The Well-Traveled Tub

1958 356A Speedster

Photo: The Well-Traveled Tub 1
July 4, 2024

There was a time in post-war America when the terms “amateur sports car racing” and “Porsche” were virtually synonymous. They immediately generated the mental picture of a Speedster, and for good reason.  Across the country—particularly on the West Coast—those little 356 “bathtubs” began filling smaller-displacement racing grids, elbowing aside the British cars that helped launch the sport on this side of the pond.

The bare-bones Porsche Speedster was everything an amateur racer could want. It was affordable, light, quick, had excellent handling, was easy to maintain, and was reliable. In the late 1950s and well into the 1960s, an owner could drive their workaday Speedster to a track, tape over the lights, slap on a number, go racing, peel off the tape and numbers, and then drive home again. The Speedster’s design and high-quality construction attracted the attention of many technically oriented enthusiasts, such as engineers and pilots.

This story is about one particular 1958 356A Speedster, chassis number 83932. It wasn’t the fastest or the slowest on the track, but it boasts a special pedigree. The current custodian of this machine is a retired Los Angeles dentist and hugely talented illustrator named Ernie Nagamatsu. He believes it has been raced longer, further, and in more countries than any other 356 Speedster on the planet.

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Kilpatrick (#7) gets a bit tail-happy in a gaggle of E/P Speedsters at Vacaville Raceway, July 6th,1967.

Nagamatsu began club racing with a Formula Ford in the 1980s and then started vintage racing with a 1964 Shelby Cobra. He is probably best known for his long-term ownership of “Old Yeller II”, the legendary Buick-powered backyard special built by his good friends Max and Ina Balchowsky in the 1950s. It was perhaps the greatest home-built sports racer of its day, driven by such notables as Carroll Shelby and Dan Gurney, among others.

He also restored the famed “Double-Zero” Corvette Special, a highly modified lightweight Stingray built by the Balchowskys on an “Old Yeller” tube chassis in the early 1960s for Jim Simpson and raced by the late Dave McDonald.  Nagamatsu is very aware of their roles in American sports car racing history and is determined to keep them all running and in the public eye.

He also knew the history of this Ruby Red 356 in great detail by the time he bought it. It had belonged to the father of his office hygienist, Kathy Kilpatrick Looney. James Kilpatrick was a jet pilot who had retired as a Brigadier General, commanding the California Air National Guard base in Fresno. During his career, Kilpatrick became a dedicated Porschephile and an accomplished amateur racer.  Over his years of club racing, Nagamatsu had become close friends with Jim, his wife Emmy, and Kathy.

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Keeping Carl Moore’s Lotus at bay entering Laguna Seca’s old Turn 9 (now Turn 11), October 15th,1966.

The General’s unexpected death in 1996 was devastating to his family, not only emotionally but financially. Jim had enjoyed a substantial government retirement, and that ended. The Speedster needed a new caretaker, and that’s when the Kilpatrick’s good friend stepped up. To Nagamatsu, the Porsche was ideal: It had a well-documented history and a single owner since 1964. Over some 32 years, the General had piled on more than 55,000 SCCA track miles, making it later, in all likelihood, the most-raced 356 Speedster in the world.

It was too special to hide away; Nagamatsu and his wife Elaine decided to take it on the road and share it with Porsche enthusiasts wherever he could find them. It appeared at the 2020 Coronado Vintage Festival in San Diego, with well-known Porsche racer “Scooter” Patrick behind the wheel as a guest driver. From then on, there was no slowing down, and the Speedster has been a familiar sight at historic races in the U.S., Great Britain, and “Down Under.”  The list is much too extensive to list in detail. Still, we’ll hit some highlights: The 2009 Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion and four Rennsport Reunions in 2011, 2015, 2018, and 2023 at Laguna Seca—the General’s favorite circuit.

Nagamatsu had been taking “Old Yeller II” overseas for many years, and the Speedster joined it in 2010, first to New Zealand, which claims the second highest Porsche ownership per capita in the world. After taking on the Hampton Downs and Pukekohe circuits, he brought home the New Zealand Festival of Motor Racing’s first Bruce McLaren Perpetual Trophy.

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General Kilpatrick waits patiently on the pre-grid.

He would return in 2012 for the New Zealand Porsche Parade at North Island’s Lake Taupo resort and again in 2016 for the Porsche Festival at Hampton Downs, where he was awarded the coveted Dennis Hulme trophy. At Hampton Downs, Nagamatsu gridded last in an all-Porsche Tribute race group loaded with hot early 911s, 944 Turbos, and modern 911 GT3 Cup racers, many with up to 3.8 liters capacity. Although burdened with the smallest engine and certainly the lowest power and top speed in the group, he acquitted himself well.

