Great Escape

A ’66 911 that has survived against the odds

Photo: Great Escape 1
May 15, 2014

If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that you can’t make this stuff up.

It was the 1940s when William D. Arnett first served in the U.S. Army’s Pacific military campaign during World War II. The skills he learned led him to become an aeronautical engineer at Lockheed’s Sunnyvale, California missile factory fifteen years later. Being somewhat worldly and a methodical perfectionist, Arnett was already a fan of the “excellence was expected” Porsche marque.

Arnett’s first Porsche was a 1959 356 Cabriolet. Then, in 1963, he and his wife took delivery of a new Slate Gray/Red 356B Super Coupe in Germany as part of a Porsche Club of America Treffen (meet). Two years later, Arnett was looking to order a 911 in the same color scheme. He began corresponding regularly with a sales manager in Germany named Jochen Peiper. Peiper seemed the perfect gentleman and wrote over eight letters to Arnett. In one of them, dated January 18th, 1966, he stated, “If you want me to do the [test] driving, I’ll gladly render you the service. It’s no labor, though, as driving a 911 is always a pleasure, at least for me.”

Porsche 911 #303744 was custom built for Arnett in February ’66. After test driving the coupe, Peiper warned him that the radio antennae had been installed on the opposite side from where Arnett had ordered it, but this was not a big concern for the engineer. He flew with his wife to Germany, where they took delivery from Peiper. After driving the 911 around Europe for a few weeks, they had it shipped home.

Photo: Great Escape 2

When #303744 showed up on the docks of San Francisco that May, Arnett noted that it had received some salt damage during its overseas journey, even though he had specified that the car be plastic-wrapped to ward off corrosion. This was just a small setback for Arnett, who cleaned off his new ’66 911 and began driving it on a daily basis.

For decades, Arnett traveled back and forth the ten miles between his home in Saratoga and the Lockheed plant. Along the way, he added some unique electrical components to the cabin, including a Bullittline “Beam Eye” automatic headlight dimmer, CB radio, tube amp, Realistic speakers, and Clarion radio.

Everything was mounted without disturbing the interior panels. The complicated electrical alterations were Arnett’s own design, accompanied by his hand-drawn detailed diagrams and schematics. Just like he did in his Slate Gray 356, he fitted the 911 with intermittent windshield wipers.

A never-ending list of instructions show how fastidious Arnett was: “Jack— in side pocket with mini-hydraulic; fuel pump—in trap door compartment with auxiliary heater; windshield wiper—intermittent action is time adjusted by a small knob left of the steering column; carbs—as originally used on 1968 911 L Sportomatic; coils—now on fan housing; and shocks—front Boge, rear Koni.”

Photo: Great Escape 3

Besides being intent on perfecting his own car, Arnett was an ardent admirer of those owned by others. He was a long-time member of the PCA and drove his gray coupe to several gatherings. Included were the 1973 Parade in Monterey, the 1975 Parade in Seattle, and the 1977 Parade in San Diego. Arnett’s nephew, Jim Arnett, traveled with him and drove a very early Blue ’65 911 (#278) he had owned since 1969. In 1987 Jim bought the ’66 911 from his uncle and made several road trips between San Diego and Oregon, where his uncle had moved before passing away in 2002.

In 2010, Jim saw an ad in the PCA San Diego Region’s magazine Windblown Witness placed by Jay Karolyi of San Bernardino, California. Jim called Karolyi and told him he had a Blue ’65 911 for sale. When Karolyi saw the ’66 sitting next to the ’65, he wanted that one. He had fallen in love with the Slate Gray/Red color combination after seeing it at the factory museum, but he would have to wait. After purchasing the Blue ’65, Karolyi partially refurbished it, sold it on eBay, and bought the ’66 coupe from Jim in 2012.

