The 7-figure Porsche project

Why top vintage car collectors turn to the Road Scholars garage in North Carolina for their chance at automotive glory


It’s a rare thing to see a 1952 Porsche 356 America roadster up close. A special edition from early in the model line, it was among the first cars to which Ferry Porsche lent his now legendary last name. Only 16 were made. Eleven still exist.

But to see one from underneath, dismantled with every piston and seam exposed, is like seeing a unicorn — and then getting to scratch its nose. On a sweltering summer day in North Carolina, that’s exactly where I found myself: Square underneath its crimson shell, gawking at its inexact welding, trying to imagine what it felt like to build a car that would change the automotive world. Elsewhere in a nondescript garage tucked 15 minutes away from the Raleigh- Durham International Airport, the wheels, engine and interior of the car were also being meticulously refurbished.

For the 356 America version under which I found myself, Porsche and his father constructed a thinly hammered, all-aluminium body, a split removable front windshield and hollow doors. The idea was to make a lightweight, 1,580lb (716kg) bullet that would decimate competitors on racetracks and endurance courses around the world.

This one in particular was raced by Josie von Neumann, who in the early ‘50s became the first woman to receive a professional racing licence. She was driving it on Dec 14, 1952, when she won her first US Auto Club ladies race at California’s Torrey Pines Racetrack. It’s also the only example painted “fire red”.

Ingram (left) and Woodruff, the shop’s head fabricator, inspecting the 1952 Porsche 356 America

In August, it’s destined for the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, the most prestigious car show in the world. The competition is held annually on the 18th fairway at California’s Pebble Beach Golf Links; there, multimillion- dollar racing Ferraris will be arranged on the fog-shrouded lawn next to one-of-a-kind state cars owned by the likes of Winston Churchill and Kaiser Wilhelm.

Until then, the 356 will sit under the care of Road Scholars, a shop that restores and services the most exclusive Porsches. Owners Cam Ingram and Kevin Watts take modern and vintage model Porsches — and, on rare occasions, a few other exceptional cars from valued clients — and return them to precise historical authenticity. The goal is not to make a classic car perfect, but to remake it exactly as it was, whenever that was, down to the imperfections.

A tangerine 1973 Porsche 911 2.7RS on a lift in the shop

For the white-gloved judges brandishing Q-tips, that means everything from the stamps on the bolts to the consistency of the paint on the engine must match its original form, down to the pebbled effect in the tiny seams of each Porsche script logo from the early 1950s. The interior must be held together by wax from the right period, not modern glue. The weld lines must be off- centred just so. In some cases, the paint must be applied with horsehair brushes made like those used in the postwar period to get the right effect.

These kinds of Porsches are rarely offered for sale publicly. The most recent purchase of a 356 America was in 2009, at a Bonhams auction during Monterey Car Week; it sold for US$529,000 (RM2.15 million), according to Hagerty Group LLC records. The most expensive public sale of a 356 America was for US$703,000 in 2005. Road Scholars sold one privately last year, but declined to share specifics.

Typically, clients come across a defunct classic and hope to either earn money hawking it, win one of the coveted vintage car competitions, or even — imagine! — drive it. If you bring it to Road Scholars, Ingram and Watts will undertake a process that begins with researching the circumstances under which the car was made, then start sourcing the parts that were original.

When parts aren’t available, they’ll build exact replicas in-house.

All told, the cost of a full restoration usually runs US$350,000, though cars in a very bad condition can cost US$600,000. As a general rule, a car must be worth seven figures to justify the outlay. The 356 headed to Pebble Beach is valued at “well over US$2 million”, Ingram says. For a new client, the wait time can be 31⁄2 years.

Although it operates far from the glitter of the Los Angeles or Miami car scenes, Road Scholarsis well-known to the celebrities, Silicon Valley dwellers and other zillionaires who collect such high-priced vehicles by the dozen. Ralph Lauren is a valued client; Jerry Seinfeld is in near-constant communication — his “car guy” called during my visit.

