By Graeme Hurst

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Some of us enjoy our cars as they came out of the factory. Others like to tinker under the bonnet to squeeze out extra horses. And then there’s the odd individual who just can’t resist re-engineering it from scratch. Or designing his own, for that matter. And those born-with-a-spanner-in-each-hand types don’t just stick to four wheels, like Capetonian John Beer. A lifelong Porsche enthusiast and former Leyland engineer, he’s built everything from the world’s first six-cylinder Porsche 356 to a custom Land Rover boat and a 1/3-scale radio-controlled MIG jet.

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“It could spin its wheels in first, second and third gear,” recalls John Beer when I ask him how his Porsche 356 Speedster went after he married it to a supercharged and heavily tweaked Chevrolet Corvair engine. “And the front wheels would lift off the ground in sprints.” Wait a minute… a Corvair engine rammed in the back of a Speedster? Given the values of these petite Stuttgart icons (we’re talking around five or six bar these days) the idea of both the engine transplant and sprint antics will horrify 356 purists. But maybe if they learn that that was 50 years ago and that John had previously replaced the original 75bhp push-rod item with a pukka four-cam Carrera unit. And that he ultimately re-instated the original engine, their blood pressure will normalise. And if they’re lucky enough to get to know John they’ll appreciate that expecting this born engineer to leave the car (any car for that matter) untouched is about as likely as asking Kimi Raikkonen to follow team orders at a Grand Prix…

John is well known in Cape Town for his one-family-owned Porsche 356B, his time at Leyland as a production engineer and for his incredibly fertile engineering brain. And although he joined Leyland in 1969, serving under Ralph Clarke for 17 years, his engineering skills and passion for all things powered began decades before as a boy in Burma where his parents were stationed. “My father was the plant manager in a Ford truck and car factory in Rangoon and I spent a lot of time watching assembly from the sidelines,” he explains.

After the war his parents moved to England and ran a bakery where he used to drive the electric bread van around the yard. “That got me hooked on cars!” By 1949 the family had re-located to South Africa after his father took up a position at Studebaker in Port Elizabeth. John, who was then 12 years old, designed and built his own downhill racer. “It looked a bit like a 911 but long before the model came out,” he recalls. By 16 he’d fabricated a small speed boat from plans in Popular Mechanics and started getting stuck into cars. “I bought a crashed MG TC and rebuilt it,” says John. An MGA followed and it was immediately tweaked. “It had high compression pistons and a ¾ race ground cam fitted – basically stage three.” John raced it heavily before designing a dirt track racer from the wheels up: “It used a 250cc twin two-stroke engine,” he recalls. “It was entirely my own design – chassis, suspension, steering and brakes – with a fibreglass body.”

That was in the early ’60s and by then he’d taken up training as a toolmaker at Studebaker. “I made assembly tooling for Silver Hawks and Larks.” He was also lucky enough to buy a Porsche 356 Speedster, shortly before he was seconded as a student engineer for two years to VW’s Technical Development Department in Wolfsburg. “It was the Holy of Holies of automotive engineering,” recalls John who was exposed to the development of new models, including the 411/12 and 1302 Beetle and other concepts that never made it to production.

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John took the Speedster with him on the boat and immediately enjoyed the car’s performance on the autobahns. “Arriving at the port of Antwerpen, I drove the Porsche through Belgium and Germany to Wolfsburg. In those days one could cruise between 100-110mph and nothing would overtake you!” Not quite, it seemed: on one such occasion a year later a Jaguar E-Type cruised past and John gave chase. “We kept company for about half an hour until I noticed my heat gauge nudging the red. But then the engine had been sitting at over 6000rpm. The E-Type ultimately spurted two black wisps of smoke from its exhaust and disappeared into the distance,” chuckles John. “By this time the Porsche engine was sounding rough, so I pulled into a town and phoned my friends in Wolfsburg to tow me in.”

