“I love your car—especially that color!” enthuses a spectator looking at this gleaming 1958 Porsche 356A on display at the Hillsborough Concours d’Elegance in Hillsborough, California. “Thank you,” replies the car’s owner, “but this is not the color I wanted or ordered when I purchased it new in 1958.” Bill Disser, this 356’s titleholder, took delivery of his Porsche when it was factory fresh, wrong color and all, and is still driving it enthusiastically nearly sixty years later.
There is No Substitute
Disser was practically always interested in cars and airplanes. He took his first solo flight in an aircraft at the age of 16 in 1946. Graduating from Purdue University in 1954 with a degree in Aeronautical Engineering, he would go on to have a long career in the aerospace industry. After graduating from college, he began working in the aircraft industry starting with Curtis-Wright in the mid-1950s, fostering his appreciation for well-engineered machines. His interest in sports cars prompted a trip down to the Sebring Raceway in Florida in 1954 with some friends to watch the auto races.
It was at Sebring where Disser saw a Porsche for the first time, a 550 Spyder. He was impressed with how well the 550 performed on the track and wanted a Porsche of his own. Porsches in the mid-1950s, however, were hard to find and rather expensive. He located a few used 356 coupes, but they were selling for only a few hundred dollars less than a new one!
Frustrated, Disser then considered purchasing a British sports car, which were very popular at the time. A friend owned an MG roadster, but as Disser remembers it, “He would drive it few days during the week and then wrench on it every weekend. That’s not for me. I want to drive my car every day.”
By 1958, Disser was 28 years old, living in Towson, Maryland, and in possession of enough savings to buy a new 356, so he headed to British Motors, a foreign car dealer, in Baltimore. British Motors—as you’d guess—primarily sold British cars and had no Porsches in stock. But Disser knew what he wanted, so in April 1958, he ordered a 1958 Porsche 356A 1600 coupe finished in Metallic Silver. The price was $3,665 ($31,369 in current dollars), and the dealer told him it would take about ten weeks to arrive from Germany.
By that point Disser’s then-current car, a 1941 Chrysler Highlander, was getting tired, so he was eager to take delivery of his new machine. He waited anxiously for his state-of-the-art, silver German dream machine to arrive. Ten weeks later, in June of 1958, the salesman from British Motors called him with some good news…and some bad news.
The good news was that Disser’s car had arrived. The bad news was that it was painted light blue, not silver. So, British Motors offered to order another car for him. “I told the dealer that I didn’t care what color it was, I’ll take it!” recalls Disser. “After all that time, I wasn’t about to wait for another car!” There was also one more important detail.
The car was not in Baltimore, but in New York City at the importing dealer, Max Hoffman Motors. British Motors told Disser this was no problem. Since they only sold a handful of Porsches a year, they had someone that they’d paid $25, plus a train ticket and gas money to go to New York and drive the car back to Maryland. Disser’s reply was: “No way!” The dealer told him that customers were not allowed pick up their own cars, but Disser persisted. The dealer caved in and said OK, but on the condition that Disser would not tell anyone at Hoffman’s he was, in fact, the car’s owner.
When Disser arrived at Max Hoffman Motors on 96th Street in Manhattan, he finally got to see his 356. It was Meissen Blue with red leather seats. There were four miles on the odometer, and the car still had Cosmoline corrosion inhibitor on some of the chrome parts. The people at the dealership pointed out a very small crease on the top of the right fender, but Disser elected not to have it removed.
“They did not know I was the owner,” remembers Disser with a smile. “They said, ‘Don’t tell the owner about the crease.’ So I said ‘OK’ and took off with the car back to Maryland.
This was Disser’s first time behind the wheel of a Porsche, as he had never driven one, not even on a test drive. “At first, I was really disappointed with the handling,” he says. “I expected it to corner so much better. Then I checked the tire pressure. They were at about 25 psi each. So I pumped them up to the limit and a little beyond, and it changed everything. Then the car handled great.”
It’s a Keeper
Once it was home in Maryland, Disser’s new Porsche did not receive much in the way of pampering, as it was immediately put to use as his everyday car. Then, less than a month after taking delivery, Disser and his wife were off on an extended test-drive, all the way across the United States and into western Canada. As they drove across the continent, people were curious and fascinated with the futuristic-looking car. They were even more surprised when they saw Disser’s 6-foot-3-inch frame emerge from the small car. Most people, especially in rural areas, had never seen a Porsche before.
“Every time we stopped for gas someone would want to ask questions and talk to us about the car,” Disser explains. “My wife was rather tall as well. They just could not get over the fact that we both fit in that strange little car and drove it all the way the across the country. But we did not have to stop a lot for fuel. We got around 35 mpg on the open road. At the princely sum of 20 cents per gallon, we could drive across a whole state for two dollars! It had a really tall high gear that was made for high speed touring and gas mileage on the Autobahn, but it did make the car a little slow in acceleration.”
On the return trip, the engine “blew up” in a place called Happy’s Tavern, Montana. The 356 was towed to Kalispell, Montana, where the engine was rebuilt under warranty by a recent German émigré employed by Glacier Motors, at the local Volkswagen dealership.
“This German mechanic told everyone at the dealership to back off, and that he was the only person in Montana qualified to work on a Porsche,” says Disser. “They gave us an old Buick to drive around in while the car was being fixed. Every day or so a plane would land at the local airport with a part from either the East Coast or the West Coast where there were Porsche parts available.”