In 2014, 2016, and 2020, Ernie and the Speedster were invited to the Australian Formula One Grand Prix’s Historic Support Race at Albert Park in Melbourne, where the Speedster won the coveted “Historic Race Award”. Nagamatsu also ran in vintage contests at Phillip Island, Sydney Motorsports Park, and Wakefield.

The Speedster raced at Australia’s Wakefield 25th Anniversary Races November 16-17, 2019. It also ran at the Sydney Motorsports Park Summer Festival Races that year and was invited back to the 2020 Australian Grand Prix Historic Support Race and the Phillip Island Classic. While the 356 Speedster was never sold new in Great Britain, it has many fans on the other side of the Atlantic. In 2014, Ernie took the Speedster, “Old Yeller II”, and his Cobra to England, where they had been accepted for historic races at the Silverstone Classic, Donington Park, Snetterton, and the twisty half-mile hill climb at the Chateau Impney estate that regretfully is no longer in use.

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By then, the 356 needed quite a bit of refurbishment to meet current FIA standards, including a new roll bar and other work. Nagamatsu entrusted a mechanical overhaul to air-cooled specialist Ian Clark at Wolfsburg Performance Services in Woking, Surrey. The suspension and brakes were replaced with correct factory-spec parts, while Sean McClurg upgraded the electrics and filled in at Snetterton.

Back home in 2022, Nagamatsu trailered his elderly Speedster north several times to SOVREN Pacific Northwest vintage races at Kent, Washington, where it was twice named the “Featured Race Car”; he’s also run it at the Nevada Sports Cars races at Reno and as noted was back in Monterey for Rennsport 7 last September.

This 356A left the factory as a 60-horsepower 1600 Normal and had been enjoyed by two other individuals before it came into the General’s hands. We don’t know the name of the first owner—said to be a lady from around Bakersfield, but number two on the provenance chart was Stu Watson, also of Bakersfield, who bought it in late 1962 for $1,500 (about $15,600 in current dollars). The car, he says, was running poorly because it had at least one burned valve.

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“I had been a race fan from an early age,” says Watson. “I recall going to an oval race in Houston in the late ’40s and watching A.J. Foyt drive. I drove up to Eagle Mountain Air Force Base near Fort Worth and to Bergstrom Field in Austin in the early ’50s to watch sports cars like the J2 Allard run. In 1957, I drove solo and non-stop from Houston (24 hours) to see the Sebring 12-Hour race. While in the Army at Fort Knox later in 1957, friends and I went to the Indy 500. Actually, going racing was only made possible by my being able to save money while working overseas from 1959 to ’61. I wanted to know if I could do it.”

Watson and his friend, the late Bruce Smith of Precision Motors in Oildale, prepped the Speedster for racing. The engine was rebuilt with a hot cam and related bits. Bruce installed a limited-slip differential and scrounged up a set of 550 Spyder brakes with wider drums and shoes. The suspension was decambered, and the stock windshield was replaced with a cut-down piece of Plexiglas. The body received a fresh coat of red paint. Then, they hauled the car down to Riverside for a Cal Club Driver’s School. Although Stu only managed to run a few laps of the challenging track, well-known SoCal Porsche driver Alan Johnson made sure he got his license.

Watson’s first race was at Santa Barbara in May of 1963. For the remainder of that season and the next, he ran a handful of Regionals at Riverside, Pomona, Santa Barbara, and Tucson, learning the ropes, usually qualifying and finishing mid-pack in grids populated by many other Speedsters.

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“In my second race at Pomona, I was lapped by the end,” says Watson. He also recalls a race at Tucson when the skies opened overnight. “We took a hacksaw to our Goodyear Blue Streaks and created our own grooved ‘rain’ tires.  We liked those tires because they could be retreaded.”  His best placing was 12th in a Riverside divisional race. But by the mid-1960s, Watson says, professionally-built cars and more talented and deeper-pocketed drivers had entered the sport, and true low-bucks amateurs like him found themselves at a disadvantage.

In 1964, after being shunted hard into the hay bales surrounding the hangars at Santa Barbara airport, Watson realized it was time to put his racing ambitions aside and sell the car. Smith offered to buy him out, but then-Captain Jim Kilpatrick and his friend Bud Hogue put together $1,800 (about $18,200 in today’s money) and bought the car. Kilpatrick had wanted to begin racing, and the price was right.

Kathy Kilpatrick Looney tells us her dad had been hooked on Porsches for many years. With a degree in Civil Engineering, “He loved doing his own work,” she recalls. Over the years, he bought several Porsches to rebuild, drive for a while, and then re-sell.

