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Cult of Porsche-nality

Harry Pellow
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Harry Pellow climbed under the hood of his 1962 356B years ago and hasn't come out since

By Ami Chen Mills

"A new car is an appliance," says Harry Pellow, cradling a right turn near the airport in his 1965 Porsche 356SC coupe with alarming speed. "It's purely functional. I can't tell a new Chevrolet from a new whatever--and I don't really care to."

Me? I'm looking for a seatbelt in this speeding jalopy, a car which cannot be faulted for lacking charisma. "These cars have the ghosts of the people who made them running around inside," Pellow continues, downshifting as we near his shop, HCP Research on Martin Road, bordering the expansive runways of San Jose International Airport. HCP is a small, windowless garage only a man-boy could love. It's redolent with the sharp smell of degreaser and crammed wall to wall with junked Porsche engines and parts. This is where Pellow, the self-described and nationally renowned "Maestro" of classic Porsche repair, rules his roost. Author of The ABC's of Porsche Engines, The Maestro Chronicles and Murphy Is My Co-Pilot, Pellow is a short fellow with a scrappy white beard--a cross between Santa Claus and one of his more industrious elves--with a Luddite's passion for the Porsche. That passion began 20 years ago when Pellow, an engineer, made contact with his first VW, which he wound up liking more than his 1966 427 Corvette. But after he'd "fried" a few VW engines, Pellow bought a 1960 356B coupe for $750 and never looked back. "When you've seen Paris, you can't go back to the farm," he says. When his third Porsche, a 1962 356B, broke down in Biloxi, Miss., Pellow got ahold of an industrial Porsche engine (built for F-104 jets), opened the back hood of his ride and clambered in. He never came out.

"I thought I'd take maybe a five-year hiatus from my regular job, but here I am 20 years later, and on Sunday night, I can't wait for Monday morning."

Though most guys would find Harry's world compelling, few--I imagine, I hope--could follow the loquacious Pellow as he regales me with stories about push rods, camshafts, pistons, cylinders, flame fronts and sumps, most ruined by incompetent mechanics. But Pellow claims that his step-by-step books and videos are designed to lead even the most delicate among us through a complete Porsche engine rebuild.

The wife of a man back East called recently to report that the couple's sex life had improved dramatically as a result of the apparently engorging confidence her husband found after rebuilding the engine of his 1963 356B Super, all following the good Maestro's homily-peppered instructions.

Pellow has little regard for fellow Porsche mechanics. "It's a constant battle," he contends, "between the maestros and the turkeys. There are a thousand, maybe a million turkeys out there. VW mechanics are the worst. They think they know Porsches by osmosis."

Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, who designed Adolf Hitler's first "people's car," the Volkswagen, shifted gears after the war and, with his son Ferry, set about constructing the first auto he would put his name on, the Porsche, alternately pronounced "porsh" or "porsh-a." So relax.

"Technically, it's 'porsh-a.' The Porsche Club of America uses 'porsh-a,' but even the guys at the Porsche factory say 'porsh.' "

The family Porsche built the 356 in 1950 and lost all VW parts by 1955. "By 1955 it was a real car," according to Pellow--a simple, beautifully forged sports car designed to be continuously rebuilt, and to run fast and forever.

Pellow rebuilds Porsches built from 1950 to 1969, a period which includes the 356, the 912 and the cheapest Porsche ever made, the Speedster, which sold for $2,995 in 1957. Today, a Speedster fetches $50,000 on the yupster market after hitting a high of $100,000 in 1989. There were only ever 4,416 in existence. Jerry Seinfeld's got one of them, which--after getting yanked by a fancy Porsche dealership in Los Angeles--he now has repaired with the Maestro.

Pellow's own stable includes his new, somewhat gutted 356, three other Porsches, a BMW 528I, a Datsun 260Z and a 1969 Chevy pickup. Although Pellow's wife owns a Ford Taurus, he mostly can't stand newer cars. What with smog regs and DuPont injection-molded dashes, he rants, "You need a team of 10,000 to design one car. They've lost a unique personality." The Mazda Miata is the only car in which Pellow spots a little Porschenality.

Course, nothing beats a Porsche. "That smell of interior leather, that's the second-best smell in the world."

What's the first? The Maestro goes beet red. "I can't tell you that. Anyway, it might be different for you."

It's a guy thing, I guess.

You can reach The Maestro Harry Pellow at HCP Research, 408/727-1864.

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From the March 6-12, 1997 issue of Metro

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