Lasting Appeal

This 356A Speedster is a fine example of a tastefully hot-rodded classic.

Photo: Lasting Appeal 1
January 20, 2022

With the pristine 1958 356 Speedster juxtaposed against a 1950s-era hotel in the bright mid-morning San Diego light, it’s easy to see that North American Porsche importer Max Hoffman was on to something pretty special when he envisioned the sleek, no-frills model back in the early 1950s. It was Hoffman who convinced Porsche that a road-going, less expensive version of the competition-bred 356 America Roadster would be an easy sell to enthusiasts in the coastal areas of the U.S. And it turned out he was right. Over its production run from 1954 through 1958, Porsche produced around 4,000 Speedsters, an impressive number considering its niche appeal.

The Speedster’s clean, unfettered styling is a perfectly distilled representation of the Porsche brand. When it became available for purchase in 1954, the Speedster could be had for just under $3,000, or roughly $31,000 in 2022 dollars after adjusting for inflation. With a bare minimum of necessary elements, the cost cutting model featured a chopped windshield that was easily removed for competition use, a lightweight soft top, and side curtains in place of heavier and more complex roll-up windows.

The result was not only one of the least expensive road-going Porsches available, but also one of the best performing ones. Despite their roots as Porsches ostensibly aimed at the budget-minded, today Speedsters are among the most coveted of 356 models. Two key reasons for that are its classic good looks and purer, no-nonsense driving experience. Regardless of age, those two traits continue to have a wide appeal.

“I have an affinity for ’50s and ’60s cars,” says 37-year-old Alex Singer, the owner of the Aquamarine Non-Metallic-hued Speedster you see here. “Everything I really like is from that era. I guess I was born in the wrong decade.”

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Growing up in Southern California, Singer spent a lot of time strapped in the back of his dad’s 1985 911 Carrera 3.2. When he was old enough for his hands to reach the steering wheels and his feet to reach the pedals (but not yet old enough for him to get a driver’s license), his dad let him drive the 911. That may have been a risky decision on this father’s part; but the young Singer lived to tell the tale of piloting the rear-engine sports car.

When he was 13, he and his dad restored a classic Mini Cooper that he still has and drives regularly. But when it came to Porsches, his dad was a 911 guy.

“He always told me, ‘You don’t want an old VW 356, you need a 911,’” relates Singer. That changed in 2002, though, when he convinced his dad to buy a 356A coupe. “They were cheap and affordable, so we bought it cheap and sold it cheap.”

Years later, Singer ended up buying the first 356 of his own, a black coupe that had been modified in the style of an “Outlaw” 356, with deleted bumpers, a larger engine, and 944 Turbo brakes. “It was a good way into a 356,” he says of the coupe, which he still has.

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Not long after that, Singer ended up purchasing a far nicer, fully restored 1959 356A coupe. He figured he would hold on to it for a long time.

“It was a great driver,” he says. “Driving a restored but original spec car is so nice because it’s engineered right and just does everything right. It’s not too fast and has enough braking. It’s just fun to drive.”

After showing that Porsche at a car show in Huntington Beach, California, someone approached him about buying it. It took a few weeks of hounding Alex, but the potential buyer kept on offering more and more money for, eventually convincing him to sell it.

“It would have been silly not to sell it,” says Singer. “I thought to myself, ‘Well, I’ll just find something else.’ So I put that money aside and decided to find myself a Speedster.”

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A good friend of his, Pascal Gaia, is a fellow 356 fan and, more specifically, a Speedster devotee who owns a pair of 1958s. Gaia convinced Singer that the best year to get were the cars produced in 1958, which was the final model year of Speedster production. Gaia told Singer the ’58 Speedster was the most refined, got a lot of upgrades relative to the early cars, and that they drive a lot better.

Singer put the word out that he was hunting for the right car. He looked at a few, but the right one didn’t come along until he got a call from his now sadly deceased friend Jeff Trask, who was a sales associate at European Collectibles in Costa Mesa, California. He told Singer to get over to the classic car dealership as quick as possible to look at a new acquisition that had just come in.

Trask described the Speedster as a solid driver with a somewhat famous pedigree because actor James Darren was a previous owner. Darren played the lead character Moondoggie in the 1959 film Gidget and went on to fame on the popular TV shows T.J. Hooker and Melrose Place in the 1980s and ’90s. The actor had the car restored in the 1970s, used it for a few years, and then parked it in his garage.

After seeing the Speedster in person and driving it, Singer decided it was a fine replacement for the restored coupe he had just sold and agreed to buy it from European Collectibles, albeit with a few caveats. While it was mechanically strong, it was a little rough around the edges and had a few incorrect modifications, like disc brakes instead of the original drums as well as an incorrect transmission.

