Heresy in the Porsche Corral

The nickname may be a recent coinage, but the concept of an "Outlaw" Porsche goes back at least to the 1950s. That’s when Dean Jeffries, a customization pioneer, modified his 356 Carrera’s body at George and Sam Barris’s shop in Lynwood, Calif., where he worked.

To some, the idea of such alterations is blasphemy. But the desirability of these modified, performance-enhanced cars has grown in recent years, sending prices into the stratosphere. At the same time, the supply of correct, never-wrecked, corrosion-free donor cars keeps shrinking.

"The donor supply is drying up," said Bruce Canepa, the onetime racer who restores and sells high-end collector cars in Scotts Valley, Calif. He said that prices for the best donor cars had reached $75,000 for 356 coupes and $125,000 for convertibles, with Speedsters fetching up to $250,000.

But Canepa, whose shop had completed half a dozen Outlaw restorations of its own, has high standards for donors; he is interested only in cars that have "no rust, no corrosion ever, no damage." If a car lived in a wet environment "all the sheet metal has corrosion," even if not visible. “You really need the best car to drive because you are adding performance to it."

Add in the cost of upgrading the engine and transmission, NOS parts, Carrera brakes, upgraded shocks and Avon radial tires – and then bodywork and paint – and a finished, top-tier Outlaw can easily top $300,000 on its way to half a million dollars. In early March, Canepa offered a silver 356 coupe on his website for $325,000.

Auction prices have likewise trended upward, with a 1955 Porsche 356 Pre-A "Emory Special" coupe selling for more than $250,000 at the RM Sotheby’s auction in Arizona in January 2015.

Rod Emory, who has done much to popularize the Outlaw movement through his family's Emory Motorsports business in McMinnville, Ore., and Emory Design in North Hollywood, has likewise noted the upward pressure on donor car prices.
In a video appearance last year on "Jay Leno's Garage," Emory said that candidates for Emory's Outlaw treatment had risen to a range of $70,000 to $80,000, up from $50,000 or less not long ago.

How the car drives and performs is crucial, and collectors are most interested in improvements to engines, brakes, suspensions and tires. "What has been going on for 10 years, and is so different from all the generations before, is that people are using their old cars," Canepa said. "Everybody is looking to make their car better to drive."

The Porsche 356 is favored because it is "the most comfortable, most fun old car to drive," according to Canepa. But since stock 356s are famously underpowered, owners say they want "a little more power – but not a lot." In a 356 that weighs less than 2,000 pounds, increasing the horsepower to 125 or 150, from 70 to 90, "transforms the car," Canepa said.

With interest strong and prices high, Outlaw-like cars are rolling out of shops with little expertise in 356 restoration, often turning up in online classifieds. A recent Craigslist ad from Oconomowoc, Wis. featured a 1958 356A Outlaw for $65,000 with non-matching 912 engine and a secondary floorpan welded over the original. The car had chrome wheels and period-incorrect Aqua Blue Metallic paint.

While tastes vary, many Outlaw aficionados frown on flashy modifications. "You can overdo them in a minute," Canepa said. "I want it to look as subtle and underrated as possible. I think Outlaw cars should look pretty stock, to the point where a guy walks up to it and knows it looks a little different, but can't put his finger on why."

And while not all Outlaws are executed to the same degree of desirability, Canepa is effusive in his praise for Willhoit Auto Restoration in Long Beach, Calif., which specializes in the 356.

"There aren't that many great Outlaw cars," Canepa said. "There are a ton of them being built, but not many that reach that gold standard."