Once Upon a Coupe

It may be a faux Speedster, but somehow it's completely "right"

Once Upon a Coupe 1
December 5, 2013

From behind the wheel, this little open 356 drives and feels pretty much like a regular Porsche Speedster or roadster. In spite of the Speedster windshield, the sharp-eyed among you will quickly note that it wasn’t a Speedster when it departed Zuffenhausen. The nose is wrong, the tail is wrong, the doors are wrong. But at the same time, it’s, well…right. This car started life, in fact, as a 1965 T6 C coupe, the body manufactured by Reutter—just one of more than 13,000 or so constructed over a two-year period. Now, there’s certainly nothing wrong with a coupe unless what you really want is an open car, but when a wrecked tin-top is what you have at hand, you find a way to make it work.

One day in the mid-oughts, Bay Area investment fund manager Walt Sikes decided he wanted to go vintage sports car racing, so he turned to his friend Dink Farmer and asked him to build a nice coupe for that purpose. Farmer’s shop, near the shores of Clear Lake, California, northwest of Sacramento, soon produced a 1962 “B” that turned out to be so nice Sikes was able to wipe off the scraps of tire rubber and other track detritus once in a while and enter it in various shows where it invariably did quite well by the judges and attracted positive comment from onlookers. Sikes would eventually add an early 911 vintage racer to his stable to satisfy his need for speed, but his desire for something with a lot more headroom led him back to Farmer’s busy fabrication shop. “I wanted an open race car,” he says, “because they looked like more fun.”

When Sikes specified a topless track machine, Farmer convinced him not to waste an otherwise much more valuable old Speedster, Convertible D or roadster body for racing. Instead, he suggested, why not base the project on an old coupe? There were quite a few to be found in northern California; Farmer had several such examples in his own boneyard, including a damaged and stripped 1965 “C” body shell that had been given to him by a customer who had relocated to the Caribbean and needed to dispose of his automotive holdings. The old coupe had been rolled hard, recalls Sikes, and someone had already taken the crushed roof and pillars off. “We inspected it carefully, and found that the rest of the chassis squared up in pretty good shape. There was a little surface rust here and there from sitting outside, but most of the floor panels seemed okay at first glance, and the other pieces were very good.”

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Farmer was glad to find a use for the decapitated shell. “I didn’t know what else to do with it,” he said, “and I thought it would be a great candidate for a vintage racer.” He and Sikes sat down to discuss what would be involved in creating such a vehicle. Walt liked Farmer’s proposal to create a faux Speedster, incorporating what they could of the coupe body, because he especially liked the shape of the late-style T6’s hood and nose. Dink would then adapt various pieces that he had on hand, and fabricate whatever else was required. “Dink is very creative,” says Sikes, “and turns out some amazing cars for his clients.” Walt gave his friend the green light to proceed.

Farmer’s top-flight metal-working skills (Excellence, May, 2009) and large inventory of early body spares allowed him to easily put his hands on the bits he’d need. “I used the coupe’s doors—which required re-skinning—and fabricated a new rear cowling from coupe sheet metal.” The dashboard was made from a fresh piece of sheet steel, formed on Farmer’s English wheel. Although the floor panels might have been salvageable, Farmer decided to begin with a clean slate, so they were replaced, along with the longitudinals, battery box, and rockers. Sikes says Farmer’s work on the coupe’s front and rear cowlings is especially worthy of note. The front cowl was carefully re-shaped and modified to accept a real Speedster windshield frame and glass, a fairly difficult task by itself. The rear was something else again, notes Sikes. “Dink had to fabricate an entirely new panel, changing the entire slope and angle so it would accept a real Speedster top and associated folding bows. That was very difficult because of the numerous compound curves. It’s tough to get all the angles right, but he did it, spending many hours with his body dollies and English wheel. He found a perfect 1965 Cabriolet twin-grille engine lid at Gary Emory’s Parts Obsolete in McMinnville, Oregon. Using Dink’s ideas and a few of mine, he got it done. He’s an artist with metal."

At this point, you’ll have surely noted, the project had moved well past the good-enough-for-a-vintage-race-car stage, where making a real Speedster soft top and windshield fit correctly is not a requirement. “When I saw what a great job Dink had done on the dash, front cowl and the rear deck,” continues Sikes, “we decided this was just too cool and good to be a race car…,” so the project shifted direction. Farmer’s penchant for interesting little custom details began to take hold. Those touches included his extending both the front and rear body valances—lending a certain Spyder flavor—reshaping the door and rocker panel contours, divesting the front trunk lid of its chrome spear and handle—again a bit of Spyder-like influence—unrolling all four wheel well lips for a bit more clearance, crafting new air intakes in the nose for an oil cooler, and adding some small vents on the rockers to help feed cool air to the rear brakes. He kept the T6’s original cowling air vent, but removed the windshield wiper assemblies and filled the holes in front of the windshield. Months of metalwork complete, Farmer rolled the new body shell into his spray booth and applied several coats of Diamond Silver Metallic (code L97A), Sikes’ favorite Porsche color, and one which also adorns Sikes’ 356 coupe and early 911.

