Have you ever looked at a vintage car and thought about everything it has gone through? It happens to me all of the time. What’s interesting is a car’s sub-layer that makes its history unique; the good times, the bad times, the tickets, the close calls, the 100-mph drive through the desert on a warm evening, or the panicked drive to the hospital for the birth of a child. Part of the allure of owning a vintage car is learning about its history while adding to the fabric of its existence. When I see certain vehicles, I wish a button on the side would replay a minute highlight reel of its history on the windshield. There are often surprises if you take the time to look.
But there’s a difference between an “old” car and a “vintage” car. The primary difference, in my estimation, is that people loathe old cars but cherish vintage cars. Vintage cars are the ones that people dig into their past, document their owners, and research where they lived their lives. Vintage cars tend to be higher in value, but those machines also tend to have a personality and an ageless quality.
Most Porsches tend to be coveted vintage cars, and the 356 seems to have a high level of interest despite the broader decline in interest in ’50s and ’60s automobiles. I suspect Porsche’s classics have lasting appeal because they’re attractive, fun to drive, reliable, and practical. This holds true for the 911 as well as the 356. An excellent example is the 356B you see on these pages.
Martin Brauns was an avid Porsche racer who began getting into multi-day road-rally events, such as the Mille Miglia, California Mille, and Colorado Grand. Those events, however, require a vintage car. Initially, Brauns participated in them with his lovely Jaguar XK 140 roadster. For California events, a convertible with a questionable roof is perfectly acceptable since it usually doesn’t rain here from May to October. On the other hand, in Italy and Colorado, the weather is much more unpredictable and the chance of rain is relatively high. So, having a closed-roof car became a priority. But, what to get?
Brauns had collaborated on other Porsche projects with Rich Walton at Jerry Woods Enterprises (JWE) in Campbell, California, and he wanted to work with JWE yet again. So a Porsche was the natural choice for the hard-top event car. Considering the Colorado Grand cut-off date of 1960 model year cars, it only made sense to look for a Porsche 356 A or B coupe. Some thought was given to buying a four-cam 356 Carrera, but, in the end, Brauns wanted something that he could regularly use without worrying about an engine that only a handful of people know how to work on, let alone have parts for. This search eventually led to a dealer in Southern California.
Brauns picks up the story here: “I stumbled into this lovely yellow 1960 ‘B’ at a dealer in SoCal. The car had issues: some rust, a completely tired engine and transmission, and more. But when I learned a little bit about its ownership by H. Dana Bowers, that sealed it for me. The man was a legend of California Highway infrastructure in the ’50s and ’60s. He did the early planning work on Highway 280. He worked on most of the notable SoCal freeway interchanges. And he designed and built the Vista Point north of the Golden Gate Bridge (which is named in his honor). The car was in the Bowers family for 45 years, across three generations. However, the Bowers family was not the first owner…that was Bob Gehrig. Bob took European delivery of the car (in Zurich). And I have the original Zurich plates hanging on my garage wall!”
A deal was arranged and the car was shipped north to JWE to find out what they had to work with. In the meantime, Brauns was considering what to name his new-to-him Condor Yellow 356. Every car he owns has a name. “Blackie” is his Jaguar Series 1 E-Type roadster. It’s black-on-black, and yes, it does not have a particularly imaginative nickname. “Millie,” his Jaguar XK140, earned her nickname by completing the 2016 Mille Miglia in Italy. Red is his very nicely-dialed-in long-hood 911 R Gruppe hot rod that’s, you guessed it, Guards Red. Keeping with tradition, Brauns and his wife, Margaret, thought the Condor Yellow Porsche should be named “Connie”.
Now that the name had been decided, Brauns spent time looking through piles of papers and receipts that came with the car. Among the documents was a registration stub from 1960 that listed the car’s first owner, a Mr. Robert Gehrig, from a small town near Sacramento. “Could Mr. Gehrig still be alive?” thought Brauns. How to find him? Brauns took a chance and checked Sacramento County’s online property tax records for the address listed on the stub. The property’s value had never been reassessed. There were also no recorded ownership changes or tax reassessments since the 1950s. Could it be? Did Bob Gehrig still own the home?