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“It had been painted with lacquer paint in the ’70s, and was just a cool, worn driver,” recalls Singer. “Part of the deal was that they would strip the underside, metal finish the original sheet metal floors and undercoat the entire car.” In addition, European Collectibles agreed to restore the Porsche’s suspension and brakes as well as rebuild and install the correct four-speed transmission.

“I drove it like that for a few years,” Singer adds. “I would drive to L.A. for the day and would have no problem putting 400 miles on the car.” At some point, though, the engine was feeling a little tired and making some unhealthy noises, so he pulled it into the garage and, with the car supported on a set of jack stands, pulled the engine out himself. The flat-four was then delivered to Sergio Bartolini in National City, California, for a rebuild.

Rather than rebuild it to stock specifications, Singer decided to get some more power from the engine. He loved driving it as often as possible and figured the added performance certainly wouldn’t hurt, if not encourage even more use of the car. To that end, Bartolini rebuilt the original 60-horsepower, 1,600-cc flat-four with larger pistons and cylinders that enlarged the displacement to 1,720-cc using an LN Engineering big-bore kit. More aggressive camshafts were installed to increase power and allow the engine to rev higher and quicker. Bartolini also did a little head work with bigger valves.

With the engine rebuild complete, Singer continued driving it for a few years with the silver paint and black interior. Eventually, he disassembled the car so it could be restored to its factory color, which is the stunning, non-metallic Aquamarine it currently wears. He enlisted his dad to help him disassemble the car in his garage.

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“We stripped the car down to a roller but left the engine in it and then I drove it to the paint shop,” Singer adds with a chuckle. Shane East of East Body in Orange, California, was enlisted to repaint the car in its original shade.

While the 356 was at the body shop, Singer and his dad painstakingly hand polished all the original exterior trim strips, door handles, and every piece of chrome on the car.

“One of the best things about this car is that it doesn’t have any aftermarket parts,” says Singer. “It’s all original factory parts. All the bumper guards, door handles, and other trim have been with the car its whole life. Some parts show a little age, which is fine because I didn’t want a perfect car.”

When the Speedster returned with a fresh coat of paint, Singer and his dad then spent several weeks carefully

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reinstalling the trim, a daunting task thanks to how easy it is to scratch or mar fresh paint during this critical part of the restoration.

With the Speedster’s exterior reassembled, Singer turned it over to Thomas’ Auto Trim in San Diego for an interior refresh. As Singer puts it, the shop is his “secret weapon when it comes to interior work. He does a lot of vintage Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and 356s and really knows how all the stitching and pleating and carpeting are supposed to be.”

According to his research, Singer discovered that when customers ordered an Aquamarine 356, they had two interior color choices: beige or red.

“It turns out my car was born with beige, but since it’s not a numbers matching car, and it’s my car and I didn’t really see myself with the beige, I decided to go with red with oatmeal carpeting,” he explains. Another concession to originality was the use of leather where the factory had used vinyl.

“Everything is original except for the knobs on the dash, since the original knobs were pretty worn,” says Singer.

Another change to the interior was the use of replica aluminum 356 Carrera seat frames in place of the original wooden seat frames standard Speedsters came with. Singer has also upgraded the original steel wheels with a set of 15 × 5-inch Tecnomagnesio alloy wheels that wear Pirelli Cinturatos.

Swinging open the door to the Speedster allows me to drop a short distance into the low-slung seat. A twist of the key and couple of stabs at the gas pedal brings the 1,720-cc engine to life with the unmistakable thrum of a four-cylinder, air-cooled Porsche engine—a smooth whir combined with a somewhat raucous exhaust note.

Once underway, the Speedster’s controls are light and easy to manage. The large, thin-rimmed steering wheel feels great in my palms as I guide the Porsche around bends. Typically, a 356’s four-speed gearbox isn’t exactly the most precise, requiring some diligence as I guide the thin shift lever and petite shift knob up and down through the gears. When I give an aggressive dose of gas, though, the Speedster snaps to attention, the bigger engine propelling it forward with an enthusiastic nature.

It’s not fast, but it has enough power to keep up with modern traffic. Likewise, cornering limits aren’t high and the brakes are merely adequate. But what Speedsters (and 356s in general) may lack in outright performance, they more than make up for with a magical driving experience that has to be experienced to be believed. Though it may be the result of a certain type of reductive philosophy, the overall experience of the car adds up to far more than the sum of its parts.

“I love my Outlaw coupe,” says Singer. “But a stock car is my preferred driving experience. I drive it a lot. I take it to events all over Southern California and am not afraid to jump in it and drive it 300-400 miles in a day. These cars were built to be driven.”

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