After a certain length of time, cars can become a part of the family. Like a relative, they are present at family gatherings, there to offer a ride when needed, and fun to take trips with. Sometimes they need care and attention, but they are there for you when needed. For Will Sharron, the owner of this 1959 356 Convertible D, his car is certainly a member of the family. As is often the case, many memories are made when a vehicle transcends generations of family ownership.
In the late 1950s Will Sharron’s father, Bill, was in the U.S. Army, stationed in Garmisch, West Germany. Having recently married, he and his new bride Phyllis were enjoying the beginning their lives together in what seemed to them to be a great adventure in Europe, an ocean away from their home on the Northeastern coast of America.
Like many servicemen stationed in Europe, Will’s father became fascinated with European sports cars, saving up until he was able to buy his dream car: a Porsche 356. Soon he had enough money to place his order, selecting a new red 1958 Speedster. He planned to take delivery at the Porsche factory and drive it around Europe before shipping it back home to the States when he completed his time in the service.
Shortly after placing his order for the Speedster, Bill learned that one of his Army buddies had also ordered a new Speedster. His fellow future Porsche owner, however, was to be sent back home early and was not be able to take delivery of his new Porsche before the factory completed his order. Bill generously offered to let his friend take his car, which would be ready to be picked up in Stuttgart in less than a week.
When his friend took him up on his offer, Bill decided to “upgrade” and put an order in for a new Meissen Blue Convertible D, which had caught his eye. That model (which got the “D” in its name for bodymaker Drauz) replaced the Speedster in the lineup for 1959. He thought that might be an easier sell to his new bride, as the lack of roll-up windows and other amenities on the bare-bones Speedster were probably not a big selling point with her.
The paperwork was done through the local Porsche Dealer in Treviso, Italy at Giovanni Negro (Negro Porsche is still there today) on October 26th, 1958. Shortly after that, Bill went to the Porsche factory where he toured the facilities, picked up his new car, and returned to their cute little apartment in the small town of Cortina d’ Ampezzo (the same town the James Bond movie “For Your Eyes Only” was filmed).
Now stationed at the Air Force base in Aviano, Italy, and being an accomplished skier, he was assigned to the International Ski Patrol. At the time, many servicemen frequented local ski slopes, and an International Ski Patrol was used to ensure their safety. The skiing was even better in Italy than it was in Germany!
For the young couple, the Porsche was their only car, and they still had several months to go before they would be returning home. By now, Bill’s wife was very pregnant with their first child, Will. Bill was on duty on the Ski Patrol when he severely broke a leg skiing. Fortunately, he was with several of his fellow Ski Patrol friends who were able to get him to the U.S. Army hospital in Munich, Germany.
Phyllis’s due date for the baby was within a week, so she had to pack and drive the Porsche to the hospital in Munich as well. That was no easy task for the tiny 5’1” mother to be, requiring her to slide the seat so far forward that her very pregnant stomach was wedged against the steering wheel. I guess you could say this was technically Will’s very first time behind the wheel of a Porsche. It was a family reunion of sorts as Bill was on one floor of the hospital recovering from his skiing accident, while his wife was on another floor giving birth to their first child.
Phyllis’s parents caught the first flight available to Germany to take care of their daughter and their new grandson. They had her and the baby packed up and headed back to Connecticut within a couple of weeks. Soon after, Will’s father was discharged from the hospital and headed back stateside, having packed everything up, including the Porsche, on a boat to make its journey to the U.S.
Once they got organized, the new family packed up and headed west, settling in the San Francisco Bay Area peninsula. Bill wanted to capitalize on one of the main reasons he bought a sports car, which was to do a little weekend racing. He started with some innocent weekend rallies and hill-climbing events, and soon he had a roll bar installed at a local dealer with the hopes of doing more serious track racing. Those hopes came to a screeching halt as his wife reminded him that he was now a father, and she was not going to have him risk life and limb on the weekends racing. After that, the Porsche was pressed into service as the family car.
Being new to the area with a car that was not very common, it was important to locate a good mechanic. Gus Mozart was the local VW/Porsche dealer, and Art Stange had been brought on board in 1956 to run the repair shop. Bill and Art hit it off right away, remaining friends for the rest of their lives.
Stange was an ace with the 356s, traveling to the Nürburgring in 1959 to wrench on a Speedster driven by Amille Pardee and Pete Talbot. There they were the highest finishing non-works car, earning fifth in their class. Stange later went on to open his own shop and was the only mechanic to touch Bill’s Convertible D for some 40 plus years.
