We finally made it. After nearly three years of hard work, our old lady is finally as fresh as it was in 1964 when it was first registered in the USA. We drove it for around two thousand km on roads close to our Italian office, before going for the first long hard drive.
Here’s the whole story.
When our contributing writer Marco found that chassis in 2014, he soon realized it was still in very healthy conditions. The core was sane, the joints still perfect, the metal sheets connecting front with back and the suspensions mounts were strong. It didn’t look great but we could see a gem under that rust and dust. It was a calculated gamble. We splashed Eighty Thousand Euro for that chassis, knowing it would have been a steep mountain to climb before submitting it to the Classic Cars commission for the ASI Gold Plate, in order to have the so important international certification of originality.
While the chassis went through months of maniacal checking, polishing, refurbishing and treatments, the research for all the original parts started. All the mechanical parts needed to be replaced. We first tested the engine, which at a first sight looked incredibly healthy for its age. We run it on the dyno for a while but despite the first positive check, we realized it was so worn out that it needed a full replacement. Crankshaft, pistons, cylinders, head, valves, springs, coils, oil pump and all the electrical parts were bought new. Porsche Germany still produces most of these parts for the large population of enthusiasts. The engine was completely rebuilt to original specifications without any compromise. All original spare parts were found.
All the interiors needed to be made from scratch. The leather color and specifications were quite strict but we could find the perfect match. Even the color of the stitches threads needed to be the original one. After months of accurate research, we found the exact material and as importantly the right artist to refurbish the seats, the doors panels, the carpets, the dashboard and all the details of the original design specification. We supplied the chassis number to the factory so to receive every detail for the restoration.
A new Nardi 1964 steering wheel was bought, all the commands and levers have been saved from original since they were all in good condition. We opted to save all we could in order to limit the replacement of elements to the minimum possible. As many other we believe in the value of a “maintained” car over a totally restored one. The speedometer and the rev counter have been refurbished and calibrated. All the rubber and plastic gaskets have been replaced. A new ceiling of the convertible part has been installed, as well as the external part and the manual folding mechanism but always using the original parts that we managed to find between Italy, Germany and Austria. We also run a water resistance test, which confirmed the excellent original engineering design and the new material we installed. The whole process took nearly three years, including the new registration and the ASI Certification, as a Gold Level. It has been a fascinating process. To look for every piece, every screw and studying this car in the smallest of the details has made her love more than any car before. We saw her breathless and desperate but we saw the rebirth to a new bright and healthy life.
After the first short runs in the proximity of our Italian office, we thought we could dare a seriously long drive. We needed to test the engine, the carburation, the suspensions and the gearbox. A proper, thorough test to understand the condition of all the parts and of the general structure. I have always loved the mountain roads so I decided we could try the Bernina Pass, a 2,300 Mt above sea level pass that connects Italy with Switzerland. The big elevation gain, the steep roads and the lack of oxygen at altitude could be a strong enough exam. Leaving from Lecco, on the Como Lake, we traveled through Valtellina, a long valley on the Italian side before starting the climb onto the pass.
Right after Tirano we meet the Swiss border and the best part of the drive can start. Scenery quickly changes into higher mountains and wonderful stretches of corners and hairpins. Our old lady is only 1,000 Kg hence despite the only 75 bhp, it climbs with agility, daring some overtaking of slower vehicles. We use mainly 2nd and 3rd gear of the 4 available. The engine responds very well from 1,500 rpm, remaining linear in the power delivery until 4,500 rpm. The lightweight helps greatly. Gearbox responds very well. The lever travel is much bigger than modern vehicles but the gear selection is crisp and precise. It all feels solid. Even the chassis responds extremely well. Steering is excellent and the roll is limited so corner entry is svelte and reliable. As a tradition, traction is plenty so we enjoy using the limited power with an early acceleration out of the hairpins. We could continue this dance forever. The old 4 cylinder boxer noise, the emotions of driving a 54 years old icon, the scenery around us, the fresh air and the limited traffic make this day a truly unforgettable experience. We were worried about carburation at altitude but we felt no consequences of the relative lacking of oxygen. The naturally leaner mix didn’t create any problem.
At the peak of the Bernina Pass at 2,330 Mt ASL, we stop for a memorable picture. The 356C has made it easily. Oil pressure and temperature are perfect and there is no sign of fatigue. We can be sure that mechanical restoration has been made at art. From this point on, it’s only downhill, direction Saint Moritz, where we planned our lunch. This Porsche feels like an old princess visiting a very snobbish and posh location after decades of retirement. She acts proudly, noticing that a lot of eyes are turning in admiration at her pass. She has her 15 minutes of fame in the center of Saint Moritz. The old Queen is the subject of interest of many photographers and vintage cars enthusiasts.
The downhill part will test the brakes. With the due care, we drive through Maloja Pass, back towards Chiavenna. The 356C was already originally mounting brake discs on all 4 wheels. As a matter of fact, they work egregiously and never give a sign of fatigue or fading. Braking power is well enough to help maintain a “happy” rhythm through this awesome sequence of corners, tunnels and wilderness scenarios. The drive is surprisingly comfortable, at least in comparison to some vehicles of the same age we have driven in the past. We soon reach the Como Lake, on the right leg, in direction of Lecco, the small city from where we started.
The value of this vehicle is not merely historical for us. Cars of this age bring us back to the basics. No electronics, no gimmicks and even no radio are disturbing the total immersion in the experience of the mother of many modern vehicles. If we only dare to compare this 356 C to a modern 911, we’d think that 50 years are not enough to justify the incredible development but we like to think that at least the philosophy hasn’t changed much.