From the Mind of Racing Car Driver

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If the 550 Spyder featured in this mag on page 34 stirred a hankering for classic open-top Porsche motoring, there are a couple of homegrown options more attuned to the depth of Kiwi pockets, and they are more attainable.

By Patrick Harlow

Graham McRae, who died last month, was a well-known New Zealand racing car driver, but what perhaps is less well-known is that he also built kit and turnkey road-legal cars in his shed. The most famous of them was his Porsche 550 Spyder replica, one of which was the cover car on our August 2018 issue.

His first sortie into this field started with a McLaren M6GT replica that he imported from the US. He and David Harold, a director of Fibreglass Developments in Feilding, were going to produce them together in the late 1970s. It was a short-lived venture, as McRae was offered and accepted the role of chief mechanic of the US Skoal Bandit Racing team, owned by the actor and race car driver Paul Newman. McRae sold his share of the venture to David Harold, who went on to produce about 37McLaren replicas.

Years later, back in New Zealand, McRae met up with long-time friend Graham Lister. They had known each other since McRae's apprenticeship in Wellington. Lister had purchased a Porsche 356A, but the car he truly wanted was the Porsche 550 Spyder, which was way beyond his budget. Lister, along with Allan Bremner, approached McRae and asked him if he was interested in building Porsche 550 replicas for members of the Porsche club. He was. Consequently, a Beck body was imported from America, and McRae designed a chassis for the car that used as many genuine Porsche parts as possible.

 

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Affordable 356
By the mid-'90s, McRae had produced more than 30 550 replicas with more on order. Impressed with the success of the replica car, he started thinking about building the 550's little brother, the 356. This was going to be a more affordable and simpler beast. Once again, Beck provided the body, and McRae set about producing a kit that used the ever-popular VW Beetle as its primary donor car.

McRae was not happy with the quality of the body that arrived in New Zealand, so he set to work fixing it, adding liberal lashings of fibreglass and bog. The now 'correct' body became the plug for the car McRae produced. It is not known exactly how many 356 cars McRae built, but it is believed to be between six and eight. McRae stopped production of all his cars in 2003. An employee of Graham's, Dean Preston, moved to Levin and made at least another three before he headed to Australia in the early 2000s. Recently, I discovered that the moulds are now in Nelson, and plans are in hand to put the car back into production.

Another company, Platinum Speedsters (1999-2003), produced Porsche 356 replicas in Auckland, but it had no connection with the McRae cars.

Two Good Reasons
So, why do people buy a 356 replica rather than the real deal? There are two main reasons. The first, obviously, is price, and the second very good reason is that the replicas are right-hand drive. Less than 2000 Speedsters were produced, and only a handful were right-hand drive. Of the 20 brand new 356s imported into New Zealand, only a few of them were Speedsters. Most of them still exist and, needless to say, they are worth a pretty penny. In short, the best way to get a 356 Speedster driving experience - unless your cousin owns a bank - is to build or buy a replica.

 

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The McRae 356 featured is one of the last 356 replicas produced by McRae as a kit. It was built by Dave Midgen in Auckland. Midgen first registered this car in 1998 and put 3000km on the clock before he sold it. It is now owned by Jonathan Paape of Lower Hutt. The road that Jonathan travelled to buy this car is interesting and can be linked directly to the 20 HD 356 Porsches that were sold back in the '60s.

It turns out that his father, Godfrey Paape, was a petrolhead through and through, and very fond of Porsches. He eventually became the owner of the tenth right-hand drive Porsche 356B sold in New Zealand, a coupe. It was second-hand but only 11 months old. He would use it as his daily driver for the next eight years. Godfrey Paape had two sons named Jonathan and Digby, and the main thing they inherited from their father was a love of all things petrol. Jonathan attained his licence at the age of 15 and immediately started saving to buy a car. By 18, he had saved $1200 and was seriously considering a Ford Anglia. However, at about the same time, Godfrey was offered $1800 for his Porsche 356B as a trade-in.