Trouble was, there wasn’t a Porsche agent in Wolfsburg to fix the car, so John removed the engine in the parking bay outside his flat. “I got some friends to lift the back of the car up and I dropped the engine onto my legs and slid back out.” A stripdown on the pavement revealed a damaged crankshaft and con rods. John bagged up the bits and hitchhiked to Hanover to buy reconditioned items before rebuilding the engine in his bedroom. “When my friends came back from work they were amazed as it was back together – we just had to reverse the extraction process!” he recalls. The damage turned out to be the result of low oil pressure owing to a missing oil filter restrictor.

Back in action, the Speedster was enjoyed extensively around Europe. “I did a few laps around the Le Mans circuit and even took it over the Gotthard Pass in the Alps. And it seems the Porsche was quite a catch for the young engineer while abroad: “Girls used to use it as a post box by leaving me cards. ‘Hi, I am Sabina – here’s a photo of me. We can meet at café so and so.’”

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On his return to VW in Port Elizabeth, John was tasked with developing Studebaker Police Interceptors – VW and Studebaker being together at that stage. “My father said they’d been asked to supply a police chase car and they were going for a Studebaker and I said, ‘No, no, no… won’t work.’ The standard Studebaker had a three-speed column shift and drum brakes and that was no good. So we got a CanAm car and specified the same Jet 1 V8 and disc brakes. I even made a cutout in the front so the police could fire a gun while on the move,” he says. The concept clearly worked as John discovered decades later: “The film Long Walk to Freedom features one in Mandela’s capture!”

In the meantime, John was quite into boating and designed his own swamp boat for fun. “I found a two-cylinder Goggomobil engine and made my own propeller using a set of spoke shaves my great-grandfather used when he made propellers for de Havilland!” Unsurprisingly his creation was noisy enough to make the papers: “I got penalised by the police after a complaint from the Dutch Reformed Church about using it on the Swartkops River.”

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Back on land, John turned his attention to making the Speedster a bit quicker by swapping the 75hp pushrod unit for a super-rare Carrera four-cam. And not just a regular four-cam but a roller-bearing variant! “I used to race against a guy who had a four-cam speedster. But he ran the engine on Castrol R in everyday use and those engines don’t like that as they need to be warmed up properly. As a result, the chrome lining came off the bores and got into the oil and then messed up the roller bearings. It was seized solid and I bought it as scrap.”

John needed a new crank assembly for the engine but a call to Dawie Gouws was fruitless as was one to Stuttgart: “Porsche said if I could find a new crank they’d buy it off me as the supplier had gone out of business.” John was left with no alternative but to disassemble the complex, mulit-part crankshaft in situ. “I removed the cylinder barrels so I could see the webs inside the crankcase and then made a set of spanners to take it apart bit by bit until all the needle rollers fell away.” Once rebuilt, the Speedster was campaigned in races with great success but not long after, John decided he could go one better.

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“Porsche came out with the six-cylinder car and I wanted something to take it on.” A local scrapyard had a turbo-charged engine from a Corvair Monza. “There were only two or three of these cars in the country at the time, so it was a rare find.” Presumably the Corvair’s reputation for tail-happy handling had a hand in the motor’s availability.

John was quick to seize the moment but mating the 150bhp flat-six with the 356 wasn’t exactly a doddle. “The Corvair unit turns the other way so I either needed to turn the engine around which obviously can’t be done or flip the gearbox over end on… but that would’ve complicated the gear lever linkages and given it a peculiar shift pattern.” John’s solution was to swap the crown wheel and pinion assembly around but that wasn’t as straightforward as it sounds: “The thrust bearings are only set up to take thrust in one direction so I got bearing supplier SKF to make up titanium spacers that could take the load in the opposite direction.” He also converted the engine to solid valve lifters. “It was designed with hydraulic lifters but they don’t work properly at high rpm so it couldn’t rev.” The upgrade increased the redline from around 4500 to 7000rpm. That helped the car wheelie but he also tweaked the performance. “I ran wider tyres on the back and installed a hard-top which I had made up in Germany to improve the aerodynamics.” John would also run the car in sprints with the engine lid propped open to create much needed down force.

During this time the family had been enjoying another 356 for quite some time. “My father, who was by then Works Director for VW, was so enamoured with the Speedster that be bought a coupé out of the box as a present to himself – which my mother took over when he died in a car accident.”

