This 1951 Porsche Pre-A 356 Split-Window Is A Different Kind Of Time Capsule
Photography by Andrew Golseth
If you attended Luftgekühlt 4, you may recognize this very early, very patina’d Porsche 356. If you’re not sure what makes this 356 so exceedingly special, that’s okay, because in all honesty I initially didn’t realize what made it so rare either. But when I first came across it earlier this year in San Diego, I could still recognize its presence as being somehow more than a typical 356. There was something about the tired tin-like finish looking more like raw metal than paint, the whitewall tires, and those lovely ventilated steel wheels—it made the other examples in attendance look… new. Thankfully, I got the inside scoop from its longtime owner, Wayne Baker, a name many Southern California Porsche enthusiasts are familiar with.
Mr. Baker is 75 years young, and the veteran racer has been running Personalized Autohaus Incorporated since 1974. The San Diego-based Porsche garage isn’t some white floor restoration laboratory; it’s an honest workingman’s garage that also serves as a goldmine of classic Porsches and parts. Wayne and his crew have built quite a reputation over their 40-plus-years of service, ranging from routine maintenance to pristine full show car restorations.
But this dull silver bathtub? This thankfully isn’t one of those restoration candidates, and it’d be a shame if anyone did such a thing to this car. Just look at it: I’ve met people with less personality than one scuff mark on this car. To restore anything here would be to erase precious history, and thankfully Wayne feels the same way. He was kind enough to let me swing by his shop before the wrenches started spinning for the day, and even better, he was kind enough to chat about and give me a ride in this pre-A split-window. Here’s what makes Wayne, and his 1951 Porsche 356, stand out.
Andrew Golseth: Wayne, tell me how this all started. Obviously you have a passion for cars, but what made you follow this as a career?
Wayne Baker: When I was in junior high school, we lived in Eugene, Oregon, where my dad was making $1.75 an hour as a machinist. When I was 14 years old, we moved to California because my dad went to work for Lockheed in 1957, where he jumped up to $18 an hour! My grandfather worked for Lockheed as well, so that’s why my dad moved us down the west coast. Anyway, our new neighbor in California had a Porsche, a pre-A car actually; it was an ivory-colored 1954 with tan interior. I was just a kid from farmland Oregon remember, so all I knew were trucks and tractors! This neighbor gave me a couple of rides in the Porsche though, and I quickly learned its charms—the car would go 100 miles per hour with just this little tiny motor in it.
It just impressed the shit out of me, and I’ve loved Porsches ever since. Eventually, by 1963, I bought one brand new. I joined the Air Force in 1960 and they trained me as an electrician. I spent a year in Denver and then thought I would get the chance to go to Europe, but lo and behold, they sent me to Hollywood. I said, “Hollywood? It can’t be Hollywood. That’s like 20 miles from my house.” Well, you know where it says Hollywood on the hill? 100 feet behind that hill was the USAF 1352d Photographic Group. There were 20 military personnel and 300 civilians making movies right there! So, they sent me back to California to repair cameras, of all things.
I was making enough money though to buy a brand new Porsche, a situation I was pretty pleased with. The one I eventually landed on was white with a black interior. It took me four months to get it after placing the order, but once it was in my possession I put over 40,000 miles on it in just two years; I simply drove it everywhere. That was my first Porsche. Then, I had children, you know the story… I sold it and got a Chevy to haul around the kids, but in ’69 I bought a 911 and I’ve had cars like it ever since.
AG: How did fixing cameras for the Air Force turn into Personalized Autohaus? What happened in between?
WB: After I picked up my first Porsche, I started working part-time at an independent shop in North Hollywood. This was sometime around 1964. That’s how I got into it initially. From there, I went to visit the Porsche factory and shortly afterwards I began mechanic’s school in Los Angeles in October of 1965. This was the very beginning of the 911s, and they taught us how to do the engines and transmissions on them.
Fast forward to 1974, and I didn’t want to work for a dealer anymore. I think one person told me, “You should be in your own business,” and so, in 1974 I opened up Personalized Autohaus just off of Morena Boulevard here in San Diego.
We had our business there for ten years before moving shop to Miramar in 1985, which is where we’ve been ever since. We’re not really a show shop; it’s a working shop. And obviously, as you can see, it’s packed with stuff in here. We have two mechanics and a helper, so it’s just a small business that my wife and I run.
AG: It certainly looks like you guys stay busy. So, what’s the history with this car—the ’51 split window? It looks like it’s got a few tales to tell itself.
WB: Well, this car was originally purchased by Petermax Müller, who was a Porsche racing driver. He ran in the 1952 24 Hours of Le Mans with something similar to this car, but it wasn’t this specific example. That said, this was his personal car from new until around 1953. After he put the first 9,500 kilometers on it, Müller sold it to an American who was stationed in Germany. The military man drove it in Germany until he shipped the car back to California at the end of his tour. I’m not sure exactly when, but I believe it was before Porsche dealers started popping up in the states—it was sometime in the early ’50s.
AG: How’d you end up with it? There can’t be many pre-A split-window cars left.
WB: I believe there were 1,080 coupes made from 1950-1952. From what I’ve gathered, there’s roughly 200 or so left of those, and some guys in Europe I’ve talked with think there’s probably only a 100 or so that still run. So, not many.