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Along with a VW Beetle or two that served as family transportation around Fresno, she remembers a Super 90 coupe, a black 1959 Normal coupe that he used for a driver’s school at Cotati, and a few early races. There was also a Super 90 GT that he bought from a professor at Fresno State University. With his growing mechanical skills, he restored that one, and it eventually wound up in the collection of noted Porsche stalwart Tommy Trabue, who became a close friend of the family. The Speedster, however, was always a keeper.

Kilpatrick and Hogue fitted the car with a tow bar so they could pull the Speedster with the family’s support vehicle, a Porsche-powered VW bus. Much to Jim’s dismay, the Speedster’s engine blew in his first race, at Del Mar in 1964, necessitating a rebuild.  From then on, he kept detailed notes on every repair, mechanical update, and track set-up to learn what worked and what didn’t.  He fitted a Smiths eight-grand tach plus a couple of aircraft temperature gauges to better monitor the internals.

The Speedster was still street-licensed, remembers Kathy, and in those pre-dyno days, Jim would work bugs out by buzzing the little car up in the mountains northeast of Fresno. In the event of a mechanical issue at the track, he’d roll up his sleeves and drop the Speedster’s engine if need be to make a necessary repair. Over time, he set up a well-equipped shop in the family’s two-car garage, and the Speedster would often be relegated to outside storage. 

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Ernie Nagamatsu delights in vintage racing his old Speedster.

Eventually, the VW bus was replaced with a roomier Ford Econoline van loaded with every spare part a 356 race car might need, including a complete engine, and now there was a proper trailer for the Speedster. The Ford then gave way to a larger motorhome, which allowed more comfortable long-distance travel over the last five years of Jim’s racing career.  The Kilpatrick’s pit operation gained the nickname “Race Central,” laughs Kathy, telling us her mom usually fed lunch to dozens of Jim’s friends and fellow racers.

Many years later, Stu Watson recalls driving south to attend a race at Riverside with his son, who had moved to the Los Angeles area. In the paddock, he chanced to spot his old racer, now wearing number 7. While it had competed in what Watson says was “nearly stock” form during his ownership, times—and rules interpretation—had changed.

Some 15 years later, Jim Kilpatrick became a regular starter in E-Production races up and down the West Coast, and his Speedster was drastically upgraded.  It now boasted coil-over rear shocks and disc brakes all around. He added more fender clearance for wider rims and rubber by the time-honored “Broom-handle” method.  He fabricated his own tubular rear “Z-bar” to help control body roll and crafted a cool-air duct from the passenger-side headlamp bucket to the engine compartment.

On the track, Jim “was competitive but wouldn’t push it,” says Kathy.  He usually managed to finish near the front in each of his many races and rarely DNF’d. He accrued enough points to qualify for the SCCA Atlanta Runoffs in 1989 and 1990. 

Once, he got in over his head at Riverside, relates Kathy’s husband Randy, who was also a racer at that time. The General misjudged the entry line through Riverside’s fast but very tricky esses and put a wheel off. The car tripped and rolled, coming to rest upside down, with Jim fortunately escaping injury.  He also flipped the car at Phoenix in 1994 when a steering component failed, again walking away bruised but otherwise unscathed. Olsen’s Body Shop in Fresno, California, hammered out the dents, earning a mention on the car’s front fenders. Still, he was having fun doing what he loved.

Then, in August 1996, came a race weekend at Sears Point (now Sonoma Raceway) north of San Francisco.  The Speedster decided it wouldn’t start for a Saturday practice session, remembers Kathy, so her father went back to the motorhome to swap his driving suit for some overalls. Moments later, Jim was struck down by a cerebral hemorrhage.  He never regained consciousness and passed away in a local hospital that evening. He was 71 years old, and as he had often joked, that both he and the car were “older than dirt.”

In the Porsche 356 Registry magazine, Gordon Maltby would write, “On Sunday, the Speedster was taken on a last lap of Sears Point in an emotional tribute to the General. The SCCA San Francisco Region soon afterward retired the number 7.”

Kathy, who had been exposed to racing for most of her life through her dad and her now-husband Randy, had never raced herself, but her dad had wanted to get her behind the wheel. A few months after the General’s passing, Ernie Nagamatsu brought the Speedster to Willow Springs, where Kathy completed a Driver’s School. As Nagamatsu took the car through tech inspection, recalls Kathy, many of the volunteer workers wept openly.

It should be noted that Nagamatsu doesn’t have a “pit crew” in the accepted sense; along with wife, talented “spanner man” Dale Snoke is always around to help ensure that everything is fastened down properly. Eventually, this wonderful Speedster, truly an icon of west-coast small-displacement production sports car racing, will pass into the hands of another enthusiastic owner; we can only hope its colorful history will continue to grow.

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