Brauns wrote to Gehrig at that address. Sure enough, four days later, Brauns’ phone rang. It was 91-year-old Bob Gehrig. He was thrilled to have gotten his letter and excited to know that his beloved 356 was alive, well, and in caring hands. Brauns and Gehrig bonded over many conversations over many months and became friends. Brauns told him all about his plans for the car’s restoration: the new upgraded “Polo” engine (named for Dean Polopolus, who originated this type of advanced Porsche flat-four), the planned upgrade to disc brakes, and much more.
In turn, Gehrig explained how he’d taken delivery of the car in Zurich and driven her all through Europe in 1960. They compared notes on their own backgrounds, he the son of Swiss emigrants, and Brauns, the son of German emigrants. And they dusted off their rusty German over the phone. Over the course of one conversation, Brauns asked him about something that had been curious. Gehrig clearly loved the car, so why had he sold it more-or-less immediately after the Porsche arrived in California in 1961?
Gehrig explained that he and his wife had been on a waiting list to adopt a child. And when they returned from Europe, they were notified by the adoption agency that a child was available. In fact, they had the opportunity to adopt twin baby girls. Twins! Wonderful. Bob and Colleen Gehrig didn’t hesitate and adopted the girls. So, the small Porsche had to go.
With its past coming into focus for Brauns, Walton and the staff at JWE were busy taking Connie apart. And they confirmed what they already knew. This 356B was an old car with lots of miles, and she wasn’t particularly well maintained in the latter years of her life. The engine and transmission needed rebuilding. In fact, practically every system needed work. The paint was presentable, but JWE would have to disrupt it to repair the effects of rust and old age. It was at this stage they took a step back and looked at the project in its totality.
As Connie was sourced as an event car, Brauns wanted to make sure that she was safe, reliable, fast, and comfortable to drive. Brauns and Walton met to discuss the scope of the project. They talked about the various options and possibilities while preserving the essence of what Connie is: a vintage 1960 356B with a few enhancements. From a 10,000-foot view, those enhancements would be: more power, better handling, and improved chassis dynamics.
The original numbers-matching engine and transmission were removed and placed in storage for safekeeping. As alluded to before, the plan all along was to put a Polo engine in it. That powerplant is essentially a four-cylinder twin-cam 911 engine based on Porsche’s 964/993-gen 3.6-liter air-cooled flat-six. Brauns wanted over 200 hp to make those long mountain climbs more enjoyable on rallies like the Colorado Grand. Walton thought that was easily doable based on his discussions with others that have built similar engines.
The process of assembling the flat-four into something that would be reliable, let alone bolt together, is worthy of its own article. Suffice to say, JWE worked through all of the issues to create an engine that Porsche would be proud to call its own. The finished product is virtually a work of art with a modern flare. There is detailing everywhere you look. For example, the engine tin that JWE fabricated perfectly fills the void between the engine and the chassis. It looks as though the factory produced it, as it has all the right bends and creases.
Having seen this car throughout the build, I can tell you that no stone was left unturned. The bits of rust were cut out and replaced and body filler was removed. What initially looked like some light paint touch-up turned into a complete respray. While the body was being addressed, some subtle tweaks were made.
As it was going to be an event car, a full-size spare was a necessity. However, the larger 15 × 6-inch wheel and tire won’t fit in the trunk of a 356. Ray, the talented fabricator and painter at JWE, modified the back of the spare tire area to allow a more shallow angle resulting in room for a full-size tire and tools. It was also decided to delete the trim and bumper overriders and add a louvered deck lid and modified muffler skirt to give it a more purposeful look. Underneath the front hood, you’ll spot some lightening holes added to the hinges and frame of the hood. Since it’s a matching numbers car, however, everything can easily be put back to OE if that becomes important to Brauns or the next owner in the future.