Fortunately, unlike the ’65 car, the 1966-built Porsche was roadworthy and in good overall condition. It had evaded accident damage and was repainted to its original color about ten years earlier. It still had the automatic headlight dimmer, beam eye detector mounted to the rear view mirror, CB radio, homemade tube amp, radio, and speakers. It also came with everything the engineer had placed in storage: the original sisal mats, 4.5×15-inch steel wheels, complete tool kit, sales correspondence, and all the electrical drawings and notations.

It was only after he carefully studied the sales manager’s correspondence that Karolyi put the name of Peiper together with his ’66 911. Once he did, the story of #303744 became a lot more interesting. You see, Karolyi had completed his Masters in Education thesis on WWII Prisoner of War treatment by the German Army…and here’s what he found out.

Photo: Great Escape 4

From 1938 to 1940, Joachim “Jochen” Peiper served as a personal assistant to Adolf Hitler’s Chief of German Police, the infamous Heinrich Himmler. Peiper was ambitious and charming, becoming the youngest commanding colonel of an SS Panzer Regiment at age 28. In 1944, Peiper’s loyal military unit was reportedly involved in the Malmedy Massacre at WWII’s Battle of the Bulge. There, 84 defenseless American POWs were lined up and shot down with machine gun fire on a snowy Belgium field.

After WWII, Peiper was convicted of war crimes at the Dachau Trials and sentenced to death on July 16, 1946. But his sentence was commuted after improper pre-trial procedures were revealed. After serving eleven and a half years in prison, Peiper was released on parole at the end of 1956 contingent on his finding employment.

With the help of a former SS associate, Dr. Albert Prinzing, Peiper was provided a job at Porsche, where he worked at the technical division in Stuttgart. It wasn’t long before the charismatic Peiper was overseeing auto exports to the United States. His wartime criminal conviction prevented him from obtaining a visa, however, and he was unable to fulfill his role as sales manager.

Peiper was dismissed from the factory and took a job at Autohaus Max Moritz during the ’60s, selling cars again to Americans. Caught up in continuing legal pursuits, he eventually relocated to a secluded part of France. There he used the pen name of Rainer Buschmann to write for a German auto magazine. But he could not escape his past. After being recognized by locals at age 61, Peiper’s house was burned down with him inside it on July 14, 1976. No one was ever charged with the crime.

Photo: Great Escape 5

Completely unbeknownst to Arnett, he had acquired his ’66 911 with the help of a war criminal. Once the car was in the Arnett’s hands, he turned out to be the best Porsche steward you could hope for. He treated his 911 as if it were family, making sure it would escape harm under his care.

“William was just like his two brothers,” says Jim Arnett. “He was a good man who was more than just highly educated and skilled. He looked for perfection in all facets of his life. My father Harley was the same way, and his brother Paul served as an electronic wizard for the telephone industry’s early use of microwave towers.”

There are very few early 911s of this vintage that have been treated as well. Here are the numbers: 1,709 Porsche 911s were built for the model year 1966, most were coupes, about 20 percent were Slate Gray with a Red interior, and less than 25 percent of those likely remain on the road. There are maybe one hundred 911s in total that match this car; fewer if you are looking in the U.S.

The numbers become even more important when you consider all the early 911s being modified, repainted non-stock colors, and turned into R, ST, and RS clones. It’s heartening to see one that has eluded this kind of transformation and survived in its original form.

Photo: Great Escape 6

Karolyi is well aware of these statistics. He’s been obsessed with Porsches since his uncle Gary gave him some 911 sales brochures as a pre-teenager. At age 15, he was buying and selling Porsches in North Carolina. He started with a 924 and moved to 911s after obtaining his master’s degree in 2000. The following year, he broke free of the East Coast and moved to the place he really wanted to be: Southern California.

“I immediately embraced the car culture here and purchased a 1971 911 E Targa to let the sunshine in,” Karolyi confirms. “That led to a succession of 911s— from a 1970 911 S with RS-spec 2.7-liter motor, to an ’89 Carrera, to an original paint ’67 911 S coupe. That inspired me to research the earliest edition of the 911.”

