It is interesting how, sometimes when you trace an old classic car or historic racer back to its roots, you end up not far from the car’s early place of residence. In this instance, the 1953 Porsche 356 Pre-A chassis #50064 acquired by Mike and Kimberly Copperthite in 2009, has returned to its motorsport ways, as she has come full circle and is once again competing on the circuits of America.
But the story is an interesting one. Backing up just a little, Michael Copperthite is the great-great-grandson of the pioneering family that started up the Connecticut-Copperthite Pie Company in Georgetown, District of Columbia on the eve of Thanksgiving 1885. Over the next thirty-odd years the family built the ‘largest pie baking concern on the planet’, as Mike put it. The business is no longer family-owned, but the history of this entrepreneurial family has touched many in the immediate area, and much wider too, as everyone has to eat, right!
A bit of history
Mike did go into the pie baking business later in life creating a foundation and using his family’s 200-plus year old recipes, with 100% of all proceeds going into the support of the community. A way of giving back and honouring the family that built the largest pie baking concern on the planet… when pie really mattered. Mike’s interest in motor cars goes back a long way, but in the late-noughties, he was looking to purchase a Pre-A Porsche 356 when he spotted a likely car on eBay. Just 9100 examples of the Pre-A Porsche 356, across all models including Coupe, Cabriolet and Speedster were produced between 1950 and 1955, making these very collectible models today. To find one advertised on eBay was just plain out of the ordinary, so Mike jumped at the opportunity and purchased the car.
As happens sometimes when you buy something sight-unseen, what you get is quite different from what was advertised or what you expected to receive. The car came without any history, but for $21,500 Mike was just pleased to eventually secure his Pre-A 356 (chassis #50064). But as he dug further and further into the car’s background, a rather surprising story began to emerge. It transpired that the car’s second owner became divorced from his wife, and chassis #50064 was locked away in a storage unit with a blown engine. After some time had passed, the owner’s ex-wife became tired of paying the storage bill, and placed an ad on the bulletin board at a local PCA club meeting in Wisconsin, which read, “If you pay the $115 storage fee, the car is yours.”
Unloved and seemingly unwanted by many, the car was nevertheless snapped up by its third owner in 1969, who no doubt settled the storage bill as required. Owner number three thought that the car might have been an old race car, and so he put the car into storage until he could properly restore it. Life being what it is, forty years passed, the car was never restored and he needed funds to send one of his children off to college. Roughly four decades later, and still seemingly unloved, Mike Copperthite became the lucky owner of chassis #50064. When he acquired #50064 Mike did not know any of the car’s history, but he soon discovered that he was indeed only the fourth owner.
Mike picks up the story, “When the car arrived, it was in much worse condition than we expected. Initially, this all appeared to be a big mistake as we were told that the car was not worth restoring. But we weren’t going to give up without doing some further research.” Mike sent off for the Porsche COA (Certificate of Authenticity) and tracked down a copy of the Kardex from the factory, which revealed that the first owner was Paul van Antwerpen, who had purchased the car from Max Hoffman in Chicago.
The research began in earnest but sadly, an online search produced an obituary of Paul van Antwerpen who had passed away in the same month that Mike had acquired the car. “We called his brother who said that his niece had the whole history of the car and would be delighted to know it had survived all these years. Susan van Antwerpen was kind enough to send us her father’s racing bio, the car’s logbook, family photos and race programs, trophies, and family movies of the car racing in the day. At Amelia Island in 2016 we met, and Susan was reunited with her dad’s race car which she had not seen in over 60 years. Tears were shed by all!” Mike revealed.
It turned out that Paul van Antwerpen was an original stockholder of Road America, Chairman of one of the first Wisconsin Grands Prix, and a very successful early Porsche race car driver. Van Antwerpen also pioneered racing safety at this time by selling War Surplus Helmets, Seatbelts and Rally Equipment trackside. When the car arrived, Mike confirms that it was still fitted with seatbelts straight out of a P-51 Mustang fighter, while its rally clock had originated from a B-24 Liberator bomber. That’s taking the concept of ‘extended usage’ to an altogether new level!
