INTERVIEW WITH GARY KEMPTON IN 356 REGISTRY NOV/DEC 1999 BY DICK KOENIG

Have you ever heard of a 1500 RS 356 Carrera?

Not many people have. These were the very first 356 Carreras and they were equipped with Spyder engines. Some years ago I had a brief opportunity to examine one. The car was in nice condition but needed restoration. Recently I was excited to discover that the car had been completely redone and was now in Gary Kempton's shop. He invited me for a visit to see the Carrera. We shared stories and pictures and talked all day. It was wonderful. Gary met me at the Tallahassee Regional Airport and we rode in the pickup truck to his business, Made-By-Hand, Inc., in nearby Crawfordville.

During our drive, it became evident very quickly that we were in the country; Florida country, that is. Everywhere there were dense thickets of trees filled with hanging Spanish moss. The hot sun peeked through, creating fascinating vistas. This area has an old, settled peaceful aura to it, just perfect for 356s. Gary's spread, which is back in the woods, includes several buildings, storage trailers, and a large area filled with used 356s. He refers to this latter place as his "historic archives." After a driving tour of the property, we entered the first building. There were several nicely painted bodies ready for assembly. Especially attractive to me was Ed Anspach's C2 Coupe. It's scheduled for assembly in October.

Dick Koenig: I see all these cars in process and all their parts. How do you keep track of everything? Organization must be a top priority.

Gary Kempton: Organization is important, you're absolutely correct. But, you must understand that, first of all, I'm in the service business. My goal is to take care of the customer and serve his or her interests. People come to me with an idea about the kind of car they'd like to have. Usually, it's described rather loosely, but includes something about aesthetics and quality. People want a car that's pretty to look at or fun to drive or, perhaps, both. They have a dream and are filled with excitement. This is the starting point. For the dream to remain alive throughout their project, a lengthy discussion needs to occur before any work begins. A dream without clear understanding about time and money will not be sustained. No matter how much money someone has, there's always limits. Everyone wants to be treated fairly and to believe they're getting a good value for the money spent. A project that's abruptly terminated in the middle is a bad dream for everyone. Also, starting and stopping several times during the course of work can substantially increase the cost. So, I like to begin any relationship with a serious conversation.

D.K.: You're absolutely correct. I've heard so many times about detours because time and money weren't fully discussed. Everyone ends up with a bad feeling, including the guy just listening to the sad story.

G.K.: There are some important things potential customers need to understand about restoration. Somebody once told me these are the "harsh realities". First, good quality and thorough restorations tend to cost more than the car will be worth when completed. In the short term, with little inflation, antique cars are not a great investment. I don't know how many people I've scared off when I said this, but it's a lot. Another important thing is that restoration is not a perfect science. In most instances I can't predict how much something will cost or how long the job will take. Even though I control many things by doing them in-house, there are so many unknowns with these old cars. I've talked to many people who own big companies and run complex projects. They tell me I should be able to predict accurately what their job will take. For me, that "should" is a big word. Let me give you a few examples. In the collision repair industry, there's a flat rate book which specifies how long a repair "should" take. For a windshield replacement, the sanctioned time is about one hour. That's fine if the replacement windshield fits, if the gasket is not too large or the rubber too hard, and, if the trim moulding doesn't need straightening or polishing. These are big "ifs" on most 356s. Recently I replaced a windshield and restored the mouldings in a little over 4 hours. I felt that was a good time. On other occasions I have spent several days fitting windshields. Speedsters and Roadsters are famous for this. Another illustration can be made with the 1500 RS Coupe in the other building. This car just completed a very high quality restoration. Its paint and finish had to be perfect for the shows this past season. The materials used on the body, while amongst the best in the industry, settle and shrink over time. This is not uncommon. We had to sand and buff the finish before each show. It's almost as if the body is alive, and you want it to peak for the event. Usually, the moment you touch one thing several others need attention. It's like a snowball effect. Seldom is a little job so simple.

