The Automotive Archaeologist

Backyard 356s

If you think you are a good “barn finder” then you need to read about this guy! This story first appeared in Tom Cotter’s iconic The Cobra in the Barn and it is reprinted here with permission. Subscribe to our email updates for a chance to win a copy of the book and be sure to send in your own find stories because one is going to make it into Tom’s next book! Now, enjoy The Automotive Archaeologist…

Most auto enthusiasts would feel it quite an accomplishment to uncover two or three barn-find Porsches in their lifetime. But Steve Demosthenes, who sees himself as an “automotive archaeologist,” has spent the better part of forty years pursuing and purchasing 356 series Porsches from hidden places all over the United States. He has uncovered more than 100 of the German sports cars, and even though the supply is drying up, he occasionally still discovers another one in a barn, or behind a fence.

His fascination with cars started early—not a surprise considering he grew up in the shadow of the Indianapolis 500 in the 1960s. “My first car was a souped-up ’36 Ford sedan, followed by a ’31 Ford with a Chevy engine, a ’55 Chevy, a split-window ’63 Corvette, and a 396-cubic-inch Sting Ray roadster,” Demosthenes says. “All that power was intoxicating, but once I got a ride in my boss’ sports car—a ’58 Porsche Speedster, at age sixteen—it left an impression that never faded.”

“I remember it to this day: it was white, and it was the only Porsche I’ve ever seen with Daytona knock-off wire wheels.”

Just a few years later, Demosthenes got his own sports car, an Austin-Healey “Bugeye” Sprite, but in 1968 he decided to buy a more practical sports car, so he narrowed his choices down to an Alfa Romeo and a Porsche 356.

“They were both in my price range, so don’t ask me why, but I bought the Porsche. I eventually sold that Porsche and bought another and another, never with the intention of making a profit, but just for the opportunity to drive a variety of cars,” he says.

Inspection

By 1970, he was living in Los Angeles and had hooked up with a fellow Porsche fan from Baltimore. “He had a little bit of money, so I convinced him that we should fly to the Midwest, buy Porsches, and then drive them back to California to sell,” Demosthenes says, adding that while Porsches weren’t in demand in the Midwest, a willing buyer could always be found on the West Coast.

Auto Trader ad

These were the days prior to the Internet, so Demosthenes relied heavily on the Auto Trader newspaper to find the cars. “I placed hundreds of want ads with a photo of an old Porsche to grab attention. When the Auto Trader went national, I hit the mother lode.”

One of his best discoveries came after Demosthenes got a call from a guy in Brunswick, Georgia, responding to an Auto Trader ad. The caller mentioned that his recently deceased father had been a Porsche restorer and now those cars and parts needed to be sold. “I told him I was interested and drove up to see what he had,” Demosthenes says. “Way back in the woods and down this country road, there was a strange-looking concrete structure with some totally rusted out body shells and a wonderfully original silver 1954 Continental Cabriolet. I immediately bought the car and had it trucked away to a friend’s shop in Jacksonville, Florida.” But the seller was very evasive about the possibility of the others being available for purchase.

Loading up

Weeks later, after many phone calls, Demosthenes coerced the seller into showing him the other cars and parts, and that visit uncovered six or seven Porsches and tons of new old stock parts. Another deal was struck and Demosthenes began hauling the cars out. “On my last trip with the trailer, as we were loading parts, my girlfriend and I walked out of the garage to face several federal agents with their guns drawn,” Demosthenes says with a laugh. “Turns out the cars didn’t belong to his father, but instead to his ex-drug dealing partner who was wanted for murder and was on the run.

Drug dealer find

“So I had to return the Continental Cabriolet and all the other cars. I don’t know what ever happened to the cars. I wound up losing about $5,000 on the deal. But losing that ’54 Cabriolet was a heartbreaker.”

Another barn-find story sparked by a 1991 Auto Trader want ad revolves around a 356 a guy knew about in eastern Washington state. “He told me about another ‘old guy’, Paul, who had a 356 sitting behind his garage,” Demosthenes says. “So we drove to the location and met the owner. He showed us a very rusty, ratty ‘A’ coupe that was sitting outside.”

In those days, cars like this were only considered as parts cars, so Demosthenes wasn’t very interested in it. Then the “old guy” told him he had another Porsche in the garage.