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Replica Spyder seats with tilting and sliding seat frames came from Jess Rodriguez at FiberSteel in Southern California. The new dashboard contains a set of gauges from an early 912, which were sent out to Palo Alto Speedometer for restoration. Jose Vegas, one of Farmer’s employees, installed the tasteful interior carpet, upholstery, and trim pieces supplied by Autos International. A custom rollbar provides a welcome sense of protection.

Mechanically, everything was replaced or rebuilt. Unfastening the pair of Carrera RS-style rubber hold-downs on the rear lid, we find a very neat engine compartment. The motor, which was taken from Sike’s old 356 vintage race car, is based on a 912 case, carrying a balanced “C” crank with Carrillo connecting rods, a fairly bullet-proof combination. The engine was massaged by Alan Klinger at The Stable, a well-known Porsche prep shop in San Francisco. There, it received a “de-tuning” to run on pump gas, as Sikes describes it, although Klinger prefers to say, “It was built to a certain specification.”

The race motor was the class-legal 1600cc, relates Sikes, and produced about 125 horsepower on Klinger’s dyno. “The motor’s 12.5:1 compression was fine for track use but too hot for the street, so we installed a 1720cc big-bore kit with lower compression J & E pistons and a milder Elgin cam that we got from Vic Skirmants at 356 Enterprises. That gave us the about the same power in a much more useable range.”

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Klinger added the usual internal mods to ensure longevity, such as piston squirters to help keep the moving innards cool. He mounted a pair of 40mm Dell’Orto twin-choke downdraft carbs, which he prefers to Webers for street use. The cylinder heads received some improvement, including 40mm Super 90 intake valves. The new drivetrain includes a lightened flywheel and stock 200mm SC clutch package ahead of a rebuilt 741 gearbox. Klinger says the racing clutch that came out of the car was fine for the track but was simply too grabby to make street driving a pleasant experience.

There’s a large external oil cooler mounted in the nose, plus additional filtering. Sikes lent a hand with some of the engine detailing, fabricating a pair of rain shields to keep water out of the carburetor stacks. Pegasus Racing supplied the neat racing oil breather and catch container. A custom fuel cell from FuelSafe lives inside the stock 356 gas tank. “They cut the old tank in half,” says Sikes, “cleaned it and powder coated it, then mounted the new cell inside and closed it up—a really neat set-up!” The exhaust system, relates Sikes, is a Swiss-made stainless-steel replica of the factory’s four-into-two-into-one racing extractor usually seen on 550s and Carreras.

Underneath the elegantly formed nose with its race-car towing eye, we find a late 356 C front suspension with reinforced trailing arms. Farmer installed new Koni Classic shock absorbers all around. There’s a Weltmeister 19mm sway bar in front, but he decided against a transverse camber spring at the other end. “We cut the transaxle hoop about 1.5 inches, allowing us to lower the rear (raise the engine) and keep the axles level with about two degrees of negative camber. With that no camber compensator is needed. Brakes are stock 356 C calipers and discs at all four corners. A wrecking yard supplied the 6 × 15 spare tire rims that used to live beneath the rear trunk carpet of 944s. Sikes had them anodized silver and mounted them with longer studs and 205/55 tires, plenty of rubber for a car this size and weight.

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With the fabric top, bows, and side curtains stored somewhere safe (Hey, this is sunny California; nobody puts up a Speedster top here!), it should be simple to just open the driver’s-side door and slip into the deep bucket seats…but your six-foot-plus author finds it a bit of a challenge, due to the limited clearance between the high edge of the bucket and bottom of the handsome modern Nardi wood-rimmed steering wheel. Once seated, though, it’s well worth the effort; everything feels second nature and very comfy. The bucket easily adjusts fore and aft to allow a comfortable reach to the wheel, and the pedal cluster is just the right distance away.

After latching the competition lap belt (there’s also a set of shoulder harnesses, but we didn’t use them), I twist the ignition key at the far left edge of the instrument panel, and with a quick stab at the gas pedal, the engine roars to life. There’s nothing subtle about this puppy. The racing extractor’s expansion chambers may help mitigate the raspy exhaust note by a few decibels, but I’m thinking that a set of earplugs might be in order if I was planning a higher-speed cross-country jaunt.