In the early ’70s, the Porsche was starting to show some wear and tear. It had been the primary car for the family that now consisted of two boys and a girl. “It is crazy to think about us three kids all in the back of the car, no seat belts hiding under the tonneau cover, being shuttled all over town,” Will recalls.
The engine was now very tired, so it was brought to Stange, who rebuilt it using the tricks of the day. Oversized pistons, a roller bearing crank, a new cam, carburation modifications, and an upgraded exhaust were all employed to give the car a little more punch. Sometime in the early ’70s, the interior was redone by McKennas of Palo Alto. He was a well-regarded craftsman doing work for notable places like the Harrah’s Reno car collection. Around the same time, Bill saw some Empi split-rim wheels that he thought would give the car a unique look. The color, roll bar, and wheels ensured no one would mistake the car for someone else’s 356.
Growing up with the “Porsch”
The car was still being driven daily as the kids were starting to grow up.
“The 356 was very much a part of the family and was always referred to as the ‘Porsch,’” recalls Will. “Everyone knew the car, and, now with four kids, my parents were seemingly in multiple places around town at the same time. Even though my mom did not support my dad racing cars on the weekend, she still had a love for performance cars and proudly drove her 1966 289 GT HiPo four-speed Mustang convertible with an eight-track.”
The 356 was still being driven often, but a new 911 became the daily driver for Bill and, after that, a De Tomaso Pantera. The 911 and Pantera cycled through in a few years, but the Convertible D was never considered a passing craze.
“I was the oldest of the four kids, and it was the 356 that I learned to drive a stick on,” says Will. “It was almost a rite of passage, as there was little discussion on which car I would learn to drive in. The Mustang was there, but it was the Porsche that my dad took me out in and showed me the ropes. I can still remember looking over and seeing him heel-toe double-clutching as we would fly into turns. It looked like a cool maneuver that only race car drivers could execute.”
Will’s brother was the next to be introduced to driving the ‘Porsch.’ As Will recalls it, his dad seemed pretty casual about it when one day he asked him if he wanted to drive the Porsche up to the school. “My brother did not think he even was close to having a learner’s permit,” explains Will, “but he was thrilled to be trusted with piloting the ‘Porsch’ at such a young age.”
Next was Will’s sister, who was introduced to driving the ‘Porsch’ with even less fanfare. She wasn’t even 16 years old yet when their dad figured it was time for her to learn how to drive a stick. While both of them walked out to the car, he climbed in on the passenger side and smiled. Will’s sister felt an equal sense of joy that she was going to drive the car and fear knowing she had no idea of how to do it. She says she made it through the acceleration and upshifting phase, but when it came to downshifting and turning at the same time, she folded and pulled over to the side of the street. Her lessons got a lot easier from there, but she and Will’s brother recall in detail the day their dad trusted them with what was jokingly referred to as his firstborn child.
With only a six-volt electrical system, there was not much extra juice in the battery, and the family got very proficient in bump starting cars. The roll bar was used to hold onto while running alongside and jumping in to pop the clutch. As kids, they proudly regarded bump starting your car to be a cool thing most families didn’t. Despite all the heavy use and the many inexperienced different drivers, the Porsche miraculously was never in an accident or suffered a single on-road dent.
However, that does not mean it didn’t have the occasional bike fall against it or broom drop on it. In fact, a friend of Will’s brother recently saw the car and apologized again for some 40 years prior scratching the hood with the electronic keyboards he had rested on the hood as he set up for a rehearsal with their band in the garage. One of the great things about having such a unique car is the memories it holds not only for the family but also for friends.
As a family, they never left the area, and with four kids, the 356 was always on the road. When asked how many miles it had on it, Will’s dad would say the odometer has turned over a couple of times, but, of course, it was disconnected for a couple of years, so who knows?
When Bill Sharron passed away at too young an age in 1996, Will inherited the car. Will and his wife were just starting out at the time, saving for a home, and thinking of starting a family. At the time, the thought of restoring the Porsche seemed dauntingly complicated to Will. Art Stange had retired in the years before his father’s passing, and the 356 spent more and more time collecting dust in the garage. Will did not really know how to go about getting the car back in shape, so he joined the local 356 club.
“I remember driving the car to the first meeting and, of course, everyone comes over to check out the ‘new’ car,” says Will. “One guy circles the car a few times and walked up to me and said, ‘You bought this car from Bill Sharron.’ I laughed and told him I was his son. He was blown away, as the last time he probably saw me, I was not old enough to drive. He was also a longtime friend of Art Stange and proceeded to share several stories of my dad. It was awesome to hear the memories, as it brought back great feelings.”
