plates when it came into Hoyem’s hands in the 1970s, suggesting that it had spent at least a portion of its early life in the nice dry climate of Arizona. He determined that it had been raced by a previous owner. It was dented up a bit and painted white; what remained of its original interior—not too much—was black vinyl. The original top bows came with the car, but the stock bumpers were missing, replaced by Southern California-style nerf bars. Other exterior trim was missing (“It had been ‘nosed and decked,’” recalls Hoyem).

It hadn’t run in four years; the owner thought the transmission was locked up. That proved an easy fix, says Hoyem; it simply needed a new clutch cable. In fact, his mechanic, George Velios, split the transmission case for inspection and found the gears to be in almost perfect condition. Because he wanted to drive and enjoy the Cabriolet with a minimum of worry, Scrimger’s primary goal was to make the car reliable. He intended to use as many OEM parts as possible but was willing to depart from the car’s original paint and interior specifications to satisfy his own tastes. He wanted a stronger engine, and, finally, he wanted to share the car with everyone else. The bottom line, he smiles, was to drive the little car proudly and with humility—and “tell other wives what they should do for their gearhead husbands!”

While Southern California is loaded with high-quality Porsche restoration shops, Jim found that not many are set up to work with owners whose budgets dictate that the labor will take years—in fact, many years—a little bit at a time, as funds allowed. Eventually, he found one such shop, Vintage Paint Works, in nearby Torrance, where owner Dave DiMaria offered him a deal: If Jim was willing to let the Porsche become a low priority in the shop, Dave would work on it as time allowed, in between the routine crash collision repairs and re-painting projects that paid the shop rent. That was certainly in line with Jim’s thinking, so in early 1984, off the Porsche went to begin what would become a four-year restoration. Jim had pretty much disassembled the car, and after a complete bead-blasting to bare metal it was trailered to DiMaria’s shop.

Photo: Show and Tell 5

DiMaria found it to be a typical old 356 that needed a moderate amount of metal work. Both the nose and tail sections showed evidence of prior crash damage (“There was lots of Bondo,” says Jim.), but the floors, longitudinals, battery box, and other usually rust-prone areas were found to be in pretty decent shape considering their age. Credit a life in the Arizona desert for that. DiMaria was able to focus on cleaning up the extremities, repairing minor dings and dents, and ensuring consistent panel gaps. All the factory welds appeared original, says Jim, and all the numbered panels such as the lids and doors agreed with the chassis number, always a good sign. He selected a color called “Flame Red,” which DiMaria applied in R&M acrylic lacquer. Every other metal part on the car was either repainted or re-chromed. The shop applied 3M sound-deadening undercoating for underbody protection.

By May of 1985, the body shell had been prepped and repainted. The next step was purchasing and installing a complete new wiring harness from Y & Z, followed by the fabrication and installation of new roof tack strips and interior bows made from eastern ash. A journeyman cabinetmaker carried out that work.

A new, correctly padded multi-layer top was sewn up in brown Hartz cloth and linen fabric by Linda Strom, a talented seamstress with a shop in Frasier Park, California. She then installed the completed top over the original frame, the major parts of which were repainted, powder-coated, or re-chromed. Stainless-steel hardware was used in the hinges.

Photo: Show and Tell 6

The interior work was tackled by Gabriel Guerra at Prestige Auto in Alhambra. The thickly padded front seats with their adjustable backs were covered in new Saddle Brown Connolly leather, as were the rear seats, and rear and side panels. Jim notes that original Coupes and Cabriolets had a single document pouch on the driver’s door panel; he had Guerra duplicate that feature on the passenger side as well. New square-weave oatmeal carpets were installed (and were recently updated by Autos International). DiMaria installed all the interior pieces as they were finished and delivered.

