In an inconspicuous garage on an average Los Angeles street, Blue Nelson opens the hood of a 1952 Porsche 356 1500 Coupe. He does this very, very carefully. The reason is immediately clear. Two nests lie together on the fuel tank, made out of stuffing from the car’s seats. Between them lies the desiccated body of a dead rat.
Nelson pulls a second rat, this one very much alive, from the nest on the left and holds it up to the light by the tail. More rodents are hiding inside the car and scuttling about under the spare tire. “I spray the car every six hours with bleach and neutraliser, inside and out, to detoxify the excrement and eliminate the odour,” he says, reaching for a spray can.
Amid an eye-watering stench, Nelson beams. For him, cars like this are the gold standard, pieces of automotive history. The back seat is still brimming with the previous owner’s possessions. Fifties Belcanto radio, spare parts, yellowed papers and notebooks. He found it in a San Diego garage a few days ago and brought it out wearing a protective suit and filter mask. The original engine and four-pipe Abarth exhaust system lay hidden in a corner. Surrounded by everyday household items, the car had been there for 51 years.
Henry DeWitt passed away decades ago, and his widow Joan had recently advertised his 356 for $30,000 on the advice of a specialist. “Experts,” mutters Nelson with scorn. He called Joan immediately and informed her of the vehicle’s real value. A model this rare was worth several times what she was asking. But Nelson’s honesty comes at a cost. “To pay for this find, I had to sell some other cars, including my 1949 Chrysler New Yorker,” he says. He looks ruefully at the space once occupied by the blue Chrysler, which he used for driving his elderly parents around and chauffeuring couples to weddings. But it was worth it to fulfill a lifelong dream.
Nelson, a director’s assistant who has worked on movies and TV series like Baywatch and CSI: Miami, calls the car the “find of my life.” And he wants to do the right thing. Joan DeWitt is in a wheelchair. She should get a fair deal, “so she can pay her medical bills and enjoy the rest of her life a little more.”
The 356 is now in the San Fernando Valley, in Nelson’s 5,400 square foot garage, originally built in the 1920s to press olives. Nelson has renovated the space with typical care, and it now houses a collection unlike any other in the United States. A red 1957 356 A 1500 GS Carrera Speedster with original Rudge center lock rims. A 1957 aluminum Porsche Beutler, built by hand, with a 1.5-liter engine. Porsche made just five of them, he says. Four still exist. Then there’s a canary yellow and blue convertible version of the Rometsch Beeskow, also from 1957. Its aluminum body was made by hand in Berlin by Friedrich Rometsch. And finally, the car that ignited Nelson’s passion for Porsche: a 1962 roadster, with twin air-inlet grilles on the engine hood. It was in this very car that Blue’s father drove his wife and their newborn son home from the hospital 47 years ago. “A love for Porsche was instilled in me at birth,” says Nelson.
As a child, he washed his father’s Porsche for 50 cents. He used the money to buy Porsche magazines from the 1950s and immersed himself in pictures of faraway countries and works of art on wheels. “The magazine triggered a deep desire in me to travel and find early 356s.” He made an enormous collage of photos from these magazines and hung it in his room. It now adorns the garage, along with old Grand Prix posters, photos of his parents in their cars, and a glass case full of his father’s racing trophies. Two rotating jewelry cases are piled high with automotive accessories from the 1950s: rare key chains from Porsche, patches, knickknacks for the dashboard, Porsche pins that men once wore on the collars of their suit jackets, and advertising materials from dealerships.
Nelson’s father Gary is a well-known television and film director. He began racing Porsches in the 1950s on tracks in Santa Barbara, Palm Springs and at Paramount Ranch. Nelson’s mother, who died two years ago, was the actress Judi Meredith. She shared the family fever for speed and European elegance and would pick up her son from school in a 1973 Ferrari Dino 246 GTS. “I would stand in front of the school building and hear her shifting through the gears from afar on Mulholland Drive,” recalls Nelson, who describes his parents as a “true Hollywood couple.”
Gary Nelson is now 82 years old. But he hasn’t lost any of his thirst for adventure. In the fall of 2015, Gary and his sons Garrett and Blue traveled to the Porsche factory in Zuffenhausen, 60 years after the elder Nelson picked up a Speedster there in 1956. This time a 2016 718 Boxster S was waiting for them. Porsche arranged to hand the car over directly in front of the factory museum and placed a 1956 Speedster next to it.
While Garrett remained behind in Germany, Gary and Blue set off on a fairly unusual shakedown. They drove across Europe to Gibraltar, crossed to Morocco, and kept on driving across the northern Sahara until they hit Algeria. “We simply set off, without an itinerary, without reservations, and without maps or a GPS. We just knocked on people’s doors and asked for directions,” says Nelson. When they returned to Stuttgart some 6,200 miles later, the Porsche factory was astonished at the amount of dirt and dust caking this brand new car, inside and out. The Nelsons flew home, and the blue Boxster was shipped to Los Angeles, still unwashed, by express request of its owners.
Blue Nelson began finding, repairing, and restoring classic cars as a teenager in the 1980s. He kept some but sold many more at car shows and auctions in California, where he soon made a name for himself as someone who could find “the rarest of rare cars.” Right from the start, he specialized in handmade aluminum car bodies based on VW frames, with names like Beutler, Dannenhauer, Drews, Enzmann, Hebmüller, and Rometsch. He was sixteen years old when he acquired his first Porsche, a 1958 356 A. “These models were still relatively affordable back then, because very few people were interested in them.”
By Nelson’s own account, his scouting has taken him to more than one hundred countries. And he continues to travel the world, rummaging through flea markets, peering over fences, onto driveways, and into sheds, or hiking across fields to remote farms. His automotive detective work is a type of archaeology, often commissioned by a long list of prominent collectors from worlds as disparate as politics and entertainment. But Nelson is not the guy to talk up his client base. Nor to rattle off the endless technical minutiae of his cars. He prefers to tell stories, of which he has an unlimited supply. Like the one about his Beutler. He acquired it in 1997 from a well-known banker in Manhattan in return for a Rometsch. For the trip back to southern California, Nelson didn’t mollycoddle his priceless acquisition in a transporter. Instead, he put it straight back to work, traversing over 5,000 miles of highways and gravel roads, through dirt and sand, heat and rain. He slept on the car every night for a month, in a replica of a roof tent from the 1950s. And he fished for his dinner in rivers.
“I work 18 hours a day, six days a week, and every once in a while I take one of my cars or motorcycles on a trip,” says Nelson. “But the aim is always the same: to preserve objects of historical interest.
”Nelson wants to preserve Joan DeWitt’s 356 in more or less the condition in which he found it. It needs a top-to-toe mechanical overhaul, but that’s where it stops. “A 50-minute wash would erase 50 years of work by Mother Nature,” he says. He’ll leave the exterior of the car in its “old and tired” state, including the dirt, rust and dust, and display it ‘as is’ amidst the fastidious spit and polish of classic car shows. He knows that the cognoscenti appreciate seeing Porsches like this, in the raw, as history intended.
But once the 356 is running again, Nelson’s priority will take him straight back to San Diego. Henry DeWitt had promised his wife a ride in the Porsche, but didn’t manage to get it running before he died. For Blue Nelson, a spin with Joan is a matter of the heart.