Since the model’s introduction, Porsche 356s of all types (77,895 cars built) recorded victories throughout the world. While an SL Gmund Coupe scored the earliest, important 356 victories (class win at Le Mans in 1951), it was the Speedster (4,144 cars built) that made the 356 a world-class racer.
This month’s Hidden Treasure is not a Speedster and it never turned a lap at Le Mans. Nevertheless, despite these “deficiencies”, it may just be the most successful racing 356 of all time. The car is a1959 Porsche 356A Convertible D, one of just 1,330 examples of the model. Chassis #86638 was originally constructed as a production car with no special build features for competition. However, from its early years and continuing for decades it was utilized as a club racer with great success.
Convertible D #86638 was originally purchased from a Porsche Dealer in South Florida and driven on the streets by its first owner. In 1962, this D was acquired by Dr. David Helmick of Florida. Helmick raced the car in the region, before being drafted and shipped off to France…along with his Convertible D. According to the current owner, Myron Vernis of Akron, Ohio, “Helmick raced the car at Montlhéry and the Nürburgring and at some point had the car updated with disc brakes, perhaps at the Porsche factory.” After returning to the U.S., Helmick resumed racing his 356 before selling it in 1965 to the Zitza family, also of Florida. As an aside, it’s worth noting that Helmick ultimately developed into a world-class endurance racer sharing a 1973 Sebring 12-Hour first overall finish with Peter Gregg and Hurley Haywood (in a Porsche 911 Carrera RSR) and a 1977 Daytona 24-Hour first overall finish with Haywood and John Graves (in a Porsche 911 Carrera RSR).
Convertible D #86638, as raced in the Coupes de Paris, 1964.
To the best knowledge available, Zitzas raced the car at Florida SCCA events for a few years before passing it to Joe Cogbill of Georgia, in 1973. From there Cogbill campaigned #86638 for nearly two decades amassing an impressive record, including three SCCA E-Production National Championships (1982, 1983, and 1989). Cogbill was also awarded the prestigious American Porsche Cup Trophy in 1989. In addition, Porsche thought so highly of car and driver that the Convertible D was featured in a national advertising campaign.
In 1998, Cogbill sold the Convertible D to his friend and business associate Charles Coker of Hartsville, South Carolina. Vernis said, “In the late ’90s the Porsche 356 was effectively legislated out of being competitive in SCCA club racing. It was reclassified to F-Production and saddled with a significant weight penalty. Coker already had a 356 Speedster that he was campaigning in SCCA so Cogbill’s car just sat. Then, in 2000, Coker offered #86638 for sale on eBay but it failed to find a new owner. I contacted him later and was able to put a deal together to purchase the car.”
“The following year Coker qualified his Speedster in an astonishing fifth position at the 2001 SCCA Runoffs at Mid-Ohio. Two days before the championship race he heavily crashed his car in practice. Fortunately, he was not injured. Knowing that I’d recently purchased his Convertible D, which was located in Akron just 90 minutes from Mid-Ohio, Coker telephoned and asked if he could ‘borrow’ some parts from my car. Not knowing the extent of damage to his car, I told him it would be no problem. We both agreed that it would be easier for him to send his trailer to pick up my car rather than for me to try to cherry-pick the components he needed. Hours later they loaded my car into his trailer in the dark on Thursday night.”
Vernis continued, “Prior commitments prevented me from going to the championship race on Saturday but a friend was instructed to call me with updates. My friend called about two hours before the race to ensure I wasn’t headed to the track. When I questioned him on this he said he didn’t want me to be surprised when I saw ‘what was left of my car’. It turned out that much of #86638 had been used to resurrect Coker’s damaged racecar. Whatever the case, Coker’s rebuild worked as he finished fourth, shocking everyone. I remember the Speed Channelreporters spent more time interviewing Coker than the top three finishers. I also remember Coker acknowledging me and my car on the air. The next day I received a call from Coker thanking me for the use of my Convertible D. He asked if it would be okay if he sent it to an expert in St. Louis to totally refurbish my car’s engine and suspension at his expense. I accepted his very kind offer but there was an interesting twist to all of this. The person responsible for putting #86638 back right again was Kurt Zitza, the son of the third owner.”
Convertible D #86638, as it looks today in Myron Vernis’ collection.
Convertible D #86638 raced for decades, continually being modified to meet contemporary production car racing specifications. Vernis has left the car in “as-last-raced” condition and early on in his ownership took the car to two Porsche Rennsport Reunions with Cogbill driving. For the past several years, the car has been cared for by Vernis and his team, quietly out of public sight.
How good was Porsche’s 356 and more specifically Convertible D #86638? To understand the enormity of the car’s accomplishments one has to appreciate that this air-cooled Porsche was 23, 24, and 30-years old when it captured the fiercely contested E-Production National Championship.