Because Vicki would be sharing the car with Jim, she insisted that two pairs of new seatbelts be installed. A company called Belt Masters in Torrance provided stitched DOT-approved belt material, and although he’s no longer around to appreciate the fact, the late Shah of Iran also contributed to this project. Belt Masters had once supplied new seatbelts for the Shah’s personal 707 passenger jet in the course of a 1970s interior renovation. The company had retained some of the special gold-plated buckles that had been replaced, and when Scrimger saw them on display at Belt Masters, he just had to buy a couple of sets.

The Pre A’s instrument panel also received attention. It contains a standard speedometer and oil pressure gauge along with what appears to be a non-stock VDO tachometer, apparently from a later Carrera. (Scrimger says it was in the car at the time of purchase.) We can surmise that it was installed during the car’s racing days. All were sent to North Hollywood Speedometer for rebuilding; the tach was upgraded to an electrical sender to replace the original mechanical drive. To keep a closer eye on engine temperatures, Jim installed a semi-hidden VDO gauge below the dash that monitors the #3 cylinder head. The main instruments are shaded by small painted “eyebrows” that we have in the past found to be dealer-installed optional items that don’t appear in the factory’s parts list.

Photo: Show and Tell 7

There is no fuel gauge; the factory thoughtfully provided a nice wood dip-stick in the front trunk for the driver’s convenience, if we can expand the meaning of that word. There’s also a trio of small warning lights: green for oil pressure, red for generator discharge, and blue for the turn signals; a Blaupunkt “keyhole” multi-band radio; a shine-down map lamp over the ashtray, and a manually operated windshield washer.

All the plastic switches and knobs, along with the plastic banjo-style steering wheel, were restored by a technician at Gary Hemmer’s 356 Workshop in North Hollywood, using high-strength epoxy with dental coloring to perfectly match the original pieces. While attending the 1990 Porsche Parade at Monterey, Jim spotted a pair of original and period-correct factory tinted plastic accessory sunvisors and gave them a new home.

What Jim accurately describes as a very Spartan front trunk contains a six-volt Optima sealed battery. The original 57-liter (approx. 13-gal.) fuel tank was carefully inspected, cleaned, and pressure-tested before receiving a fuel-resistant coating to prevent leaks and suppress corrosion. The fuel tank was reinstalled using correct horse-hair (coconut fiber) padding under the holding straps. Jim had the outer surface of the tank resprayed with glossy black Imron, which he says isn’t factory-correct, “but it really looks great during car shows!”

Photo: Show and Tell 8

Down in the lower compartment are the windscreen-washer fluid jar with plumbing up to the under-dash finger pump. The spare wheel and tire are accompanied by the car’s original tubular screw-jack. Finding a correct Hazet-labeled “Tourister” travel kit proved challenging, says Jim, who searched many months for the correct tin clamshell box and then equip it with the proper factory complement of Hazet hand tools.

The Cab’s original engine went its own way long ago, perhaps in its racing days; in the tail when Jim began taking things apart was a 1500cc Industrial Case fitted with small port heads. “It ran but not well. No sense in pouring money into an undesirable low-powered engine, right?”

That matter was soon resolved with a 1968 912 motor prepared by Velios. The more robust engine was treated to a 1720cc big-bore kit with Nikasil barrels, a hotter camshaft, high-ratio rockers, and all rotating parts balanced to two-tenths of a gram. A pair of Weber 40IDF-XE downdraft two-barrel carbs was installed, topped with extended velocity stacks and a pair of K & N air filters. There’s a sport muffler and PermaTune CD ignition system. Cosmetically, all the engine tin other than the fan shroud was black powder-painted. The shroud was sprayed in Ford Tractor Gray aircraft Imron. The final mechanical setup and fine tuning were handled by the talented Al Cadrobbi and Gary Hemmer.

Photo: Show and Tell 9

When the motor went on a dynamometer at Hemmer’s shop to determine

optimum carburetor jetting, it eventually

produced a consistent 105 horses. Unfortunately, the engine suffered a bearing failure a few years later; the problem was eventually traced to a few particles of sand that remained trapped in the oil filter canister system after those parts had been sandblasted and cleaned during restoration. That’s a problem that has plagued more than one 356 owner; the 356 Registry magazine discussed the issue a couple of years ago. Pat Higgins at Accutrack in Manhattan Beach rebuilt the motor. Jim shares the lesson: “Don’t use sand-blast cleaning on any Parts that have exposure to the oil system!”

