Driving Emory Outlaws’ Incredible and Sinister Porsche 356

Rod Emory is the original Porsche Outlaw.

Emory Porsche

Even Porsche buyers are crazy for SUVs. And the latest 911 is as pampering as a spa week in Schloss Elmau.

So a hearty ach du Lieber to Rod Emory, whose old-school, customized Outlaws could wake any Porsche fan from a Cayenne-induced slumber.

I’m fully alert when I squeeze, barely, into the competition seats of a 1953 split-window 356 Coupe. It’s the car that kicked off a 14-year-old Emory’s career in the late Eighties—more than 150 restorations and counting—though he couldn’t have known it at the time. He revived this Porsche to go vintage racing and soon found himself building cars for other owners. His hot-rod approach to these pureblood Germans, at the time unorthodox, earned him notoriety and a nickname that stuck.

“People would say, ‘Oh, you guys are outlaws,’” Emory recalls, along with the warnings: “You’re ruining these Porsches’ values. You’ll never get them into events.”

We’ve rendezvoused at a steakhouse parking lot in New Jersey, where Emory’s close friend and racing partner Chris Ridgway arrives with cars he trailered though the night from New Hampshire. Besides Emory’s old No. 80 racer, a sinister black ’57 Emory 356 shows what six figures can buy a Porsche fanatic. It’s a gorgeous ground-up restoration with disc brakes and a modernized independent rear suspension in place of the original swing axle unit. A Porsche 914 engine is stuffed in back, bored and stroked to 2.65 liters and making a robust 205 horsepower – in a 356 that weighs maybe 1,900 pounds.

“It sounds the same, it smells the same, like it’s had oil and gas spilled on it and been driven hard.”

Emory may not be obsessed with numbers-matching authenticity. Yet “I want my cars to look like something Porsche would have built,” from louvered rear decks, gas fillers and leather straps on hoods, or the hand-painted Mobil Gas ponies that were a staple of their racing era.

Emory’s way of bridging past to present makes perfect sense. He’s a third-generation car guy, beginning with grandfather Neil: Co-founder of Burbank’s Valley Customs, a hot-rod pioneer who helped build the first 200-mph rod, the famous So-Cal Streamliner that topped 208 mph at Bonneville in 1950. Rod's father Gary Emory also invented the first Baja Bug, the dune-storming VW Beetles that became a cultural phenomenon.

In comparison to the black beauty ’57 Outlaw, the No. 80 I’m driving is a war horse. Rock chips and dings, badges of honor from two decades of racing, still pockmark the Porsche’s handsome nose. The car has had a special second act in life, having raised $180,000 for amputees through Limbs for Life when Emory and his wife raffled it off in 2010. Emory and Ridgway grew up together racing off-road vehicles – cars for Rod, motorcycles for Chris – and later campaigned a 911 GT3 Cup car in the old Grand American Road Racing Series. Ridgway himself is an amputee, his lower left leg replaced by a prosthesis following years of shattering motorcycle damage.

Emory raced this car for 20 years, and he hasn’t stepped inside since it was raffled off. We head north up New Jersey’s Palisades Parkway, and the memories flood in with the raucous bark of the 1,600 cc engine.

“This is still my baby,” Emory says. “It sounds the same, it smells the same, like it’s had oil and gas spilled on it and been driven hard.”

Detuned from 120 to maybe 85 horsepower to make it drivable on street, and shod with bias-ply tires, the primitive 356 is no Porsche Cayman in performance terms. A lengthy four-speed shifter sprouts from the musty floorboards, a metal flip tab locking out reverse to avoid accidental engagement. But as I peer into the fender-mounted Raydot mirrors, and spur the old Porsche to 90 mph on the Palisades, fellow drivers gawk, flash thumbs-up and give generous berth to pass. These are people who might not look twice at a brand-new 911.

Rain begins to dot the windshield, and the pair of squeegee-sized wipers barely smear the glass. Chilly air pours through the Plexiglas side windows, mixing with the tangy scents of gear oil and spent fuel. Yet I’m so happy and transfixed that Rod, eventually, must politely suggest we head back to home base. If he hadn’t, I swear I would have kept driving to the Catskills, maybe even the Berkshires. The Porsche’s steering is surprisingly responsive, the body stable and willing. And the 356 is so feather-light that it recalls a craft more than a modern car, a two-seat speedboat chugging gracefully through every curve. It’s the endless allure of a vintage car, romance writ into the smallest and silliest details: The squeaky metal ash tray, the pop-out map light on the dash. If you have to have it explained, you won’t get it.

Or let Rob Spina explain it. Moments after our return to American Cut Bar & Grille – the latest outpost of Mohawk-haired celebrity chef Marc Forgione -- the restaurant’s manager pulls into the lot, freaks out over the Outlaws, and freaks out more when he realizes he’s talking to Rod Emory. He’s the second purely coincidental super fan of the day, beginning with Slavik Gofman, a Porsche Outlaw owner (by another builder) who practically crashes his Cayenne diesel while whipping into the lot for a look-see.

Spina turns out to be a GTI owner and former Porsche 944 club racer. New sports cars don’t do anything for him, Spina says, with their flappy paddles and electric steering.

“I think the man machine interface is getting lost,” Spina says, before making clear to Rod where his loyalty lies: “Man, I would just sweep the floors at your shop.”

Emory’s latest projects might further cement his growing reputation, which now extends to more highfaluting Porsche racers. He’s been 3D scanning a 964-generation 911 to marry its newer chassis, engine and technology with a 356 body. He’s also restoring the first Porsche to win any type of race: A 356 SL (for “Sport Light”) that took the 1,100 cc class at the third-ever 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1951. Since Porsches have gone on to win more than 30,000 races since, more by far than any brand, that’s a Burgundy-esque Big Deal.

Emory has been working on that priceless silver surfer for nearly three years. It’s the racing version of the famous Gmünd coupes, with fewer than 50 built in that Austrian town before Porsche moved back to postwar Stuttgart and completed the racing versions: 1,086 cc engines, 45 horsepower and a then-blistering 99 mph top speed. The 356 SL kicked off seven consecutive Porsche wins at Le Mans, and Emory’s restoration sat on the front row with a legendary cast of Le Mans-winning Porsches at the 2016 Rennsport Reunion at Laguna Seca.

It occurs to me that Emory could give a Gmünd coupe the Outlaw treatment and have a ready-made name: OG. Either way, it's heady stuff for the original, west-coast Porsche outlaw. But while the 356 SL is destined for a Pebble Beach showing this summer, Emory swears he’ll never be a concours kind of guy; the restores cars for mummification in a museum, for the pleasure of equally fossilized owners. While some traditionalists still sniff over his resto-mod approach, Emory has been vindicated by time and the respect of many in the Porsche establishment. Those include Tony Hatter, Porsche’s design manager for sports cars; and Grant Larson, the special projects director and driving force behind the Boxster and Carrera GT. Both men recently visited Emory’s shop in North Hollywood and came away impressed.

“If the guys who design Porsches want me to hot-rod their cars, that feels great,” Emory says.