Priceless Porsches, Mid-Century Memories, And A Humble Workshop In New Jersey
Photography by Cole Pennington
In an short video released by Porsche this past May, Dr. Wolfgang Porsche proclaimed his second favorite Porsche residing in his collection is his gorgeous 1952 America Roadster. In the clip, Dr. Porsche explains how the car came with an “emergency roof” in case it rained, and how the 70HP motor made this a very quick car for the time.
John Paterek says Wolfgang got everything right when describing the America Roadster—down to how the doors swooped low along the sides, to more easily throw an arm over, but he got one thing wrong: the car is painted in “Stylish Grey,” not “Stone Grey,” like Dr. Porsche states.
How could some guy named John Paterek possibly know more about the color of the car than Dr. Porsche, grandson of acclaimed Ferdinand Porsche and the guy whose surname is on the deck lid? Because John brought the car back from the dead with his own two hands, and meticulously applied the single-stage Stylish Grey paint to the rejuvenated America Roadster. He then owned and showed the car for the next 26 years.
In the east coast Porsche scene, it’s hard not to hear the name Paterek mentioned at just about every PCA meet, Porsche section of Cars & Coffees, concours, etc. John Paterek, along with his brother Ray and son Andrew, has galvanized a reputation as the authority on bringing Stuttgart metal back to life. It’s hard to count the number of significant Porsches that have gone through the nondescript doors of this suburban New Jersey shop. Every car comes out ready to sweep classes at any show they’re entered into.
Inside, there’s an analog record player belting out classic rock riffs between clangs of metal being beat and tools being thrown around. There’s a Jaguar body off in the corner, along with Andrew’s 1959 Bugeye Sprite, but it’s the Porsches that dominate the floorspace: factory metal shells of 911s and 356s are perched on the shop floor like statues in a museum. Here, even the factory file marks from cleaning up the welds are sacrosanct, and Andrew has become an expert in even the smallest details of early Porsches.
I ask about the America Roadster. John stops working on a Andial-prepped 964 produced for a cancelled race series and takes a seat before letting out a sigh. It feels like a ceremony he’s been through many times before. Even though the car is long gone, it’s still just as important to the shop now as when it acted as the physical centerpiece of his operation. There’s a sense of occasion when John tells the story, almost like the act of telling the tale is a way to memorialize and pay respect to a piece of automotive greatness that John himself saved.
Or maybe, on a deeper level, John shares the story to ease the pain of letting go of something so special to him.
In 1952, seven years after the end of World War 2, Germany’s most celebrated automaker honored America with a gorgeous memorial designed by Erwin Komenda, constructed from hand-formed sheet metal, sprayed with shimmering single stage paint and finished with two Solex carburetors. This was a memorial to America’s great driving roads; it was the Porsche 356 America Roadster. Only 17 of these cars were ever made; 11 are accounted for today.
A massive print of the car hangs on the wall at the shop. The space might be compact, but John Paterek’s reputation is larger than life. He’s a boisterous character with a claim to fame in the Porsche world: he owned one of the rarest and most desirable Porsches ever made, and it sold for an unimaginable price when he finally passed it on.
At the 1979 Porsche parade, Paterek connected with a young lady responsible for liquidating her recently deceased father’s estate. To most people, it looked like she had a standard 356 for sale, but this car was slightly different, and if the devil is in the details, then so is God. And God was smiling on John that day. He made a verbal agreement to purchase the car and a week later drove to Mariana, Pennsylvania to see the car in person with his wife.
After seeing 8,400 original miles on the odometer, he plunked down $16,400 and loaded the car up for the trip back to New Jersey.
The next few years were spent poring over what little information was available on the America Roadster. Without the internet, research took a little more work than a few clicks and keystrokes. The car was refinished in its original Stylish Grey paint as mentioned, and every single aspect of the car was restored to the condition it was in when it left the factory.
Luck had brought him to the car; hard work brought the car to life.
And that work reaped the highest honors in the Porsche world. When it was finished in 1981 it was ready for its first show: The Porsche Car Club of America’s annual Porsche Parade. It won the People’s Choice award, and it didn’t stop there. The car went on to win just about every prominent concours in the US: Pebble Beach, Meadowbrook, Greenwich, Amelia Island; it was even selected in 2003 to be shown at the prestigious Louis Vuitton Rockefeller Center Concours d’Elegance.
Two years later, John came to a realization that would chart an entirely new course for the historic roadster. After the Porsche Parade, John was staring at the back of a large American SUV pulling out of a parking spot. The 356 sat well below the mirror; the driver of the SUV couldn’t even see the handsome import that she was about to back into. John beeped the horn, but it only let out a puny 1950s “Eeeep! Eeep!”
She didn’t make contact, but it was then that John knew he had to let the car go. It wasn’t fun anymore, he was responsible for preserving history at this point. He couldn’t simply enjoy driving the car any longer. When he got back to the hotel he told his wife that he had to let his other love go.
A few years earlier, Jerry Seinfeld had picked the car out as his favorite at a concours event in the Hamptons. He was the first potential buyer that John called, but Jerry’s car handler wasn’t keen on the price. “$750,000?! I’m not going to be the first one to spend that kind of money for this car!” he said. Since there were so few surviving 356 America Roadsters, the market hadn’t determined a hard price for one in some time.
The next phone call was to Ralph Lauren; again, $750,00 was too high. Everyone loved the car, but they simply couldn’t spend such a sum without the market having proven the value. No one wanted to make the first move.
The car was priceless to John, but he knew the car was special to the wider world too. If the biggest buyers in America wouldn’t bite, maybe someone in the car’s homeland would. John set the price at a million dollars and offered the car to Dr. Wolfgang Porsche.
He bought the car. Even though it was specifically designed for America, it would head back to the land where it was created to be preserved for eternity.
A few years later John McCaw, a prominent car collector, asked John to reach out to Mr. Porsche to buy the car back. He offered two million dollars for it, and Mr. Porsche respectfully declined. McCaw countered with a three million dollar offer; again, Mr. Porsche declined. Mr Porsche firmly stated that the car was not for sale. No amount of money would allow the 1952 America Roadster to leave his collection.
John Paterek always said the car was priceless during his 26 years of ownership. Turns out he was right.
356 America Roadster photos courtesy of Porsche