Rather than trading it, he offered it to Jonathan for $1600. Not surprisingly, the Anglia was quickly forgotten. After all, who would pass up the chance to own a genuine Porsche as their first car? The 356 became Jonathan's daily driver, and he owned it for about 22 56 NEW ZEALAND CLASSIC CAR years. During this time, he met and married Janet. In 1982, Jonathan saw another New Zealand new righthand drive Porsche 356 advertised, a detachable hard-top. Janet bought it, and it became her daily driver until 1984 when she became pregnant. At which point the car was sold to make way for a more practical Honda Civic. At one stage, there were two righthand drive 356s parked in the Paape driveway alongside a 911 Carrera.

Jonathan's 356 was sold in 1992 for $50K, considerably more than what he had paid for it. At this point, Jonathan was also racing Porsche 911s. To add even more validity to his petrolhead credentials, Jonathan built an Almac 427SC (Cobra replica) in the 1980s.

 

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Convincing Cobra
Now that we are getting into kit cars, it's worth mentioning that Jonathan bought and built the first production Almac 427SC as a racing car. At the same time, his brother Digby purchased the first turnkey Almac 427SC built by Graham Berry Race Cars. From this, it can be deduced that Jonathan recognises the legitimacy of replicas as an affordable way of keeping a legend alive. Together the Paape brothers created their own legend by besting many other marques on the racetrack in their Cobras.

Fast forward to 2012, a friend who worked for Ferrari New Zealand told Jonathan that they had just traded a McRae 356 Speedster and was he interested? "Absolutely," he replied. The car was bought sight unseen. The first time Jonathan saw the 356 was when it was being backed off a car transporter outside his house with the soft-top up.

In Jonathan's opinion, the soft-top does nothing for the car, and he describes it as "bloody ugly". To date, that is the only time the soft-top has been used. When Jonathan bought the 356, it had only done 10,000km. Since then, he has doubled this, as he uses the 356 as a summer daily driver. "One of the great things about owning a replica is that you do not have to be too precious about it," says Jonathan. "I bought the car because I wanted to drive it, not to have a trailer queen. The number of kilometres on the clock or the odd scratch in the paintwork does not carry the same baggage as it would on a genuine original car."

Being a replica, Jonathan has no issues with adding modern parts as long as they are relatable to the original car. Examples of this are the Porsche 914 engine and transaxle. The engine was enlarged from 1.8 litres to 2.4 litres. The modern fuel injection system was jettisoned in favour of a period-correct twin-downdraught Weber. The original 356s came standard with 60 to 75bhp. Jonathan's McRae 356 is pushing out almost double the power with about 140bhp on tap. All this gives the little 750kg car a powerto-weight ratio that is better than many 911s of the '60s and '70s.

 

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Breaking Bad
Since he bought it, Jonathan has changed its looks from a European sports car to that of an American boulevard cruiser, but without the expense of the half a million dollars it would cost to own a genuine one. So how do genuine 356 owners react to this plastic upstart in their midst? Well, so far he has not received any negative comments. Even 356 experts have given it the thumbs up.

Now Jonathan has ideas to change it again, with the encouragement of Angus Cooper, New Zealand's foremost 356 modifier. At some stage in the near future, it will be given the 'outlaw/ street racer' look popular in the US. That's another benefit of a replica - following your whimsy like this simply can't offend the purists.

Having never driven a genuine Porsche 356, I cannot compare the two, but Jonathan said the two are remarkably similar apart from the greater torque. Jonathan's car felt like a '60s sports car with its flat steering wheel, low windscreen, and no real weather - or any other kind -of protection. Initially, I had thought the top part of the windscreen frame, being right in my sightline, would be a problem, but being so thin - the frame, not me - I quickly forgot it was there and enjoyed the drive.

 

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There was a little bit of play in the gearbox thanks to its rear placement, and it had quite a narrow gate. However, I quickly got used to it and enjoyed the notchy way it clicked into gear. I was almost too big for it at 1.8m, but as long as I didn't mind the steering wheel rubbing against my thighs it was okay.

Anybody taller would have difficulty. Jonathan has no intentions of selling it and has some other improvements in mind. The car is faster, reliable, costs a smidgen of the price of a real one, and is drop-dead gorgeous. What's not to like?

 

Article kindly provided by: themotorhood.com

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