“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.