He Brought TAG Heuer To Brazil, Now He Drives A Particularly Rare Porsche 356 Carrera
Photography by Alvaro Pinzón
I recently went to São Paulo for the Formula 1 weekend at Interlagos, but my stay in the city was part of a longer trip I’d taken around South America. I visited several collections, met some noteworthy drivers, and made more than a few new friends, and now that I’m back in one place again, I’ll be sharing those experiences over the coming weeks and months. We started with the Autoclasica, and today we’ll be looking at a unique 356.
While in São Paulo, I had the opportunity to meet with Freddy Rabbat, the distributor for TAG Heuer in Brazil. It was thanks to a good friend of mine, Mauricio, who put us three gearheads in contact to talk about cars, watches, whatever. Freddy told me about his fascination for vintage Porsches at some point in the conversation, and after talking more broadly about the brand we landed on the story of his 356 Carrera.
A week went by with nothing materializing in terms of meeting the car in person, but I postponed my return flight anyway, wanting to try just a bit longer. I soon got back in touch with Freddy, and he invited me and Mauricio to his garage; the wait was worth it and the day was here.
We met Freddy at his garage and he opened it up to reveal the low-slung silhouette of his special 356. It’s rare enough that his is a Carrera, but Freddy’s also features an exceptionally rare Reutter sunroof-equipped removable hardtop. Though there were plenty of hardtops, Reutter built just a handful of these special sunroof versions for the factory in period.
For those who aren’t familiar with the 356 Carrera, the details of the car that differentiate it from a common 356 include lightweight bumpers, an aluminum front hood, smaller handles, vented and enlarged front drums, lightweight wheels, a dry sump oil system, bucket seats, and of course the engine. Before I go into this car though, let’s let Freddy tell us the story.
Alvaro Pinzon: When did you start to really love the 356?
Freddy Rabbat: When I was 17 years old. I was living in Brazil, São Paulo, by 1980, and I went with a good friend of mine to visit his uncle to see his new car. It was the best replica of a 356 Coupe I’ve seen—the car had a 2,100cc VW engine in it, and was a blast. To make it short, we went on a trip to the mountains near São Paulo and I was sitting on the little back seat enjoying that ride as the best one of my life. From that moment on I started to dream of owning a Porsche 356.
AP: How and when did the hunt for the right car begin?
FR: By March of 1998. I remember I was at Interlagos and I noted a green Speedster in concours condition there, my heart bumping strongly in my chest. I went to get a closer look at the car, and the owner became a good friend of mine since then. When I met him he told me nice story of finding that car in the US one year earlier. That’s when I started my own search. My idea was to get a Coupe or a good deal on an open-top car. I went to the US to look, and I saw a bunch of them: bad ones, good ones, trailer queens, etc… but there was one thing in common with all the cars I saw… they were all overpriced!
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Freddy’s experience is a common dilemma, especially in today’s market where everything fun seems to become unobtainable eventually. But if you look, you can always find the car that speaks to you. It turns out Freddy started in the wrong place, for he found this beauty closer to its homeland in Europe.
* * *
FR: Then I started my search in Europe after no luck in the US, using the all the available tools from the early days of Internet. There was one dealer in Germany offering as many cars as European Collectibles offers nowadays, and with a very high turnover I figured they must be reasonable with their pricing. I was following that dealer very closely, among others.
AP: Then what happened?
FR: Then one day I saw a nice red Coupe, and decided it was about time I go there in person to see it. I told the dealer I was arranging to visit, and then I told my pregnant wife who was due to give birth to our son in two weeks time. She asked if perhaps it wasn’t the best time to be going away on business, and I told her it would be a very quick trip. Then I told her that it was not in fact a business trip, but one to go see a 40-year-old car. Another couple hours of conversation ensued.
AP: You’re still married?
FR: Yes of course. She accepted my plan—didn’t agree with it!—but accepted it nonetheless, and so I went off to Germany for a weekend of hunting fast bathtubs. When I arrived at the dealer, about three hours of driving from Hamburg, he told me the red car was sold to a new owner, but would I be interested in a nice white Coupe in the same condition?