Then, there’s the Porsche family itself. Wolfgang Porsche, the brand’s longtime ambassador, and his older brother Hans-Peter have tapped Road Scholars for personal projects and company cars since 2011, when Hans-Peter approached Ingram and Watts with a 1950 Porsche Gmünd coupe and asked them to restore it for the Pebble Beach show.

Once they’d finished, Ingram sent the refurbished car on a truck and trailer cross- country to Carmel, California. When the two members of the Porsche family dynasty received the final product, they offered no immediate reaction as they circled the car. “They weren’t saying anything,” Ingram says. “So they walk away to converse, and they come back, and Wolfgang and Hans-Peter shook my hand. ‘Better than we could do’, they said.”

The 356 America will compete at the Pebble Beach Concours d’elegance

The car went on to win best in class in its category. “After that, everything changed,” says Ingram. Business more than doubled, and the shop quickly became so busy that he describes it as an all-consuming marriage. Road Scholars now has a 6,000-sq-ft service centre, a 4,500-sq-ft restoration paint shop and a 14,000-sq-ft fabrication shop. A 6,000-sq-ft showroom is filled, by my estimate, with US$20 million in stock across almost two dozen cars, including a tangerine 1973 911 2.7 RS worth more than US$1 million and a US$500,000 right-hand-drive 1975 911 Turbo in salmon-rose metallic.

Watts founded the business in 1999. Ingram, a lover of old Italian wines who often wears a flipped-lid baseball cap to the shop, bought his share in 2003. It was another big day for him when we met. He’d just signed the paperwork for a 9,000-sq-ft warehouse that will become the company’s new state-of-the-art fabrication facility. He also plans to build a 15,000-sq-ft showroom next door to the current facility.

His parents, Bob and Jeanie, are prominent enthusiasts who own the Ingram Collection, likely the world’s most coveted grouping of Porsches under one roof. Bob, the former CEO and chairman of Glaxo Wellcome who led the merger and integration that formed GlaxoSmithKline plc, bought his first decades ago and began collecting and showing them. It’s his fire-red 356 America roadster that’s being restored. But Ingram says his mother is better behind the wheel: “She taught me how to drive.”

The youngest of three sons, Ingram had planned to concentrate on art at university, but his father insisted he study business as well. He graduated from North Carolina’s Guilford College with degrees in both. As the stakes turned up in the Porsche collecting and investment market, he saw a chance to meld his passion with his profession.

Ten years ago, a 1965 911 or the 930 Turbo might have cost US$20,000. Today, they can exceed a quarter of a million dollars apiece. “That is the great paradigm shift today, that we are selling cars to guys my age, in their early 40s,” Ingram tells me. “Those guys are 10% of the number of baby boomers, but they’re way more passionate.”

The 356 on the risers is an exception, in a way. A moonshot. If it wins its class at the Pebble Beach Concours next month, it will be the third time that a Road Scholars entry has won its category in the industry’s most exclusive car event. It won its other best-in-class award in 2017, for a 1952 Porsche 356 Cabriolet by Reutter.

All told, it will take 4,000 hours for a complete rebuild of the 70hp four-cylinder engine and total restoration. The painting process will take Danny Omasta, a tattooed 27-year-old lead restorer, 800 hours of Leonardo da Vinci-level effort. “It’s not the paint job that makes the paint perfect; it’s the cut and buff,” he says as he removes his face mask.

There’s also the extra hours that 31-year-old Nerf Lara took scouring Porsche registers and museum records, and obscure blog threads online to find the correct dead-stock knobs, handmade rivets and leather for the dashboard and plump, headrest-less seats.

As a general rule, this 356 America can gain an extra US$100,000 in value if it wins its class this year, though making money through competitions is beside the point. Only half of the company’s regular clients show their cars at these kinds of events anyway — the other half actually drive them. “What I have seen in the last 12 months is that guys are buying a car, and they want to drive it,” Watts says. “Because when you buy something that you know nobody else can have, it’s cool as hell.” — Bloomberg