6 February 2017

A unicorn from Stuttgart

For most of his car-owning life, Karl Larson drove Porsches. His first example of the marque, a red 1957 356A coupe, was still in his possession when he died in 2012.

Porsches – he accumulated more than a few through the years – were a key part of Larson’s family history. It was while racing the ’57 356 at Lime Rock Park (Conn.) in 1961 that he met his wife, Madeleine. Later, their son Andrew would get swept up in the family obsession, building a Porsche collection that includes such prizes as an original 1973 2.8-liter RSR.

In the late ‘80s Karl set his sights on acquiring what his son called “the ultimate Speedster.” How he ended up with this unusual 356 – a factory-modified and race-proven 1600 Super Carrera GT Speedster from 1958 – is a story as unlikely as finding the love of his life at a rural New England racetrack.

Karl, a civil engineer, began a methodical search for a Speedster. In an era when most Porsches were powered by pushrod engines, the Carrera stood apart with a dual-overhead-cam version of the air-cooled four-cylinder that was designed for competition.

“He was mapping every single one,” said Andrew, who still has pages of chassis and engine numbers of cars his father tried to track down. The cars he found were either too expensive or were not for sale.

Ultimately, a candidate was located by Mark Eskuche of Ecurie Engineering, the Wisconsin shop that handled maintenance chores on Karl’s ’57 coupe. “I saw a picture,” Andrew said. “It didn’t look like it could run.”

The provenance of the car was hazy. Andrew traced back to find it was one of only 56 Speedster GTs built, and was originally purchased from the factory by Leo Levine, an accomplished racer and factory-supported driver. Levine, a noted automotive journalist and historian, later became the head of public relations for Mercedes-Benz North America.

In 1957, Levine was racing a 60-horsepower 1600 Speedster, which he found underpowered for hillclimbs. He wanted to upgrade to a GT but it was too expensive, he told Andrew in a letter. Mr. Levine had the idea to use a less expensive pushrod engine in a GT body, a model that the Porsche factory equipped for competition with larger front brakes, an 8,000 rpm tachometer, a 21-gallon gas tank and a roll bar. The factory further reduced weight by using aluminum doors and trunk/decklid, and deleting the heater and rear seat.

Levine had the factory replace the 110-horsepower Carrera engine replaced with a 75-horsepower Super 1600 engine. The gear ratios were chosen for quicker acceleration, which limited top speed but provided an advantage in hillclimb events.

Levine raced the car extensively in Europe, selling it in 1960. It then passed through a succession of owners, including Mikey Craig, the bassist for Culture Club, the band fronted by the singer Boy George.

A full restoration of the Speedster was done by Eskuche, bringing the car back to such Teutonic reliability that Karl drove it in several of the 1,000-mile Colorado Grand charity tours and in rallies including the California Mille and the Copperstate 1000 in Arizona.

“He did not race that car, because of its provenance, but he did use it all of the time,” Andrew said. “For him, it was meant to be driven.”

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