D.K.: It sounds as if a customer needs to have a dream and then be able to embrace uncertainty. I suspect your customers place a great deal of trust in you.

G.K.: That's right. There is a combination of the money side and the psychological element. If these come together, restoration is a really pleasant experience. Let me add another point about shortcuts. I like to go slow with customers, and not rush into anything. But several times customers have come to me who were dazzled elsewhere with promises of cheap prices. The quality just wasn't there. It's a waste of money to do something over again because it was done wrong in the first place. A total waste. Another thing that's inefficient is when a customer doesn't truly understand the level of quality he or she wants in their finished car. Frequently people raise their level of expectations in the middle of the job. This occurs because they didn't have a clear understanding before work started. Again, we have to go back and do some things a second time, which costs extra money.

D.K.: I like the way you've highlighted the customer and that your core mission is service. Quite a refreshing difference from the prima donnas and snake-oil tricksters we've all encountered. How do you pull it off? Earlier you mentioned being organized. As I look around, there isn't a mysterious pile of parts or a mess anywhere. Is this your secret?

G.K.: I really don't think I have any secrets. I like to share information with everybody, especially other restorers. What makes our company unique is our ability to do the vast majority of restoration in-house. My crew has been together almost ten years. Also, we have the space, equipment and parts. All of these are essential if you want to be well organized. When you're involved with several models of 356s as I am, there's a quantum increase in the number of pieces and level of complexity. My blueprints are the Spare Parts Books. We work off the parts' diagrams through the entire process; we organize the disassembly, restoration and reassembly around them. At the start, we inventory every item as the car is taken apart. Notes are made about what's missing or needs replacement. We check off item-by-item each part of the car against the parts diagram. This process is very intensive and takes about 80 hours. Some people think they can save time and money by taking everything off and throwing it in a box. This leads to maximum disarray and can add 25% to the parts restoration cost. When a car is disassembled, each section, based on a Spare Parts Book diagram, is placed in a basket. Then, we go through each basket and thoroughly restore all the pieces. When finished, the components are stored in sealed plastic bags until needed at the reassembly. I like to have every part ready to put back on. In my assembly room I have a big table with drawers underneath where the restored parts are kept. Each drawer corresponds to a section in the parts diagram.

D.K.: I understand. The real fun and excitement during the process is the "re-creation." From the owner/customer's standpoint, I suspect the emotion gets elevated when this part of the process moves quickly. If assembly is prolonged as each piece is restored one by one, most of the excitement gets lost. Also, the risk of damage and error increases when attention starts and stops. If I may, I'd like to ask a question about storage in plastic bags. I've been involved recently with some restorers in California who claim that plastic stains or tarnishes zinc and cad plating. They prefer wrapping parts in paper. I have not noticed this personally with my stuff. What's been your experience?

G.K.: I have had no problems whatsoever with plastic. Some years ago I was a coin collector. At one point I bought a shiny new penny. To preserve it, I used a paper envelope. A few months later, it was all tarnished and black. That was a huge revelation. We should take into account possible differences in climate. Here in Florida it's very humid and usually hot. We cannot leave bare metal parts unprotected overnight or they will rust. The morning dew and condensation is devastating. Paper accelerates the corrosive process by trapping water. I like plastic very much because it is a moisture barrier.

D.K.: I'd like to ask another question about your procedure. I envision one basket having say, 10 bolts to be plated and the next perhaps 6 or 7. Do you go to the plater every other day with a handful of stuff? It seems to me that's really wasteful.

G.K.: There's kind of a balance between being rigidly structured and constrained by each page in the parts book versus miscellaneously painting or plating parts. I've found that preserving the order of the parts saves more time than the one batch method because you don't have to re-inventory several times. This is very critical to financial efficiency and customer satisfaction. We have an in-house plating capability here. It's no problem to do one bolt or fifty.

D.K.: Questions about originality come to mind. Let's assume you're doing a high level, authentic restoration. However, in one of the disassembly baskets there are repro parts, dead wrong items, and things you just don't know for sure. How do you handle this?