AP: I think I know how this goes, but it can’t be this car…
FR: I was kind of disappointed because I’d made the trip for the red car, but I was there so I said ‘OK, let’s try that one.’ It was kind of quirky. It had the wrong carpet among a number of other inaccuracies, but it was a car that could be enjoyed all the same. When we arrived back to his shop, I noticed he had some very nice 356s inside, including a 1960 BT5 four-cam and a 1959 AT2 GS Cab. So I told him how much I liked them, and my own dreams for a four-cam Cab. I must confess at this point that I knew of their rarity, but was clueless about how difficult they could be to obtain.
AP: What happens next?
FR: He gave me the keys and said: ‘Take it for a ride!’
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It seems the car saleman’s best tool is an international one: nothing sells a sports car like a test drive. It seemed to work on Freddy anyway, which he readily admits.
* * *
FR: That was a bad thing to do to someone as passionate for these cars as I am! Those moments in that special car along the roads of the German countryside are unforgettable, and that is perhaps still the best drive of my life. When I returned to the shop I was clearly inspired and so we started to talk about the price. It took a few hours of negotiating, but we had a deal, and I had a four-cam Cab!
He told me it was matching-numbers car, and he said it still wore the original paint, and was almost wholly as it was when delivered to its first owner in Germany—I went to buy a red toy and ended up with something totally different in my eyes.
AP: While we’re enjoying the sound of the car warming up before our ride around the autostrada, I wanted to ask you about the story of the restoration surprise that came next.
FR: Sure. Time had passed, and I decided to restore the car, and brought it to the best Porsche guys in the country (the car was in Brazil now). They disassembled the car, and the overall condition and care it had been given was not bad. It had original floors, matching-number doors and lids, correct dates on the wheels, etc. But the motor was different in that sense.
It was a four-cam, but not the 1,600cc plain bearing matching-numbers engine he claimed it was. Instead it was an unnumbered 1,500cc motor with roller bearings. I thought about filing an action against the dealer, but decided the time and effort was better spent correcting his lie in the mechanical sense.
AP: What did you do to find the right motor?
FR: By then I had a good bunch of close friends in the four-cam community, and one of them—an exceptionally nice one of them—helped me find the original Kardex file from this car. I received the CoA from Porsche, and I got in touch next with one of the car’s previous owners, a man who had it in the US from ’74 to ’97.
I decided to have the engine I had rebuilt in Europe, and after exhaustively looking through the names of reputable shops I chose Armin Baumann to do the job, an experienced mechanic with these engines. He’s been doing them forever, and is somewhat of a guru at this point, and seeing him in action I understand why: I was there to help him unload it from the van, but he disassembled it on his own so fast that I could hardly follow along. It took him probably less than 30 minutes to strip it down before he asked me: ‘Freddy, do you know you have an RS 60 engine here?’
I did not.
AP: So the disappointment in not having the right motor probably turned into a bit of excitement at the fact that you had one from a 718 instead I take it?
FR: You could say that. We decided to restore the motor to as close as possible to its original specification, and the proc
AP: That’s incredible, what a unique car.
FR: I agree! Yes, it is something quite special. I haven’t seen another one with the original hardtop with the sunroof for starters, and never another with that factory option and this motor.
AP: How long does it take to rebuild a motor like that?
FR: The restoration went on for about two years—it was difficult sourcing some parts that were needed to make it correct.
After our conversation we let the motor do the talking, and headed out of the first photo spot for the autostrada nearby. We went for a ride at speed, and the car felt very poised and tight on the road. It is comfortable to cruise along in, but the sound of the engine in the cabin is a constant reminder of the pedigree behind its power.
17 years have passed, and Freddy loves his 356 perhaps even more than when they first met, that’s plain to see. I know I enjoyed the experience, and thanks are in order to Freddy for taking the time to meet with me and share his story; it was a wonderful day.