When he acquired his ’66 911, Karolyi was informed the engine was not stock. “Sometime in the late ’70s, the original case #903879 was replaced with a ’67 series case #911062,” Jim Arnett reports. “I believe my uncle switched it out because of an imperfection and not a failure. Unfortunately, the original went missing. He rebuilt the replacement 2.0L motor using later E pistons, E cams, and Webers.”

The original engine for the Slate Gray 911 would have been a 901/01 type—one of the last Solex carburetor-fed powerplants to leave the factory. Karolyi would, of course, love to have it reunited with the car, even though he knows that’s now a long shot. The news is not all that bad, however. What Karolyi owns, thanks to the Arnetts, is an authentic unrestored 1966 911, with everything original to the car besides the engine and paint. It even has the original horsehair mat in the front trunk.

Photo: Great Escape 7

Since purchasing his Slate Gray Porsche, Karolyi has gone through the fuel lines, fuel pump, and gas tank. In preparation for touring, he’s rebuilt the Weber carburetors and shod the original 4.5-inch chrome wheels with new 165HR-15 Vredestein Sprint Classic tires. For their fifth wedding anniversary, Karolyi treated his wife to a road trip in the 911 to Santa Barbara.

“She and I took turns driving on the winding roads in the nearby hills, then came back home via the Pacific Coast Highway,” he remembers. “Everything worked great on the car, including the automatic headlight dimmer!”

Karolyi plans to have a set of Solex carbs rebuilt and swapped back in before he drives the car to Monterey for this year’s PCA Parade. It will be a reunion of sorts, 41 years after the Arnetts attended the same event in 1973.

When I test drive this 230,000-mile 911, it’s clearly been a daily driver for decades. The registration stickers are continuous from new, the 2.0-liter motor is a bit reluctant to start, the five-speed 901 transmission is somewhat difficult to engage, the steering is a little sloppy, and the car floats around at speed on its narrow tires. Love it or not, this is what an unrestored ’66 911 feels like.

When it comes to photographing the Slate Gray coupe, if I had my way, I’d take a scene from the movie “The Great Escape” and ask Chad McQueen to jump it over a barbed wire fence. But we will use an equally cinematic, and much safer, desolate dry lake bed as a background instead. As the sun sets, it seems the perfect location for a getaway.

In direct sun, the patina on this early 911 is obvious. There are all the well-earned imperfections of life on the road in sunny California. The paint has swirl marks, the rubber is cracked in places, the seats are worn, and the engine compartment is well used. But I’m continuously struck by the authenticity of this car. The elegant color and stance beg to be left alone. Personally I wouldn’t change a thing.

This is a story that could have happened to anyone. There are probably dozens of Porsches out there originally sold by Peiper. What makes this one special are the series of connections that exist nearly 50 years later. William Arnett dodged bullets serving in the U.S. Army during WW II. Jochen Peiper was a German tank commander, convicted of war crimes against American POWs, after which he wrote for an automotive magazine. Jay Karolyi earned a masters degree with his thesis on POW treatment during WWII.

Me? During WWII my Estonian grandfather was deported to Siberia, my parentless mother was forced into labor at a German hospital, and my American father was taken captive at The Battle of the Bulge. He subsequently starved in a German POW camp within an ounce of his life. I’d say my objectivity as an automotive writer has been thoroughly tested.

Luckily, I can concentrate on a happy ending without becoming sentimental. Everyone in this narrative loved or loves Porsches. They did this to such a degree that it mattered more than almost anything else at one time. And thanks to the care of William Arnett, Jim Arnett, and Jay Karolyi, this Porsche has not only fortuitously survived, but developed a life of its own.

I’m sure #303744 will remain uniquely original with a continuously evolving story to tell. But who really knows what’s in this Porsche’s future? If there’s anything else I’ve learned, it’s that truth is stranger than fiction.

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