G.K.: Originality is a fascinating subject. The more I work on 356s the better I know the parts. However, there are always questions. I quickly discovered long ago that the Spare Parts Books don't have all the answers. They're incomplete. That's where our "Historic Archives" come in handy. We have nearly 50 old 356s and 5 large cargo trailers filled with parts. We continually use this inventory for reference. For example, recently there was a question about fasteners securing the engine lid to the hinges. I looked to the salvage cars for an answer. There are 11 cars with lids. Of these, 8 were the same. We don't know what went on with each of these cars over the past 40 odd years, but that's pretty compelling evidence for me.Situations like these, where the evidence is available, are the easy ones. All you have to do is look. But this isn't always so. The green 1500RS Coupe is an example. It is one of five pre-A Carrera production coupes made, yet little documentation exists about specific details. It is not described in the Spare Parts Catalog and I haven't been able to find any helpful photos.

D.K.: That wasn't uncommon in those days. Records weren't very thorough.

G.K.: Fortunately, with the exception of the engine, the car was very complete, albeit well used. Close examination of original parts revealed many details, including fit and finish. In the absence of specific parts diagrams, we had to rely on our best judgement in some instances. There are few people to call and no other cars to visit. We usually had a very good sense of what needed to be done based upon other projects, but hard, conclusive evidence didn't seem to exist. Also, many parts had to be specially fabricated.

D.K.: I like your approach: looking at other cars, talking to people and reflecting on past experiences. I'm curious about this beautiful RS Coupe. It seems nearly perfect. What sort of questions do you have?

G.K.: We researched most everything pretty well. My questions are mostly about minor details. Actually there are some conflicting opinions about the engine.

D.K.: I don't know if this will help but I brought along today some original factory photos of early Carrera engines. They were taken by a photographer employed by Porsche in the 1950s to develop material for various official publications. Would you like to have a look?

G.K.: Sure. I'd like to. Let me get my magnifying glass.

Gary quickly examined the photos one by one. Suddenly he stopped and looked up with an expression of amazement. He had found photos of the original engine to this car, P90067. I had no prior idea. What an astounding discovery! Of course, this completely blew the rest of our interview schedule for the day. Gary feverishly poured over the photos making notes until it was time for me to leave for the airport. What a precious moment on his restoration journey! Some weeks later, after Gary and his crew returned from the PCA Parade in Canada, we continued our dialogue by phone.

G.K.: I interrupted myself with your pictures; that was really awesome. I don't know how to thank you enough. Well, we were talking about originality. One thing I really believe is that you have to start on the right track or you won't get to the end point you want very efficiently. Most people define this subject in terms of the exterior trim items; lights, hubcaps, nuts and bolts, and so on. These are what gets noticed most when the car is done; clearly this is important. But for me, originality starts with the inside of the car and then works outward. Unless the suspension mounting points are true and the chassis has structural integrity, there's no way a restorer can do a good job. So many cars these days are rusty and everything flexes. You just don't know what's straight unless it's checked. Also, when there's a front end wreck, the huge mass of the engine and transmission frequently twists the rear torsion tube, but the deflection is not something you can easily see or measure with a yardstick. In our shop we have a Porsche chassis micrometer, like the one pictured in the Factory manual. This is a huge measuring bench like a giant caliper. Near the start of every restoration we check the front and rear torsion tubes for alignment. Any structural or collision repairs are done at this time. When this phase is completed we have absolute assurance that the car will track straight on the road and that all jambs and gaps will be correct. I just don't see any other way to do this. If you place a car on jack stands on an uneven concrete floor, what do you get? You can't do an accurate measurement without inserting the fixtures into the suspension tubes. This allows you to measure in all planes. A lot of guys don't agree but, for me, too much is left to chance on such old and valuable cars. The 356 suspension has no adjustment for front castor or camber. Correct angles are totally dependent on the chassis dimensions and the straightness of the suspension parts.

D.K.: It's apparent that you feel quite strongly about this. Yet, there's a lot of conventional wisdom supporting the "jack stand approach."