She drove the 356 B until she was 85 after which John’s wife Helga used it daily for many years but only after a colour change. “It was originally black but that was impossible in summer, so I re-sprayed it white.” By that time the Speedster had hit the road after more than 300 000 miles. “I put the original engine back, re-sprayed and sold it for R1 200 to a guy in Durban.” That was in the late 1970s and I think I cleared less than a R1 000. Probably can’t even buy a tyre for it for that today!”

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By then John was well into his career at Leyland in the Cape, having assisted with – and in some cases designed – the assembly plants for everything from the Jaguar XJ6 and Mini range to the Triumph Chicane and Rover SD1. And that was in addition to his involvement with the assembly of Leyland trucks and bus chassis at the Elsies River and Epping plants, which he was responsible for bringing into production.

Back in his own garage a Porsche 550 Spyder replica was taking shape but this wasn’t one of the popular kits of the time: “I used a scrapped Beetle for the chassis and suspension but made my own body which was about 100mm longer than standard to improve the handling.” John also used a pukka Porsche 356 push-rod engine and developed a tuned exhaust, and larger carbs with ram tubes to optimise the output.

But his focus was wider than Porsche as his next project proved: a Honda motorbike-powered two-seater ‘Town Car’. “I thought there might be a need for a light and economical runabout. I used a 500cc bike engine coupled to a BMW 600 Isetta drive train and a Rover SD1 tailgate as the front windscreen panel.” That idea didn’t get beyond a working chassis and body frame (although he created a scaled mock-up of the proposed body) but another car concept – actually a car and boat concept – did get to fruition: The Land Rover boat.

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That may sound like an oxymoron, but it was hugely clever. “The Air Force was looking for a crash boat that they could easily transport but use on water in a hurry. I designed a fibreglass boat that doubled as the roof of a 109in Land Rover. I built a single-seater, for testing the concept, as well as two- and three-man versions,” explains John. “The outboard motor was carried in place of the spare wheel on the rear door.”

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His fascination with boating led him to build a series of small outboard speed boats, including a twin pointer hydro-plane and a hydrofoil – with the latter boasting some clever thinking in the way the propeller was situated. “I started experimenting with the depth of the propeller in the water and soon realised that if you let it run with one blade in the water you can reduce cavitation and increase the speed. I got it up from 50 to around 65mph doing that with a 40hp outboard.”

And John didn’t limit his garage tinkering to stuff on land and sea: even while still at Leyland and subsequently Tedelex in the late 1980s, he pursued a love of radio-controlled aircraft with a stream of self-designed gliders (including one of a Vulcan bomber). Some of these featured nifty thinking where all the control surfaces (ailerons, flaps and elevator) were linked together while John used fibreglass as a construction medium when most enthusiasts were still reaching for their jig saw and sheets of balsa wood.

His creations were a little unconventional in looks too: John made a 1/3-scale model of a MIG jet! “I bought a small plastic model kit and used that and some photos to scale up my own design.” Some scale: it was or is (as it’s still hanging from the rafters of his garage in his Milnerton home) – five metres long! The MIG model is powered by two 10cc two-stroke engines driving propellers, hidden in the engine nacelles with pulse-tuned exhausts to maximise the power. It also features what John terms ‘aerodynamic intensifiers’: small triangular airfoils in the air stream that act and assist the servos to move the control surfaces. John is still active in the radio-controlled aircraft hobby, flying electric-powered aircraft which he says is “a great way to keep your short-term memory active” and he enjoys driving and sharing his enthusiasm for both the 356 and Spyder replicas.

He’s also widely regarded as a fount of knowledge for all things Porsche in his retirement, although that concept hasn’t remotely dented his thirst for engineering the world around him: when I met with him, he spent the first ten minutes showing me a design for running a power station using superheated steam, created by pumping water 5km into the depths of the earth’s crust so it can be heated to 300 degrees. John even shared the concept with the chaps at Koeberg who asked how he came up with the idea, to which he was quick to respond: “This is what happens when an engineer retires… he gets ideas!”

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