Further research revealed that chassis #50064 competed in the Airport Series of the SCCA and was the 1954 under-1500 cc Class Winner, running in multiple SCCA/SAC National Championship races from 1953-1959, including the last street circuit race at Watkins Glen. Mrs van Antwerpen was one of the first women to race in the United States, and co-competed on race weekends in this car in many Ladies’ Races held at the same tracks.
It gets better! Mike Copperthite contacted the Porsche factory, and after quizzing him on several details of the car, they informed him that the car was a factory competition-spec model…and one of the first! Armed with this new information, and recognizing the importance of the race history of this car, he began the long and painstaking restoration of #50064 to her former glory. “The principal architect of the restoration was Lewis Hauser, with support from Victor Miles, Geary Miller and the team at Karosserie, Ltd in Virginia.
Fitted with synchromesh transmission and a Type 528 Hirth roller-bearing crankshaft, the pushrod engine produces 70 bhp using the first of Porsche’s race engines. Chassis #50064 was one of the first cars raced prepared by the factory for customer purchase, that was then subsequently sold by Max Hoffman in the United States.
Rennsport Reunion VI Chopard Heritage Display
The invitation read, “Taking centre stage in the race paddock will be a very special display that features an exclusive collection of the most important Porsche cars in the world. While these invitation-only cars will not participate in the weekend’s racing, they are significant examples of Porsche history to share with motorsport and motoring enthusiasts.
“Seventy exclusive Porsche models – each signifying significant historical milestones since the company was born in 1931 – were showcased in the mesmerizing and invaluably precious Chopard Heritage Display…Your presence will contribute greatly to reliving the rich history of Porsche motorsports.”
No further encouragement was needed, and so Mike and his wife Kimberly set off for California, “Kim and I had a fantastic time driving her on track alongside Porsche #1 driven by Mr & Mrs Wolfgang Porsche. A particular highlight was being passed by Patrick Long in Teo Fabi’s Porsche Indy Car as we entered the Corkscrew – no shame in that!”
Mike Copperthite races chassis #50064 today as it was raced in the 1950s, when the car’s first owner plastered the front hood with tape at every race to protect the bodywork. He is not shy when it comes to his right foot either, as Copperthite races it as it was meant to be raced, using every ounce of the engine’s performance. The car is shod with period correct stock tyres, which are extremely narrow, but this does not deter the owner. This car is no garage queen, competing in Porsche’s flagship event, the Rennsport Reunion, where it slots into the Gmünd Cup class. It has climbed the Grand Ascent at Hershey, is a regular at PCA auto-crosses, rallies and track days. She recently completed Treffen Asheville, a 1400-mile journey which included the ‘Tail of the Dragon’ where the car performed flawlessly.
Despite such an active and hard competition life, chassis #50064 is a 100-point car at the Amelia Island Concours d’elegance, has been awarded the Iconic Designers Choice Award by the world’s top Automotive Designers, won the 36th Deutsche Marque Concours d’Elegance Premier Award as the Best of Marque, was the People’s Choice Award Winner at the PCA’s Hershey Swap Meet, and has countless other race and show accolades.
#50064 is a real-life example of Porsche’s racing heritage, serving as an ambassador for the company, the highest office that she can carry for her principal. What #50064 did in 1953, is exactly what she is still doing today.
Without the Type 356 Porsche and the returning servicemen who purchased these little cars, competed in them and won, Porsche would possibly not have the rich road and racing heritage that it can boast of today. The company’s 70th anniversary has been a hard-earned, but well-deserved milestone, and #50064 has played an important part in that journey.
Written by: Glen Smale (with Mike Copperthite)
Images by: Mike Copperthite