1958 356 Speedster
"This is a stripper," says Tom Tate, owner of the black '58 Speedster. "No windows. Minimal heat. Drum brakes." I guess you can tell a car is minimalist when the driver arrives wearing a half-helmet and goggles.
Cars from the 1950s seem to fall into two basic camps: small, agile, and slow, or powerful, ponderous, and colossal. The Speedster clearly belongs in the first group. "All pushrod 356s from 1957 on used a 1600-cc engine that made between 70 and 105 horsepower," Tate tells me. "But it only weighs about 1700 pounds. These cars all got about 30 mpg, back when nobody cared."
I strap in behind the wheel and Tate grabs shotgun. The passenger's seat is mounted higher than the driver's seat; Tate's head pokes up above the windshield. "Now I remember why I lowered the other seat," he says.
The transmission is all synchromesh, but gnashing gears remind me to be careful when shifting. Rev it up, pause a beat, then pull the shifter back into second gear. This car has open exhaust, and I'm a little surprised at how much commotion can be emitted from such a small car.
It's no 911 Turbo, but the Speedster easily keeps up with the manic Boston traffic. You can drive it like a modern car -- at least, until you need to stop. The unassisted four-wheel drum brakes certainly add an element of excitement to the Speedster experience. While the steering wheel and shifter react to delicate inputs, the brakes demand a hearty shove to get things slowed down.
The fun thing about the Speedster is that it delivers on its essential recipe -- an open-air rollick infused with a whiff of danger -- without actually requiring you to go very fast. "The engine is screaming, the tires are barely hanging on, you're Fangio!" Tate says. "Then you look down and see you're going 44 mph."