Carefully navigating the yard littered with old lawn mowers, a crashed airplane, and assorted Porsche parts, they got to the garage, where Demosthenes could see a roof profile of a coupe from under boxes and years of discarded junk. Upon closer investigation, he found that the car’s rear clip had been cut off and it had a considerable number of inner body panels that needed repair. It also had some holes cut out of the driver’s side rear inner fender well, which he asked the owner about.

“Oh, all the Carreras had those for the oil cooler.” the owner said.

Of course, the mention of the word Carrera made Demosthenes’ heart rate almost double. “But I fought to show no interest or enthusiasm,” he says. “I continued to keep the conversation flowing, still not fully convinced. I asked him where the engine was. He said, ‘Oh, it’s in the house.’ He then showed me the cowl that covers the generator: it was unmistakably Carrera.”

“But would he sell? NO!”

For the next thirteen years, Demosthenes continued to contact Paul about the car—even making the 150-mile drive to visit—but the answer was always no. But finally, in 2004, Demosthenes convinced the owner to sell the Carrera four-cam engine in exchange for a freshly rebuilt 356 engine, which he loaded into his truck and drove to Paul’s.

“After thirteen years, I finally saw the four-cam engine hanging from a hoist in his guest bedroom, surrounded by old newspapers and trash; it had been placed there in 1969. The Carerra engine was finally mine,” Demosthenes says. “I went back to see him and inquire about the rest of the Carrera, a 1956 sunroof model, originally aquamarine metallic.

“But what I had feared all these years finally happened: Paul died three weeks after I purchased the engine. He was sitting alone in his chair and was discovered by neighbors six days later. I contacted his brother, and I was finally able to acquire the Carrera body [in 2005]. This might be my last great barn find, but what a find it was!”

His final memorable Porsche-find tale starts while Demosthenes was traveling from Hood River, Oregon, back to the Florida Keys in his 1962 Notchback S90. Along the way, he hunted for old Porsches.

“While in Dallas, Texas, I was asking some local Porsche guys if they knew of any older Porsches for sale. I was told there was this weird, old professor in Denton, Texas, who had an ancient Porsche,” he says. “The Pre-As [the very earliest] Porsches were not the ‘hot topic’ in those days. I drove up to see the car, and there it was, parked alongside the house. It was very, very rusty with years of moss, dirt, and leaves included. No one was home, so I took some photos and left a note.”

Then, after Demosthenes returned to Key West, he got a call from the professor, who explained that he had bought the Porsche in Germany in the early 1970s. Years later, he shipped it to the United States, Alabama to be exact, and then the car made the move with him to Texas. However, its time in Texas was pretty much spent sitting outside the garage, rusting.

Demosthenes first offer of $4,000 for the relic was happily accepted, and it wasn’t until later that he discovered the uniqueness of his purchase. “The factory sent me the Kardex [or record sheet] for No. 5047, which confirmed it was built in August 1950 while Professor Ferdinand Porsche was still alive,” Demosthenes says. “I tried to sell it in the States, but there were no takers. So I had a trip planned to Europe to visit as many Porsche guys as I could, from Sweden to Italy. While there, I met a collector in northern Italy who wanted the 356. He paid $15,000 for it.”

38th 356

At that point, the Porsche went into a five-year restoration, and a few years ago its current owner, a well-known Belgian collector, contacted Demosthenes about the car. “It turns out that it was the thirty-eighth 356 constructed in the Stuttgart factory, and reportedly the oldest ‘known’ coupe from Stuttgart,” Demosthenes says.

Business is more difficult for this automotive archaeologist these days, as most of the great finds have been found. But like a good archeologist, he keeps digging. Over his nearly four decades of discovering and purchasing more than one hundred 356 Porsches, the market has changed. “It’s not hard to sell 356s these days; it’s just hard to find them. The 356 supply has dried up,” he says. Today he and his wife operate from a 1923 building on Scenic Route 30 in Mosier, Oregon, overlooking the Columbia River Gorge. The 4,500- square-foot business, called Route 30 Classics, houses a vintage Porsche showroom, Porsche gift and memorabilia shop, and an adjoining gourmet ice cream and espresso shop.

