Sarel van der Merwe Speedster

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Sarel van der Merwe Speedster

Post by Pine » Sat May 23, 2020 12:09 pm

As published in CAR magazine, 2015

Many enthusiasts will argue that during the 1950s and 1960s automotive design reached its pinnacle. In some regards it is difficult to argue with them. Not only were these the formative years for Porsche but it was also a time when we saw other manufacturers designing some astonishingly elegant cars (Mercedes-Benz 300SL, anyone?).

Although the 356 is on the compact side of the scale in terms of design, it still has those soft, perfect lines front to rear, as well as from side to side, which we have come to associate with the car.

South Africa has a very limited classic car market, so when a fellow enthusiast sent me the link to the advertisement for this Meissen Blau Speedster, I couldn’t believe that such an iconic car was for sale only seven kilometres from my office in Cape Town. More importantly, I was about to learn that the car had an extremely interesting history.

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Fascinating history

After a few phone calls I met up with the owner and I could sense that even he couldn’t quite believe the history of the car which he has owned for the past 35 years (since he was 23 years old). When the owner decided to sell the Speedster he started to do some proper research on the car. He knew the Speedster had been owned in South Africa by a certain Mr Van der Merwe but as this surname is one of the most prolific in South Africa he didn’t bother to find out exactly which Mr Van der Merwe it was. After a few enquiries, it seems this particular Mr Van der Merwe’s name was Sarel, and Sarel Van der Merwe is a household name in South African racing. Apart from numerous race victories – including being an 11-time South African rally champion – the now-retired racer was part of the Porsche team which came third in the 1984 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race in a Porsche 956. He was also part of the 1984 team that won the IMSA 24 Hours of Daytona race.

As fate would have it, this Speedster belonged to his father, also called Sarel, but, the story was about to get even more intriguing. After the current owner had his first meeting with Sarel, the floodgates opened and the car’s full history surfaced. On the day we drove this car, the regional newspaper even ran a story on Sarel’s father and his history regarding the car.

This car was bought new by Sarel Senior in 1958. According to Sarel Junior, the more powerful front 356 Carrera drums (356 aficionados will notice the ribbed pattern on the drum), which are wider and air-cooled, were ordered as he knew he would race the car. The car’s finest achievement came in 1959 when it recorded an overall second place at the nine-hour endurance race at Grand Central – a circuit which was used before the current Kyalami circuit was built. The team also won their class and came second on index of performance. They covered a distance of 565 miles and beat cars such as a few Volvo Sport racers, an Alfa Romeo Spider and Sprint and two MGAs.

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However, as Sarel shared this story with us, a sly smile appeared on his face. When he was at school he stole his father’s Speedster (an exercise he regularly repeated!) and while charging down the streets of Pretoria he lost control of the car exciting a roundabout and crashed into a stationary vehicle. Instead of reporting it he immediately drove back home.

He barricaded himself in his bedroom expecting trouble. The police arrived at his parents’ house (his father had told the police to go there after they called in search of the driver of the car at the time of the accident). Further, his father told the police to get to the house before he did, otherwise they might have a murder case on their hands! His father allowed the police to keep young Sarel in the holding cells for four days as he didn’t want him back at the house.

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Fortunately, since Sarel Jr became such a successful racer, I think we can forgive him for this minor incident in his distant youth. Sarel Senior sold the car in 1964, after which it had a few more owners before its current custodian bought it.

Concours winner

Until the late-1990s, the current owner didn’t know about his car’s rich history, and decided to restore the car completely. The entire process took a while but it was comprehensively completed and in 2000 it was the overall winner at the Porsche Club of South Africa’s annual concours event.

This Speedster doesn’t have its original engine, which is understandable, since it started its life as a race car, however, the numbers still indicate that it was manufactured in 1958. Open the elegantly curved engine lid and you are greeted by mechanicals so clean that they could have rolled off the production line yesterday. This is partly a testament to the mere 5 000 km the owner has driven since the car was restored.

Since winning the concours, the only changes the owner has undertaken were the fitment of the 5,5-inch Brazilian wheels, giving the car a Californian look. He also fitted 356 C cylinder heads and Webber carburettors on the engine, giving it slightly more power. After all, it is believed that the Speedster left the factory in a slightly higher state of tune, since it was heading for the race circuits of South Africa.

When the car’s full race history (with photographs) was discovered, the owner realised that he had actually done a great job restoring the car, as the only non-original element was the tanned soft-top and side screen surrounds, as the original items had been black.

Behind the wheel

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The first time I saw the car, it was standing in the black-painted studio of Cape Town’s premier motoring showroom, Crossley & Webb. There was nothing to draw your attention away from the smooth, simplistic and classy lines of the Speedster. This theme is carried over to the interior with only the most basic of instruments offered to both the driver and passenger.