The next time I saw the car a few months later, it was on a lift looking pristine and ready for its engine and suspension. The interior was nicely trimmed with sound deadening, new carpet, seals, and hardware. On the front are some period-correct Marchal driving lights to help those early morning starts. Hundreds of hours—probably more by the looks of it—were spent assembling Connie back to her former glory. The underside looks new as every bolt, line, and hose is brand new or reconditioned to like new.
A couple more weeks went by before Connie was back on the ground, ready for her new start. After the car was completed, Walton kept it for a couple of weeks. He drove it every day, making sure to catch the inevitable issues that come up in a fresh build. He also kept a punch list of to-dos as he went. With each day, that list got shorter and shorter, a testament to the build quality and attention to detail that went into the engineering and assembly of Connie. Once the punch list was whittled down, we began talking about a test drive through the coastal hills of Northern California.
Pulling up to the agreed-upon meeting site, sitting in the morning light, the newly restored 356 looks petite and perfect. Condor Yellow is a color that has gone in and out of favor, but it looks fantastic in person, especially when it’s fresh. Walking around to the back, the GT3-style center dual exhaust pipes provide a clue that Connie may be more athletic than she looks.
Before driving it, Brauns and Walton gave me a tour of the car. The most obvious deviations from stock are the 15 × 6 Boyd Coddington wheels and the Polo engine under the deck lid. Factory 356Bs had drum brakes and wide-spaced bolt pattern steel wheels. With the car upgraded to disc brakes, it needed the larger, more contemporary wheels.
Looking down at the Polo engine through the small deck lid, it looks like something out of Porsche’s Motorsport department. You can clearly see the lack of distributor and coil packs where each spark plug would normally reside, just like in modern Porsches. The two rain housings on top of the throttle bodies were 3-D printed and look perfect. The velocity stacks and throttle linkages look simultaneously period correct and modern, and they are absolutely beautiful!
Getting myself situated in the Corbeau bucket seat, I am reminded how much headroom 356s have. The driving arrangement is very comfortable and familiar. The pedals hinge on the floor, the gauges are positioned in the center of the steering wheel, and the shifter is a comfortable distance away from me and the steering wheel. There’s no doubt that 911s were an evolution of this car. I pull the modern retractable three-point seat belt—another practical and nice modern touch sourced from John Wilhoit—across my body and buckle it.
Twisting the ignition key, the 2.5-liter twin-plug flat-four instantly springs to life thanks to modern Motec fuel injection. The sound that Connie makes is the very familiar Porsche flat-four sound. The JWE/Factory GT3-style exhaust and 964 headers (minus two pipes) with heater boxes change the tone a bit, but there’s no mistaking it for what it is. The real difference is how smooth this engine idles and runs, like a 911.
Reaching over and grabbing the shifter, I move the lever over to my left and pull down to engage first gear. Connie now has a WEVO supplied five-speed with a limited-slip differential. The 901 shift pattern, with its dogleg first gear, is my favorite manual shift layout. During spirited driving, one of the most common shifts is the second to third, especially on the road. Having the ability to pull the lever back quickly for the important two to three shift, rather than go across the gate, is safer and quicker.
Ahead is a 70-mile loop through the hills above Palo Alto, out to the ocean, to the north and back. This nice mix of rural roads and highways should give me a good feel for Connie’s personality. I ease out the clutch and am underway.
My first impression after a mile is how quiet and devoid of squeaks and rattles she is. This is a car you could comfortably drive every day if you wanted to. I certainly would. After a handful of miles, a highway on-ramp presents itself as an excellent opportunity to see how athletic Connie really is.
JWE dyno tested the engine at 230 hp and 183 lb-ft of torque. This car weighs in at 2,300 pounds, so I expected it to have more power than grip. As it turns out, however, the power delivery is so nice combined with little torque and modern Pirelli CN 36 tires that acceleration is drama-free. Connie pulls hard and builds power linearly, like a stock 3.6-liter 964. The Condor Yellow 356 gathers speed, but it goes faster than it feels, which is a good thing. Refinement has a way of masking reality. Connie is so refined that—dare I say—you could add more power without detracting from the experience or overpowering the chassis.