The gearbox remains the original Type 519 with a two-piece case. Jim knows it was designed to handle no more than 50-60 hp, so he doesn’t abuse it. When the bolts securing the axle carrier to the ring gear gave up the ghost, the car went back to Cadrobbi, who “tore into the box”, in Jim’s words, and installed a 13-bolt Carrera ring-and-pinion set and all-new synchronizers and stringer bolts, and patiently went about the tedious task of setting up the proper pre-loading of the final drive. Tony Callas of Callas Rennsport assisted with re-installation and some important chassis work. In 2009, the brakes were overhauled again under the watchful eyes and assistance of Loren Pearson. Scrimger mounted a new 22mm ATE master cylinder and wheel cylinders, along with fresh steel and rubber brake lines. Fresh shoes were arced to match the aluminum/iron drums by C.H. Topping in Long Beach.

The original 3.5×16-in. diameter steel wheels that once wore 4.5×16-in. bias-ply rubber have been replaced with aftermarket 5.5×15-in. chromed rims wearing Michelin 165-60 radials. While certainly more practical, this introduced a new problem, says Jim. “Should a rear tire blow, the wheel offset on the 5.5-in. wheel now makes it necessary to deflate the spare tire to allow it to be pushed into the wheel well and over the rear brake drum, then re-inflated to the correct pressure.” Having learned this the hard way, he now carries a small foot-operated air pump to re-inflate the tire if necessary.

Around Christmas of 1988, the car was completed, having been transformed into “a beautiful butterfly,” in Jim’s words. He then sent an inquiry to the factory requesting data from the cab’s Kardex. The only data available was that the car left Zuffenhausen in February of 1954 and had been shipped to U.S. importer Max Hoffman in New York City. The reply also noted that the car had originally been painted the unusual shade of Modegrau, or Fashion Gray, one of only six colors offered on cabriolets that year. Our research materials indicate that it would have had either gray textured vinyl or gray cloth upholstery. As we have noted, that color scheme had gone by the wayside years before. Jim was delighted with the car’s brighter appearance, and began sharing it with others, everything from local show-and-shine Saturday mornings to PCA and 356 Registry events and invitation-only concourses d’elegance in Central and Southern California. Jim estimates that he has shown the cabriolet between seventy and eighty times. It has proven to be a great crowd-pleaser, garnering many class wins and people’s choice awards. Although the chassis number and build date would make this Cabriolet a 1954 model, Jim notes that it was constructed with a 1953 nose; that is, the single small parking lamps/turn signals are installed directly below the headlamps. The following year, 1954, saw small horn grilles added, and these do not appear on Jim’s unmodified car. This might suggest that the factory was still using up parts left over from the previous year (not uncommon in those early days). Jim considers his car a crossover 1953/54, and who’s to argue with him?

Jim especially enjoys driving and showing an automobile that was well-designed and -built in the first place, and then rebuilt to a high standard when it was well over 30 years of age. He and Vicki take it out frequently, and it carried both of their sons and their brides on their respective wedding days. The car’s restoration has held up well for the past 25 years. Jim loves talking about his little red Porsche with other gearheads, and says Vickie “basks in the amazing tale of how she strategized and got the car” for her unsuspecting husband.

“A pretty great wife, eh?” he muses, and we’d all agree his assessment is spot-on.

Also from Issue 215

  • David Donohue track tests the Turbo
  • A missing link in the 911's life story
  • Who should get credit for the design?
  • 987/997 ignition events and your warranty
  • Porsches and guitars--a great mix
  • Awesome power; Cayman balance
  • 1975 Carrera finds a new venue
  • A historian's look at the 356's birth
  • RS enthusiasts gather at Rheims
  • Could this car be worth $500,000?
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