This car’s unique history swirled around in my head as we met up with the owner in the picturesque winelands town of Franschhoek, an hour’s drive from Cape Town. We couldn’t have asked for a better day, the sun was out, it was warm and we had selected a rather twisty country road for our excursion.

As I walked to the car, I pressed the button on the door handle and the mechanism pushed it open. The door is light but, as expected, extremely solid. This became increasingly evident as I climbed in and out of the car as part of our photoshoot duties. I was too scared to slam the door too hard, but one has to, and when one does so, one experiences that solid thud – a feature we still associate with most Porsches until the late-1990s.

The cabin is another study in simplicity. The seats are the most elementary Porsche pews I’ve have had the privilege to sit in. However, as unfussy as they seem, they are almost equally as good and comfortable as any modern seat when you manoeuvre yourself behind the wheel. Without any seat belts you do find yourself feeling slightly exposed and vulnerable, though.

The massive steering wheel certainly gives one the feeling of being in control of the car, while the three circular instruments offer the driver of the Speedster only the most fundamental information. There are also switches for the wipers and headlights. Look down, and in front of the gear lever you will find the adjustment knob for the rather primitive heating system.

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To start this 356 A one turns the key less than a quarter of a turn, then gives the starter button (fitted at a later stage) a push and feathers the throttle. The 1,6-litre flat-four catches after a few turns and settles into an easy and unstressed idle.

I pressed the clutch pedal down and moved the gear lever forward (reverse is engaged by pressing down and left up, as many Volkswagen products are today) and released the clutch. I quickly changed into second, and short-shifted to third and fourth. At an indicated 60 km/h the wind flowed into the cabin and I started to experience the uniqueness of these cars.

The shorter windscreen results in the wind flowing perfectly over my head and not into my face (impressive, as I’m 1,88 metres tall) as one might have thought. Having said that, one’s view is cut in half by the chromed frame of the lower than usual windscreen. The view over the bonnet is typical Porsche, with the front fenders drawing your attention to the left and right extremities of the car. However, let your eyes glide from left to right, or visa versa, and it is quite possibly one of the smoothest lines in car design history.

With the in-car photography done and the owner driving back to our rendezvous in the camera car, I pressed the clutch, blipped the throttle slightly and engaged third gear. Despite being far from a professional at heel-and-towing,

I found the pedals are perfectly positioned for such exercises. I pressed the throttle to its stop and the engine started pulling with an honest level of vigour. The rev counter passed 3 000 r/min and as the needle touched 4 000 r/min (an understandable safety barrier) I switched back to fourth gear. I did this a few times and it dawned on me why this was one of the best sports cars of

the time. Unfortunately this was my first encounter behind the wheel of a 356, so I am not able to compare it to other 356 models. I have, however, driven German sedans from this era, and the Speedster feels substantially lighter, nimbler and sharper.

The gearbox’s shifting action does feel vague (and each throw is long) compared to modern sports cars – which one would expect. However, after a few shifts one quickly learns the feel of the gearbox. As one becomes accustomed to driving this car, I’m sure this will become second nature.

Owning this car won’t be like having any other cabriolet in your garage. It has absolutely no creature comforts to speak of. I’ll go as far as to say that I am unable to imagine putting the roof in place. This would be an injustice to the purpose of this car, which is to sail along with wind in you hair. Even after several hours in the sun, and the 30ºC heat on a South African summer’s day, the owner tackled the hour’s drive back to Cape Town with the roof down. It is that sort of car. But, you won’t be doing it every weekend. You will select your trips and parking bays carefully in this car. Wherever you approach the car you may well look at and think to yourself, ‘I have the key to what is one of the most timeless shapes in automotive history’. I know I did…

The 356 Speedster in numbers

The 356 Speedster made its official public debut in 1954, seen at the time as a spiritual successor to the very pretty America Roadster. As was the case with a few halo European cars, the Speedster was built owing to the influence from Max Hoffman, the official importer of Porsches into the USA.

At a time when the market (read collectors and investors) has gone mad for limited number production cars, it might come as a surprise that the Speedster was not as scarce as one might think. According to The Porsche Book by Jürgen Barth and Gustav Büsing, a total of 4 822 cars found homes, of which 556 were built in 1958.

However, of the total number, fewer than 40 factory versions were RHD, of which this car is one. Speedsters, which participated in race events, were nothing special at the time. What are regarded today as museum pieces took part in German hillclimbs and were also a regular sight in club races in the USA.

This article first appeared in GTPorsche magazine.



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Re: Sarel van der Merwe Speedster

Post by Bugger » Sat May 23, 2020 5:54 pm

Thanks Pine interesting story

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Re: Sarel van der Merwe Speedster

Post by AlanH » Sat May 23, 2020 5:54 pm

Thanks for sharing.

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Re: Sarel van der Merwe Speedster

Post by buggyfan » Sat May 23, 2020 7:01 pm

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