This car eventually came down to San Diego and Joel Naive bought it, who I knew through the Porsche club. He had three of them at the time: one was a cab and two were coupes. They were parts cars to him. He bought this one because he wanted the engine, which he ended up swapping into his 1950 Cabriolet.
Then back around 1976, 1977, Joel restored this car. In 1978 I went to an annual PCA event, a big show in Colorado. Joel thought he would win first overall because they’d never had anything quite like this enter. Well, the week before he got there, the judges were trying to figure out how to judge it. It was so rare, so unique, and the work that went into it was done so well.
But, politically first overall ended up going to another car, a modern car. It wasn’t even a classic. So, Joel got second overall, but won his class. He turned around, quit the club, and I ended up buying the car from him in 1979.
AG: What have you done to the car since then?
WB: I really haven’t done much to it lately. I just put tires on it, redid the brakes, got the electrical stuff all working properly, and replaced some miscellaneous parts, but the biggest thing I did was rebuild the engine using the original magnesium case. It took a while to collect everything. Two years ago I started gathering everything to complete the original engine, the 1300cc.
About 80% of this car came from Volkswagen. At the time, Porsche didn’t have the money to build cars from scratch, so they based their suspension, transmission, and engine on Volkswagen designs when they were building these 25-horsepower, single-carbureted 1,300cc motors. Porsche took these and built a dual carburetor setup on them for increased performance. So, I collected all these parts and I got it running in March of this year. My wife didn’t want to ride in it to begin with because there weren’t any restraints, so I installed some lap belts, which are from a 1950 Cessna of all things. I put the belts in though, and now she loves taking it out! On the freeway, it’ll do about 65, 70 miles per hour.
Otherwise, we’ve sort of just left everything else as-is. It was originally a red color but it was repainted to silver in the fifties, which I estimate is the same paint it still wears because the paint looked pretty bad already by the time I got it! Honestly, silver of that period looks bad after just a few years; the paint just wasn’t very good then.
AG: But it sure has aged beautifully.
WB: Yes, she has. We typically name our cars and we call this one Louise, after Ferdinand Porsche’s daughter of course. Louise is a “history car.” What I’m trying to tell you is all these little things that were done, modifications and improvements made over time by previous owners, that’s part of the story. You can find an original car, but finding an original-original, completely untouched from the factory car is pretty unlikely. Every car is a little different. I didn’t want to take away or remove any of the car’s history. Bringing it back to its original spec would have erased its life. Back then, when somebody owned a car they liked and cared about, they upgraded it to keep up with the times instead of just replacing it with a new one every few years.
AG: It’s a shame, because nobody really does that anymore. Now, cars and every other consumable for that matter are built to be recycled rather than last a lifetime.
WB: Precisely. For instance, this car was obviously loved but someone along the way didn’t like the transmission. The original transmission was a crash ‘box, which are really miserable to drive, so I can’t really blame him for swapping it out. In ’52 they started putting synchros in them. So, the owner, I believe it was the military guy, he brought it here and by 1955 he upgraded the transmission from the crash ‘box to synchros.
I got the car, rebuilt and installed the original engine, and the guys here at the shop asked me, “Are you going to rebuild the transmission too?” I said, “Well, let’s put in the engine and transmission and see if it works.” And it fucking works perfectly! So I left it alone. The same owner upgraded the brakes too. In 1952 they became what they now call “A” drums. So they were upgraded in period and still work well. Someone upgraded the radio in the ‘50s—it’s a correct six-volt radio from the period though. There are just a lot of small and larger changes like these that were done to this car over the years.
AG: Can you educate me (and the others that don’t know), about what makes this a “Pre-A” model, aside from the split front window? What’s different about this car?
WB: Well, these early bodies were built by Reutter until Porsche bought Reutter out. There are a lot of things done differently, obviously the bent window being one, but also the bumpers. The bumpers are integrated into the body, which is kind of funny when you think about how that concept has come full circle in modern cars. Also, the wheels, they’re 16-inch wheels, which were rather large for the era on such a small car, but they’re also very narrow. Kind of odd dimensions with those. It’s also a very lightweight car. In the manual it says 1,690 pounds, but we put it on racing scales and it weighs 1,646 pounds with one gallon of gas in it. It’s light, but remember, it’s only got that Volkswagen 25 horsepower engine inside, so it takes something like 22 seconds from a standing stop to hit 100 kilometers per hour!
AG: Not rapid in a straight line then, but what’s it like to drive overall? Is it pretty hairy with those tall, narrow tires?
WB: It’s fun to drive around but we mostly take it out to shows and special events. The suspension is kind of primitive. I was driving it on the freeway and the off ramp sign said 45mph through the turn, and I think to myself, “Well, I could do 70 in my A-model 356. No problem.” So I adjusted from there and I thought I was going to take it easy at 55 mph, but by the time I got to the other end, I was running the inside and that goddamn car was wriggling all over the place! I could barely control it. I came out at the end right by the edge of the outer wall. Doing just 55. It scared the shit out of me! There was nobody with me, thankfully. So, what it’s like to drive: I learned if it says 45, you go 45 when you’re in this car.