A Porsche 356 and the way to Walter Röhrl's heart

18w ago

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After thirty-one years in Australia, Viktor Grahser returned to his native Austria with only his most treasured possessions: one suitcase and three derelict Porsche 356s. He knocked a hole in the wall of his house and pushed one car into his living room, while the other two sat outside in a shipping container, waiting in vain for restoration. Eleven years after Grahser died, the 356 Roadster has finally been restored, and now finds itself in the hands of a distinguished new owner.

Flashback to 1996 and an inn in the village of Klein-Neusiedl, around 25 km southeast of Vienna. The 65-year-old Grahser sits at a table in the far corner, talking excitedly to the son of the inn’s owner, Rudolf Schmied. The youngster has recently returned from a vacation in Australia so the two have common ground. And a shared love of the luftgekühlt.

Schmied drives a red VW Beetle and for some time has been helping Grahser find rare replacement parts for his Porsche restorations. As their friendship evolves, the reclusive Grahser eventually invites Schmied to his house to see something he has never shown anyone before. “And bring your camera!” he adds, knowing that Schmied is studying photography in Vienna.

The next day the two of them stand in Grahser’s living room in Fischamend. Schmied can hardly believe his eyes. In the middle of the living room, with just one headlight and no floor or seats, stands a 356 Speedster. The engine lies behind it, next to a pile of wood.

“All right, now you can take pictures of me driving,” says Grahser. “And where are we going?” asks Schmied. ”I’m driving on the Great Ocean Road, on the southern coast of Australia.” Schmied sits down on the bare metal frame of the unfinished Speedster, puts both hands on the steering wheel, and begins imitating the sound of the engine, interspersed with shouts of “second gear”, “third gear” and “see, the wind is blowing through my hair.” He closes his eyes and turns the wheel left and right, shifting through an imaginary H-pattern, accelerating and braking.

Grahser’s great dream is to open a Porsche museum in his homeland. He has the first three cars already; they just need to be restored. The Speedster is one of the few built in right hand drive. The 356 A Coupé on the upper level of the shipping container outside has been partially converted to Speedster spec with 911 parts including a 2.7-litre engine with mechanical fuel-injection. The one on the ground floor is Grahser’s absolute favourite, a 1959 356 B Roadster with a turbocharged 3.0-litre engine from a 1977 930. He frequently opens the doors of the container just to be near what he calls his 356/930.

Schmied takes photos with a tear in his eyes. He has just found the perfect subject for his photography thesis. Schmied will tell the story of Grahser’s love for Porsche in evocative black-and-white images, capturing Grahser’s unstinting devotion and sacrifice, and the attempt to make the dream of a lifetime come true. The retired aviation mechanic allows himself only 20 square meters of living space: one room with a narrow bed, chair, desk, radio, and stove. He doesn’t need anything else to be happy, he says. The rest goes to the 356. It’s a curious but powerful devotion, and Schmied’s thesis, Ein Leben. Ein Mythos’ (A Life. A Legend), seems him graduate with honours.

Grahser passed away in 2008 and his three unfinished cars were eventually bought by German Porsche specialist Rafael Diez, who decided to finish the job Grahser had started so many years ago. Countless hours on metal work, powertrain and paint eventually saw the 356B Roadster finished, a fastidious and fabulous tribute to Grahser’s unique vision.

But there was to be one final twist to the tale, a final endorsement the likes of which Grahser himself could hardly have imagined. Diez brought the 356 to the attention of Porsche brand ambassador Walter Röhrl, who agreed to take it for a shakedown. “I’m a great fan of old cars,” Röhrl explains. “They give you the feeling you should still be able to do something. But I approached this one very gingerly; it looked like too much had been altered. So I was all the more astonished at how perfectly balanced it felt right from the start of the first test-drive. The low lip in front, the heavy engine behind, 260 hp – it drives smoothly and precisely, and it’s a lot of fun.”

In fact, the two-time rally world champion and development driver for the Carrera GT was so impressed that he actually bought the car. The 356 3000 RR (short for Röhrl Roadster) now sports Röhrl’s four victory badges from the Monte Carlo Rally on its engine cover and a 911 steering wheel with a 356 rim has been installed. For Viktor Grahser, the 356 with 911 parts was intended to be his ‘Super Porsche’, a lifelong dream he was unable to realise. How happy he would be that his car lives on, and in such celebrated hands.

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Comments (2)

  • That’s all you need, 20 Square-metres of living space and a 500 Square-Metres Garage filled with your toys and tools!

    Thank you very much for the great article Mark!

      4 months ago
  • Nice!

      4 months ago
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