Later, while Will was waiting to have a new set of tires installed on the Porsche, the retired owner of the shop happened to be in visiting. He saw the car and asked the guys where the owner was. “He walked up to me and told me he was an old family friend,” recalls Will. “He immediately recognized the car and recited some stories about my parents. So many people have come up to me to comment on the car, almost always conveying a personal story that was anchored around the car. They always start with ‘I remember when your dad…’”
Restoring a Family Heirloom
The folks at the 356 Alta California Chapter Club were so passionate and helpful that Will was not only encouraged but assured he would have no problem starting another “refresh” on the car. Soon after, he learned of a 50th anniversary of the Speedster event in Monterey on June 25-27, 2004. It was a good eight months away, and Will thought there would be plenty of time to do some work and get the car prepared for the big event. He learned a lot about restoring old cars along the way.
“For anyone who has ever done any restoration work on an old car, they realize how clueless I was,” explains Will. “The first step was to get a recommendation of someone who could paint it. My experience in getting a car painted consisted of watching commercials on TV where it looked like it would take a day or two, a week at the most.”
Will got several recommendations to see Mark Maldonado at Mark’s Autobody in San Carlos, California, so he went to see him to find out if he would paint the car. Maldonado was jazzed to see such a clean example of a car (i.e., no dings, dents, or past bodywork). He said for sure he would paint it. Then Will told him he needed it done for the Speedster event, which was now six months away. Maldonado laughed and flat out said, “Sorry, no.” Twenty minutes later, after doing some thinking, he said yes.
“I would go down to the shop most days to watch the progress and help where needed,” says Will. “Mark’s wife, Nancy, who ran the office, would babysit our new daughter and we would squeak out progress as the weeks and months went by. It was two weeks before the Speedster event when the car was finally painted.”
Will had the car towed back home where, over the next several days, he worked well into the nights reassembling the car. His youngest sister, his wife Erika, and her sister all took turns helping him install the gauges, seats, interior, and trim. The engine went in two nights before he was to drive down to Monterey, and he still had yet to get tires on it and complete a considerable punch list. Erika made it clear she had no intention of taking the two-hour drive with him in the car, instead offering to follow behind as a support vehicle, laughingly promising to stop and pick up any pieces that might fall off.
It was in Monterey in the hotel room that night when Will turned and saw his daughter take her first steps. His wife looked at him shaking her head and announced she had been walking the whole week. Will had been so heads down trying to get the car together that he hadn’t even noticed.
The Speedster event turned out to be a great experience, and all the stress of getting the car done on time seemed worth it. The event included a recreated track on the original roads of 17-Mile Drive, laps at Laguna Seca, and having over 350 Speedsters and Convertible Ds lined up in chronological order on the lawn at the Quail Lodge. “It was really something seeing the cars lined up oldest to newest with the convertible Ds being recognized as the last of the Speedster era.” Will reminisced.
The engine in the car, with its aftermarket roller bearing crank, was still the same one that was rebuilt many, many miles ago, and it was ready for another rebuild. At the monthly 356 club breakfasts Will attended, member after member would wince when the roller bearing crank was mentioned. He knew he had to find a new mechanic to take over where the last one had left off. Finding a good 356 mechanic is not always easy, though. Through the wise men of the club, Will was directed to a new mechanic for the car named John Marignac, an old sage who started out in 1964 working for VW and Porsche specialists’ Intercontinental Motors in Daly City. Marignac focused exclusively on air-cooled engines, rebuilding almost one engine a day for 17 years.
“No fax machine, no cell phone, no email, just a desk phone which is rarely answered. It felt like a “Seinfeld” episode where I had to audition to have him rebuild the engine,” Will says. “Finally I got the meeting, passed the audition, was granted a place in line, and was told, ‘Call me in six months.’”
Marignic rebuilt the engine and, just like any great mechanic, pointed out all the things that had been done on the last engine rebuild and how no one would do things like that today. The engine got a big-bore cylinder set, 912 cylinder heads, a Scat crank, its crankcase machined to accept 912 bearings, a Neutek performance camshaft, re-jetted stock carburetors, and a Brusch exhaust. When finished, the now 1.7-liter four could make approximately 85 horsepower.
Today, ‘Porsch’ lives on and is getting ready for yet another generation of drivers. Will’s 16-year-old daughter is ready to take some lessons and asked if she could learn to drive a stick shift.
“The other day, while flying around a corner, she looked over laughing and said that looked like a lot of fancy footwork,” says Will. “I think the heel-toe double-clutching lessons might have to wait, but I can hardly wait to see her drive down the street in the car. The family tradition continues.” One can only imagine how many generations of the Sharron family will drive this great family heirloom Porsche in the future.