Pulling off the highway and heading into the hills leads me to a road I know very well. It’s tight, twisty, and unforgiving. There are several 180-degree corners that are anything but smooth. But, again, Connie feels much more modern than her actual age. The gear exchanges are smooth and precise. The handling and bump compliance are also extremely good thanks to the suspension bits from John Wilhoit and custom Ohlin’s dampers sourced from WEVO.
I became more and more comfortable pushing the car into and out of various corners. Despite nearing the limit, I never experience a loss of traction. The limited-slip diff works well out of tight corners and never experiences any inside wheel spin. At this point, I realize that this 70-mile drive might be too short, as I am having too much fun.
The power has certainly been improved, as has the shifting. The chassis dynamics are excellent—a great combination of sporty, comfortable, light, and agile. However, turning onto a fast two-lane road, I find one area that isn’t as strong as the rest: the brakes. Connie has been upgraded to 356C disc brakes. The “C” brakes either came in the 356 1.6 with a whopping 95 horsepower or the four-cam 356 Carrera with 115 hp. Connie has over 100 more horsepower than the four-cam car, so it’s no surprise that her brakes struggle to keep up. They don’t fade, but they lack strong braking authority. Brauns and Walton agree and have already been at work coming up with a solution. Luckily, brakes are the easiest thing to change relative to all of the other custom work that has been done.
The weather on this drive is pleasantly warm rather than unbearably hot. However, there are a few open sections of road with long climbs. On a four-lane section that snakes over the coastal mountains, I pass cars with ease heading up the mountain as the engine provides all the performance I need with plenty in reserve. With a 230-hp flat-four, I expect the oil temp to climb, but it stays well below the danger zone. That’s because JWE put an oil cooler in each front fender plus the OE cooler on the engine. To handle the extra petroleum, JWE fabricated an oil tank that sits in the right rear fender that can be split open to clean if the need presents itself.
As my loop sadly comes to an end, I have one last chance to run Connie through the gears getting onto the freeway. The on-ramp has an uphill right kink with lots of runway leading up to it. Entering the on-ramp at the top of third gear, I grab fourth and go flat through the kink and up the hill with no drama whatsoever. Connie is a car you can drive hard without any protest or fear of breaking something. She inspires confidence in corners like a modern Porsche.
The only time Connie shows her age is on the freeway at 80+ mph. She moves around a bit as the speeds increase, unlike modern cars that are rock solid at higher speeds due to being aerodynamically optimized for stability and feel efficiency. Then again, Connie probably never had the opportunity to go faster than 80 mph with her original pushrod engine. Now she can exceed her previous top speed, fully loaded, going up the steepest mountain passes without protest. That will come in handy when she visits the Rockies for the Colorado Grand.
It’s a very short list of things I could suggest improving on. In fact, only two things: the brakes, as previously discussed, and the steering wheel. For spirited driving, the metal and wood Moto Lita steering wheel is uncomfortable. The rest of the car feels so modern and refined, yet its steering wheel is a throwback to old and primitive. Also, its diameter is too small, which increases the steering effort, and its grip is cold and uncomfortable. But, it’s not my car and not my choice. And, like the brakes, it can be easily changed.
Remember Connie’s first owner, Bob Gehrig? He sold it after returning from Switzerland because he found out he was now the father of twins? Over the course of their conversations, Gehrig told Brauns the names of his daughters: Heidi and, as unbelievable as it seems, Connie. That was a shock to Brauns. What are the odds? And this was well after the Condor Yellow 356 was named. It was one more data point that Brauns had made the right decision in resurrecting this car.
Sadly, Brauns spoke with Connie (the person, not the car) in March of this year. She called to let Brauns know that his friend Bob had passed away without seeing the rebirth of his once new car. Bob Gehrig lived from 1929 to 2021.
Connie may not have a button on the side to push that replays a documentary clip of her history on the windshield, but she does have an owner that has brought her past into focus through research and conversations, which is the next best thing. Connie is now in a position to easily live and enjoy another 61 years providing memories to whoever interacts with her. Perhaps in 61 years, the technology will finally exist to project its even longer history on the windshield that has experienced so much.