The tach’s needle dances as I urge the reformed Porsche 356 through North Hollywood’s congested streets. “Leno’s shop is over there,” Rod Emory tells me, and my thoughts stray from the 356’s sensations to the stories both Emory and the sultan of car collectors, Jay Leno, could tell about car-culture history. Rod’s grandfather was part of the original SoCal hot-rod era and the modified-car scene, a tradition passed down to his grandson.
Many automotive craftsmen work with multiple brands and cars, but Rod Emory and Emory Motorsports are steadfast in their devotion to the Porsche 356. Reminiscent of Porsche’s dedication to attention to detail and engineering, Emory Motorsports’ work warrants a spot on the Pebble Beach lawn, even though its proprietor has no interest in obtaining one.
With a prod of the throttle, the 356’s redesigned twin-cam four-cylinder engine crackles through the bustling street. Emory’s crew originally upgraded 914 2.0-liter four-cylinders for use in the 356, an option still available to his clients, but the company discovered a better solution by cutting two cylinders from a 3.6-liter 964-generation 911’s twin-cam flat-six. With help from Rothsport Racing, the resultant 2.4-liter dry sump flat-four fits inside the 356’s engine bay and produces 200 horsepower to compliment the car’s sub-2,300-pound curb weight; the engine revs to upward of 7,000 rpm. Those numbers are dwarfed by the contrast between the original’s $4,000 price tag and the $200,000-plus entry point with Emory, but you get what you pay for.
These 356-based specials aren’t as ostentatious as the 911s Singer Vehicle Design modifies, nor are they preposterous lap-record monsters. From an arm’s length away, you have to be a dyed-in-the-wool Porsche nut to tell anything is different, such are the restrained yet artistic aesthetic changes. But how do you define art? Is it brash and haphazard brush strokes? Finer, more nuanced sculpting? Perhaps it is like the Supreme Court’s definition of porn: You know it when you see it. And as you gaze at the stunning not-quite-pastel-green coupe, you definitely know you’re looking at art. Art, that is, not porn.
Modern workshops like McLaren’s are clean, quiet, and antiseptic with floor to ceiling windows and an air of superiority. Emory’s North Hollywood workshop is none of those things. You won’t find a clean surface or a quiet place to reflect anywhere in the building. In place of modern tools, Emory’s craftsmen have hammers arranged on both a stand and a movable workbench, which seemingly has hundreds of different types of the instrument. There’s a tree stump located centrally on the shop’s floor used to hand-form each piece of aluminum, and there are a half-dozen English wheels to perfect each line and crease. Old school, in other words.
Every line on these cars has been altered, slightly tucked, slightly rolled, or made just slightly better using old-school hot-rod techniques that create something fantastic, both to look at and drive.
Contemporary methods, however, are welcome. Behind the workshop and an over-flowing parts room—do not enter unless you’ve had your tetanus vaccination—sit a computer and a 3-D printer. Rod and his crew scan cars into a 3-D rendering program to figure out which modern parts will work, which ones need massaging, and which ones have problems. It’s also where customers can speak with Emory about what direction their 356 will take, such as the company’s latest creation: an “all-wheel-drive, track setup with a roof bike rack made from titanium.”
We head out on a short jaunt through Emory’s neighborhood, a drive that allows me to explore this hot-rod Porsche. Its road manners on pitted Southern California roads are almost faultless, even with its heavier-duty 964 suspension. Emory tells me the owner of this particular car wanted something in-between a GT car and his 997-generation 911 GT3. It’s firm but isn’t tooth-rattling. “One common thread for many of our customers is that they have an original 356 and they also have a newer 911,” Emory says. They come to us because they want a car that gives them the look and charm of a 356, but with a more modern performance-driving experience. Best of both worlds.” Sitting at a light, the 356’s engine flutters momentarily, but with a bit of gas, it pops back to life. Emory points out the engine is still being tuned.
The original Nardi steering wheel’s thickness feels miniscule, even though the outside diameter more resembles a wheel from a school bus. But this is not bus-like steering. Emory’s non-assisted steering rack feels similar to the modern Alfa Romeo 4C, though less jarring and more communicative. Even in a straight line it’s weighted properly, and the sensation only gets better as you turn, the car’s contemporary tacky Dunlop tires gripping the road. There’s no argument or groan from the 356’s chassis, just more grip. Emory’s crew has meticulously gone through the chassis, strengthening it by adopting modern suspension uprights and chassis bracing to build something less in common with its original sister, the Volkswagen Beetle, and more in common with its race-inspired descendants.
Back at the shop, most of Emory’s crew has gone home for the day. Emory and his nephew start talking about one of the cars that isn’t quite ready. The two men remove one of the two-piece aluminum wheels, designed after the space-saver spare wheel from the 964 911. The brakes are crafted to look, while the wheel is still on, like the drums that originally came with the car. Most workshops just throw on a set of Wilwood brakes without any care for the overall aesthetic. Not Emory. “It costs quite a bit [almost $20,000 to be exact],” he says, holding the custom annular disc brakes which reposition the caliper inside the disc to allow for a larger disc diameter. “But for the look we’re going for, it’s worth the extra cost to my clients.” I can’t find any reason to disagree.