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Mid-week long read: follow the light

1w ago

16.2K

Cameron Healey gets asked the same question all the time. And given the circumstances this is understandable. He has asked it of himself more than once. “Is this car real?”

In 2009, Healey bought a red Porsche 356 Speedster. It had been in the hands of amateur racer Chuck Forge since 1957, campaigned at national level and adapted and modified over many years.

After more than half a century at the coal face, it was in need of a full restoration. Healey took the car to North Hollywood, to the workshops of 356 specialist and Outlaw pioneer Rod Emory. And it was here that the pair began to make a series of extraordinary discoveries.

Underneath the bright red paintwork that had been applied during a cosmetic overhaul in the early 1980s, they found aluminium bodywork — evidence that this car was, as had long been suspected, one of the original and very early cars built in Gmünd. Just 52 coupés and convertibles were built in the old Austrian sawmill before Porsche returned to its pre-war home of Stuttgart. Here, at the new facility in Zuffenhausen, 356 production would resume with steel-bodied cars. The final few aluminium cars, no longer compatible with Porsche’s upscaled production process, were left behind in Austria. In 1950 they were finished by Tatra workers at Porsche’s behest and sent on to Zuffenhausen. One of these cars bore the chassis number 356/2-063. Healey’s car.

Despite the official move away from hand-beaten aluminium, the remaining Gmünd cars, with the advantage of lower weight and greater agility, were by no means destined for the side lines. At the Paris Motor Show in October 1950, Ferry Porsche was persuaded by Charles Faroux, co-founder of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, to enter the race. Porsche was a tiny company at his point, but the opportunity for publicity was too good to miss.

It was decided to use the remaining aluminium coupés, converting them into racing cars by further reducing weight and improving aerodynamics. Preparations did not get off to an auspicious start, however. Three accidents during early testing and practice in the run up to the race left just one car operational: chassis 063.

So the pressure was peaking when Auguste Veuillet and fellow countryman Edmond Mouche took 063 onto the Circuit de la Sarthe on the afternoon of June 23, 1951. The race was overshadowed by heavy rain and serious accidents, but the No. 46 Porsche 356 SL, with its modest 1100 cc 34 kW (46 hp) flat-four, stayed out of trouble and performed perfectly. Over the 24 hours, its best lap time was 5:44.7 minutes, an incredible average speed of almost 141 km/h. When the flag finally fell, Veuillet and Mouche had taken victory in their class and finished 20 th overall.

Two months later, 063 took part in the Liège-Rome-Liège race, finishing 10 th. One month later, it set three international records at the Montlhéry time trials. But despite this remarkable success, there was no sentimentality towards the car in Zuffenhausen. It was eventually recommissioned and exported to the US, one of three SL delivered to Porsche importer Max Hoffman.

Two of these three cars have always remained accounted for. Chassis 054 is now in Mexico while 055 resides in the Collier Collection. And now, it seems, the last belongs to Cameron Healey. “I couldn’t believe it at first, but all the evidence suggests it’s 063.” After extensive exploratory work, Rod Emory is in agreement. He found scratched markings on the panels, traces of the indicators having been moved and even a little damage on a wheel cover that can actually be seen on historic Le Mans photos.

So how did the car end up red and roofless? Its second owner was Johnny von Neumann, a keen amateur racer who decided to save a little weight by having coachbuilder Emil Diedt remove the roof. The car was then transferred to a series of different US owners: Bill Wittington, Rick Gale, Ernie Spitzer, Dick Cotrell — and finally Chuck Forge in 1957.

It was Forge who had the car restored for the first time, in 1981. And it was a restoration of the period, a cosmetic overhaul with no real regard for authenticity. Forge had a small rollover bar installed in order to participate in historic races and the car was in this state when Cameron first came across it. He kept in touch with Forge over the years and when he died in 2009, Cameron snapped it up.

When Rod Emory first spotted the signs that this was a Gmünd car, Healey dived into the archive in Zuffenhausen. With enough evidence to suggest this was likely to be the Le Mans car, Rod measured the other two 356 SLs with a laser, created wooden moulds, and hammered out a new roof using tools from the 1940s. After a long, painstaking and highly authentic restoration, 063 was back in business.

Today, looking just as it did on the starting grid at Le Mans in 1951, Porsche’s most famous and important 356 racer is a sight to behold. Healey fires her up and pulls slowly onto the asphalt, where the diminutive silver car picks up speed with surprising ease, eagerly following the twists and turns unfolding before it on the sun-drenched road. An allegory for its own long and unpredictable life. And the start of a whole new chapter.

Photos by Theodor Barth

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