Perfecting the first production Porsche
Everything’s bigger in Texas, right? Not to Bill Hamilton. Since 1998, he’s made Porsche’s first production vehicle, the small but groundbreaking 356, the focus of his restoration shop, highly rated Hamilton Classics in Martindale, Texas.
Like many restoration professionals, fixing up old vehicles has long been in Hamilton’s blood. He restored his first vehicle in the 1960s, his first Porsche 356 in 1970, and he made a habit of fixing up, restoring and racing vintage vehicles throughout his first career in financial services. "I’ve always been a gearhead; I’ve been into motors and wheels my whole life," he says.
But when he retired in 1998 and made crafting classic cars his full-time focus, he says the 356 was the one vehicle that deserved his attention. “I wanted to do a car that’s always interested me,” Hamilton says. “It’s just the whole history of the company and the conquests they made in racing, and it’s something you can drive every day.”
The 356’s reputation as a driver’s automobile is one reason collectors, racers and other enthusiasts have been loyally devoted to the two-seater for decades, says Gordon Maltby, editor of Porsche 356 Registry magazine. “What makes the Porsche 356 attractive, one of the common threads among owners, is the idea that it’s a pure driving experience,” he says.
“The bottom line, besides the collectability, is that they’re a ball to drive,” Hamilton says. For Hamilton Classics, getting 356 owners back in the driver’s seat is often a six-month or more experience, typically preceded by an 18-month spot on a waiting list.
“With the 356, the biggest problem is rust because it’s a monocoque body,” he says. “So you’re typically going to have to do a lot of rust repair and metal panel replacement.” Hamilton says his two-man shop typically finishes just four to five total restorations each year and — with the exception of paint — handles every aspect of the work from body and engine work to electrical to upholstery.
But the real work of the restoration process really starts before any tire rubber touches his shop floor.
Angie’s List Classic Cars member Shane Balkowitsch of Bismarck, N.D., hired Hamilton Classics to transform his sight unseen 1965 356 SC in 2009. But before he had even purchased the vehicle in near basketcase condition from its former owner in Connecticut, Balkowitsch and Hamilton had traded frequent calls and emails for weeks.
“He spent hours with me on the phone before I even bought the car,” Balkowitsch says. “I didn’t even own a Porsche and I had never even sat in the car.”
Hamilton says that although that’s not the typical customer relationship, it’s indicative of how he works. “I like to hear the customer’s good ideas and bad ideas, and I do my best to talk them out the bad ones,” he says. “That’s the way I prefer to work – I don’t want to work with someone who's just going to say, ‘Call me when the car is ready.’”
That commitment to fellow enthusiasts is why Balkowitsch says Hamilton Classics was the only shop he considered for his $90,000 project. Over a period of more than a year, Hamilton transformed the husk of a 356 restoration stalled for more than 20 years into a completely custom 150-horsepower driver’s dream.
Hamilton’s craftsmanship on Balkowitsch’s 356 Outlaw, finished in early 2011, has gone on to receive praiseworthy ink in multiple specialty and exotic magazines. “Bill does a great job,” Balkowitsch says. “Whatever my ideas for the car were, he was the one who pulled them off.”
Editor's Note: See more before and after pictures of Hamilton’s 356 restoration work at his website, Hamilton Classics. For more information on Balkowitsch’s 1965 356 SC Outlaw, including step-by-step build photos, visit his website.