“Still,” laughs Sikes, “that’s one of the things I most enjoyed about the car, the way it sounds. I often awakened my neighbors in Orinda when I fired it up in the morning.” No question that it turns heads when it passes by, but a light touch on the right-hand pedal keeps the racket in check.

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But that’s beside the point—this little machine is an absolute blast to drive. The long shift lever slips easily into first, thanks to all-new bushings in the linkage, and after releasing the under-dash handbrake, I add some revs, carefully ease in the clutch, and the car moves out with purpose. The first few miles are used to warm things up, get a feel for the steering (very direct), the brakes (ditto), and very firm suspension, which delivers a ride that is direct yet supple and that’s well within expectations for a car of this sort. Best/worst of all is the wind in the face feeling, since the low Speedster windshield does little in the way of protecting taller occupants from the airstream as the speedo needle moves higher.

So, sunglasses firmly in place and all the temperatures and pressures up to normal, it’s time to squeeze the “go” pedal with my right foot. Hooah! This little roller skate is a toss-and-catch-it toy that loves to be driven hard, especially on lightly travelled back roads. It quickly has its driver laughing aloud. Loud? Well, yes, as mentioned, it’s a mite loud, but it’s the sort of exhaust pipe symphony we all can enjoy. A quick stab at the brakes approaching a right-hand sweeper shifts some weight to the nose and lightens the rear, and then a quick drop from third to second to keep the revs up, a bit of turn-in to rotate the car gently and predictably, and a smooth and steady application of throttle all combine to reward the pilot. The fat radial tires ruffle the grass at the pavement edge and the chassis drifts happily around.

Since I’m on a public road and the car belongs to someone else, I don’t try to find the point where the tail tries to take over, but the car’s limits are obviously pretty high even on DOT rubber. The occupant of the driver’s seat is wearing a silly grin as he returns the car to Farmer’s driveway. Weighing in at a hair more than 1800 lb in street trim, this old C would have been a great little racer with another hundred-plus pounds or so of interior and trim amenities shaved off—but I have to agree with the owner: It’s too nice a ride to put on a race track.

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Sikes tells us that soon after the car was completed in 2006, he drove it down to the annual North/South 356 meet in San Luis Obispo, where it immediately drew a crowd, and the knowledgeable quickly discerned that this was no ordinary ragtop. Farmer’s workmanship drew wide admiration from judges and spectators alike. Certainly a different way to go topless, they agreed, awarding the car Best-in-Class honors for the day.

Shortly after our little road test, a couple of Walt’s Porsche buddies arrived from the Bay area to drop another car off for Dink’s attention, and drive Walt’s car home, a trip of just over a hundred miles. The guys were grinning from ear to ear in anticipation, knowing that a very enjoyable day was in store.

Sikes didn’t get the open 356 race car he first envisioned, but in its place he did get an extremely well-designed, well-built, and hugely entertaining open Porsche 356 that even the factory would have liked. Chicago-area exotic car dealer and vintage Porsche collector John Weinberger certainly did; he snapped up the little car when Sikes offered it for sale a couple of years ago. Proving that the old ex-coupe was still a long-distance runner, he and his wife entered it in the 2010 California Mille. The only thing he needed to do in preparation was modify the fabric roof.

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“I had a trim shop in Costa Mesa make a new header and add a really cool matching latch to the middle; now you can drive it in the rain…and it did rain on the Mille!” Apparently the lack of wipers wasn’t an issue for Weinberger, who declared “Everyone loved the car…in fact, five people wanted to buy it, and I had to say ‘No!’ Top down most of the time…a great driving car….like it was glued to the road!” The Mille under its belt, Weinberger took the T6 home to Illinois, where it fits neatly into his garage with a pair of 1958 ’tubs; a real Speedster and a sunroof coupe.

So what are we to make of this former Reutter coupe, now drastically altered? One positive is that another old wrecked 356 has been given a new lease on life in the hands of an appreciative owner, rather than just moldering away in a junk pile. Another is that we can see what an imaginative and talented metalsmith can do with a blank permission slip. Customizing an automobile to satisfy one’s own personal taste or temperament is nothing new; the first guy to slap red paint on an “any color as long as it’s black” Model T Ford surely fell into that category of non-conformity, and when that long-ago individual got

rid of the hood, fenders, and other

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body parts to create a new—wait for it—“Speedster”—the theme was duly established. We suspect that this one is going to see a lot more rapid miles before it passes to yet another appreciative owner.

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