After a week, the couple was back on the road and made it safely back to Baltimore. After the warranty expired, Disser performed all the routine maintenance such as fluid changes, tune-ups, and minor repairs by himself, and kept a record. Finding good repair shops and mechanics was a real challenge due to the fact Disser kept moving around the country to pursue different contracts in the aerospace industry. It did require what Disser describes as an “upper section” (heads, valves, cylinders, and pistons) rebuild in 1960 in Denver.
“We drove the car all over the place!” Disser says, “We took it to the 1960 Olympic Games in Squaw Valley, (California). The car did really good in the snow, but I ran over a big chunk of snow in the middle of the road that turned out to be a rock! I heard a big bang, and it popped out of gear. I thought for sure I broke the transmission, but I just put it back in gear and kept on driving.” Later he discovered that one of the cooling fins on the engine case was chipped away as a result of the impact. It is still there to this day, left as a memory of that trip.
By this time Disser had relocated to Santa Maria, California, and had a minor accident that required the repainting of the front half of the 356. A paint shop in San Luis Obispo refinished the hood and fenders with a lacquer to match the rest of the original paint on the car. Five years later, back in Baltimore, the repainted front section had changed color and no longer matched the rest of the car, so the decision was made to repaint the entire car in the original color.
Now would have been the time to paint the car silver, the color Disser originally ordered, but he had come to like the light blue, so it was retained. The chrome was freshened up at the same time. The front bumper had been repainted several times before due to road-rash, chipping and cracking. Disser solved the problem by having both bumpers stripped and chromed. The clear glass ‘beehive’ front turn signal lenses were replaced with amber 356B lenses at that time as well.
Disser kept driving the Porsche every day, but by 1968 its odometer read 150,000 miles, and its engine was getting tired. The engine was rebuilt and upgraded to 1600 Super specifications by Lee Rapp, a friend that worked at Lockheed, in Sunnyvale, California. In 1970, Disser had the driver’s side seat rebuilt and both seats recovered with seat covers purchased directly from Porsche. The dash pad and carpet were redone at the same time.
The following year Disser had the original 356A transmission replaced with one out of a 356C. This gave the car more acceleration but reduced the top speed. The tradeoff was worth it, as Disser really does not drive the car at 100 mph living on the traffic-congested San Francisco peninsula. “Early on I discovered it can get a little squirrely at around 105 mph,” says Disser. “Back then (in the early 1960s) there was no one, I mean like no one on the road in the Nevada desert, so I was able to cross the state averaging 88 mph.”
Now the Porsche was looking and running great. The fun lasted for about a year when in February 1972, Disser was forced off the road near Copperopolis, California. The car sustained damage to the right fender, front bumper, and related parts. The right side suspension was also damaged, and the transmission case was broken as well. Fortunately, no one was hurt in the accident. The car was broken, but after 187,000 miles behind the wheel, Disser’s will to keep driving his 356A Porsche was not.
As repairs began on the car and the suspension was apart, it was decided that now was a good time to upgrade the brakes. The original drum brakes had been somewhat problematic over the years. The solution was a conversion to 356C disc brakes. In April 1972, a used front and rear 356C brake, axle, spindle, and suspension set were sourced from California Imports in Garden Grove, California for $400 complete. Over the next two years, Disser and Clark Anderson of Garretson Enterprises converted the original 356A drum brakes to the newly acquired 356C disc brakes.
After inspecting the transmission, all the internal components of the gearbox where unharmed, just the case was damaged. Dick Osgood changed all the gears from the old broken case to a new 356C transmission case. For another year and a half, the Porsche spent time at Metal Craft of San Leandro, California, where the body work was done, including replacing the damaged parts and stripping and repainting the complete car in the original blue color once again with acrylic lacquer. Finally, in December 1975, after nearly three years, the 356A was on the road once more.
In June 1976, Disser purchased a 1971 911T. The owner of the 911T decided to sell his car to Disser after seeing how well he maintained his 356A, even turning down an offer for more money from someone else, just so the 911T could have a good home and be enjoyed by a true enthusiast. After 195,000 miles, the 356A was retired from everyday service.
The 356A was still used, just not daily as before. In 1986, at 208,000 miles, it went back to a body shop to get a dent out of the roof, and the complete under pan stripped, painted and sealed. Then, in 1989, Disser decided to spruce up the car’s looks and had the right door repainted, and “Speedster” side strip moldings added, as well as a set of aftermarket chrome plated 5.5-inch wheels. The car was looking alright for a driver, but Disser wanted it to look like new again. He and the little blue coupe had been through a lot together. It was now time for a complete and detail-oriented restoration.
The resto work began in September 2001 at Just Carol’s in San Jose, California. The body was stripped to bare metal and properly repaired. The small crease on the fender that was there since new was finally fixed. All the trim, interior, and electrical components were also restored and detailed. The engine and engine compartment were refurbished by Porsche specialist RMG in Sunnyvale, California. The newly restored Porsche was returned to Disser in May 2004, looking better than it did in nearly half a century.
Disser has used the car sparingly since the restoration, but he still enjoys driving his classic Porsche. A member of both the PCA and the 356 Registry, he takes his 356 or his 1971 911T to events frequently. And yes, he is still flying planes as well, currently a 1976 Beechcraft Bonanza. Disser and his 356A have been together for six decades and traveled close to a quarter of a million miles, through good times and bad. Like good friends, the man and the machine have always taken care of one another, and always will.