“I am buying more early 911s now,” he says regarding his current pursuit of Porsches. “As the age of the buyers get younger, it’s the 1967 to 1973 Porsches they grew up dreaming about that they are buying. But that doesn’t matter; it’s all good.”

Like This? Get Our Daily Email

Comments

  1. scot

    ~ Steve certainly shows a real persistence. his ability to deal with Porsche fans, restorers, collectors has guided the 356 market, around the world.

  2. Dolphin Member

    “I eventually sold that Porsche and bought another and another, never with the intention of making a profit, but just for the opportunity to drive a variety of cars,” he says.
    ———————————
    Anyone wondering about the difference between Steve D. and typical eBay flippers only needs to read this great story. His website has an honest, personal feel to it, and shows the kinds of cars he deals in, with a very long list of cars shown on the site as sold. And what flipper has ever maintained a workshop, spare parts for sale, a marque museum, and an ice cream / Espresso store, as Steve does?

    Reminds me….I’ve got to do that great Rt. 30 drive East out of Portland real soon.

  3. David

    The Real Question is, Why does he have a Bond Bug?

  4. rancho bella

    Stubborn arse old guys that will “never” restore the car that sits and sits. I know of a ’62 356 vert that has been in this guys garage for twenty five years that hasn’t moved. I’ve given up asking as I finally realized he just wants the attention………..I’m done.

    I just bought a house and across a couple of acres from me is a guy with ’69 Shelby Mustang sitting outside rotting………I won’t even bother.

    I know of some other cars that would bring huge money but I have given up. I don’t want to hear “I’m going to restore it”…………and I think to myself………NO….YOU AIN’T

    I don’t know how fellows like Steve have the patience to put with the nonsense.

    • scot

      this was meant as a reply to you, rancho, rather than Dolphin.
      ~ boy oh boy, do i understand your frustration. i’ve got an acquaintance with over 150 cars stashed and rotting. he bought another yesterday. i refuse to call him a friend, my friends earn my respect. i’m happy for him, but i should be happier for the owners of similar cars. he is single-handedly driving their values higher.

    • paul

      It is easy to fall into the trap of having an old car that’s really good but needs some parts, then you hear of another car just like the one you have & next thing you know it sitting along with the other in your garage with the intention of swapping parts but some how life gets in the way & a month turns into too long etc. I will not let that happen as tempting as it is.I am shooting for this week to be up & running on a project that should have been to this point 2 months ago but when I hear of stories like this I am not too far off from my timetable.

    • geomechs geomechs Member

      I get frustrated too but the only way to deal with guys who hang onto everything is to become friends with them. Those guys’ intentions are good but they often don’t realize that life is getting in the way and that time is running out. I’ve got many friends who know that I’m interested in one or more of their relics. I make a point of NOT bringing up the subject (they know I want the relic and don’t have to be reminded) whenever I visit and I’m starting to see some softening up. For example I’ve known of a ’35 Ford pickup (rough but 95% complete) that has been sitting in a guy’s boneyard for 50 years. He’s finally gotten to the point where he’s willing to let it go.

      • z1rider

        geomechs

        Good comment. Many of those old codgers are wary of the flippers who want to make a quick buck off of their prized possession. Get to know them and they sometimes warm up.

  5. jim

    another great story. it does take a lot of work but if it was easy everyone would be doing it.

  6. Thomas Bean

    I really think this problem could be dealt with by using a better contract: this contract has to alleviate anxiety and loathing for car flippers profiting from restorations. How does it work?
    You got to have a two person title owned by an incorporation… if the car get’s flipped for profit. That way, the old hoarder…won’t fear getting beat out of any obscene profits. The hoarder negotiates his price to move the car….but also get’s a cut of the profits with an agreed upon valuation of the “restoration investment” to ensure correct profit margin. I don’t know any other way to satisfy both parties????

  7. Bernie becker

    Hi Stephen, this Bernadette brancky becker. I live in the keys, just retired from dental hygiene. So happy for you. I think you have a son. I have 2 daughters and4 grandkids. You called me “ bunny”.in Indy.

    Like 1

Leave A Comment

RULES: No profanity, politics, or personal attacks. Don't post your car for sale in the comments. Click here to get it featured on the homepage instead.

*

Notify me of new comments via email. Or subscribe without commenting.