G.K.: Maybe in the past that was O.K. It's true we find some of the cars are still straight. But when you have to replace the entire bottom end, as we usually do these days, you're taking a huge chance. Our cars are getting older and more valuable, so why would you take the risk? Let me give you an example. Recently, we received a 356 C cab for evaluation. A few years ago it had received a concours level restoration. Cosmetically it looked mighty fine for the most part. However, the door gaps weren't quite right and the car seemed to flex and shake when driven. Our chassis measuring device immediately showed that the rear torsion tube was bent forward on one side. I should explain here that this Porsche factory bench doesn't have fixed mounting points as a Celette bench does. Instead, we have moveable calibrated mounts that allow us to measure how far off a corner might be before repairs are made. Anyway, the chassis was off and the front tubes didn't align with the rear. When we looked deeper, we found the real problem. At the outer ends of the rear torsion tube there are hollow box sections which usually rust away at the bottom. It's an easy repair for most restorers. However, the most critical part is the heavy metal plate inside the hollow section. This plate is a major, major source of strength for the rear of the car. In this case, the plate suffered rust damage as well as warpage from a collision. Once we fixed the plate, the alignment came into spec and the chassis was rigid like new. The point of this illustration is that major damage went unnoticed by someone who was probably a good restorer. The car looked nice but the owner was afraid to drive it. You need to start a restoration on the right track and check the alignment.

D.K.: Well said, Gary. I suspect the owner of this cab was really pleased. You saved his investment of thousands of dollars.

G.K.: I've been talking about the early stages of the restoration process because more often than not important details get overlooked. We're in too much of a hurry today. But throughout the process you need to think about originality and the details. I have a good example. The fit of parts is always a question during a restoration. You cannot overlook or assume anything. Some people think you can take everything apart, restore it and that it will magically go back on perfectly after the body is painted. More often than not, this approach is wrong. Things just don't fit the same after replating, or painting, or whatever. We prefit everything a time or two before final refinishing. For example, the whole door is put together;glass, rubber, trim, handles ;everything. That's the only way to be sure the components will fit and operate, as they did originally when the project is completed. That's originality.

D.K.: There's a clear sense of continuity to your work. Where you start with a customer pervades the process from beginning to end. Whether you're talking about a particular level of quality, or originality, or whatever, you're organized to carry it through from beginning to end. I'm sure your customers find this safe and reassuring.

G.K.: I hope so. Even though I'm reluctant to give fixed quotes, I believe frequent communication with customers is really important. Visits, discussions, pictures and reports are all helpful to keep the customer involved.

D.K.: Let's talk about this 1955 Carrera Coupe for a moment. It looks really beautiful but I see you're doing some work on it. What's the story?

G.K.: The car is VIN 54175 and the original engine was P90067, which is a Spyder number. The car is designated a 1500 RS, which refers to the Spyder engine and large brakes installed in a pre-A coupe body. The car was used for testing by the factory and then became the first 4-cam imported to the U.S. on September 26, 1955. I acquired the car several years ago without the engine. It now carries P90026 and is owned by Kent Rawson of St. Petersburg, Florida. The car was fully restored this past year and first shown at the 356 Registry East Coast Holiday in St. Augustine. It won the People's Choice Award. Afterward, it sat here for about a month until Kent decided he wanted to compete at the Parade in Canada. So, we have worked intensely for the past two months finishing the numerous little details that were overlooked the first time around. We've attended to things most people don't even think about. The closer you look, or the more powerful your microscope, the more details you see. This has been a stressful and rewarding challenge. We've really gotten to know this car, I mean really well. At Mt. Tremblant we were awarded first in class.
I enjoy this work and like these challenges. Over twenty years ago I started out doing tune-ups and rebuilding engines. It's been fun as it has evolved now to full scale restorations. I see myself and my role as like an orchestra conductor. Various people, parts, subcontractors, etc., are brought together in harmony by me to create an enjoyable experience for the customer, which is a beautifully restored car. I love my work!

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