July 23, 2024

Linkage Mag

Geared for the Automotive Life

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Sheer Pleasure — One Family’s European Journey in a Classic

Take a 1959 Porsche 356A in Ruby Red, a dashing American and his beautiful English wife.  Add a few summits and seascapes with a generous splash of rich cultural flavors and you have the makings of a special love story — a shared passion for an iconic sports car and the adventure of the open road.  As one of Porsche’s glossy brochures-of-the-era attested of the 356 series: “delivers more sheer sensual pleasure than anything else on wheels.” 

Mark Leonard, owner of Grand Prix Classics, and his older brother Michael could not agree more. After all, for over 20,000 miles over the course of numerous road trips across Europe, they were in the back on the tan vinyl seats.    

“We could hear the sounds and feel the vibrations of the engine.  It was only a few inches away!” says Mark. At 4 years old, he and Michael, who was 6 at the time, more than appreciated the visceral rhythms of the 356A, as light and nimble, it zipped down country roads, adeptly holding its own through each twist and turn. 

How could the boys forget the rush of excitement as their father shifted into fourth gear, his hands on the ivory enamel steering wheel, eyes focused on the road through the curved-glass windshield.  And then the thrill of a corner. Dad’s single turn of the steering wheel poised and committed. The 356 held the road like a pro, Dad’s polished shoe navigating throttle and brake, as he heel-toed to downshift. Dad’s gaze slightly upward and through the bend. Dad, intuitive and alert, the car’s smooth acceleration out of the curve, balanced and powerful. Dad’s smile. Mum smiling back. The Porsche had indeed delivered. For the young Leonard boys, it was all very cool.  Call it pilot and Porsche, art in motion, it was a helluva ride.

“Dad didn’t like to stop,” explains Michael. “For him, the road and the feel of his car was one very special experience. It represented a total freedom away from the stresses of his job.” 

Based full-time with his family in Wiesbaden, Germany, Max Leonard was an American and a civilian employee with the U.S. Department of Defense. With a love of fine sports cars and a penchant for Porsches, the 1959 356A caught his discerning eye in Auto Rossel’s showroom on the Mainzer Strasse in Wiesbaden. With its elegant body lines and rounded form, it was both a stylish and high-performance acquisition. It would not only help the adrenaline-loving Leonard satiate his passion for the road but help show his young family some of Europe’s finest scenic routes and cultural hubs. He placed his order for the 1959 model in Ruby Red, paid $2,900 and waited the few weeks for it to be delivered. The timing was perfect; It would be ready for a Christmas trip – “nach Espana”.

Working with the U.S. military forces as an education administrator, the formal classroom may have been his professional purview, but as an also ardent history buff, pianist and photographer, Max Leonard and his likeminded wife, Jean, knew first-hand the educational value that road trips could offer their young sons. How could they not take advantage of Europe’s enticing gateway to rich culture and natural beauty right on their doorstep?  Not to mention a chance to spend quality time together as a family.

With Germany’s Autobahn still in expansion that as a result, saw at the time relatively few vehicles on the roads, Max Leonard was more than happy to take full advantage of the empty lanes. Beyond the Autobahn, it would be difficult to sustain high speeds in the 356A; most of the Continent’s transport infrastructure at that time was still made up of narrow, secondary two-lane roads.  

With a suitcase strapped securely onto the new Porsche’s red painted Leitz luggage rack affixed to the rear engine lid, and another inside in the trunk, the open road beckoned. Pulling out the maps, Max and Jean had planned out an exciting journey that from their home in Wiesbaden would take them close to 3,000 miles over several weeks.  Through majestic mountains of Switzerland, historical gems of France, across into Catalonia and along Spain’s breathtaking coast and interior, a million twists and turns were in store.  

For speed hunters Mark and Michael, they were happy to get things started on the straight and flat.  After all, there was nothing more exciting than feeling one’s stomach flutter as the 356’s speedometer needle nudged comfortably over 100 mph. On no-holds-barred-highways, it was music to their ears; the Porsche’s sonorous acoustics taking life and the Leonard family to the max. 

Reaching the Swiss border, Max Leonard eased off the gas as they ventured along the alpine countryside towards the city of Basel. Famed for its world-renowned art museums, it offered two young boys an early exposure to Europe’s Old Masters and the chance to absorb the quintessence of a Swiss mountain metropolis. Tramlines and window boxes, cobbles and cafes, the modern and the ancient collided.  Back onto the road a few hours later, the skies were clear as they cruised steadily towards Geneva, the snow-covered Jura mountains dominating the route.  For Max Leonard, happy in the cockpit, his new set of wheels felt exhilarating. The experience didn’t get much better; this car had soul with its superb agility and solid handling. Reaching Geneva on the shores of its now frozen eponymous lake, it was time for a good Riesling and wiener schnitzel in front of a local fire. 

Onward into France, the Porsche clipped along past verdant vineyards and bucolic villages. Whether they were playing I spy with my little eye – (en francais), or fielding the infinite question, “are we there yet?” the Leonard parents made sure to include more than a little joie de vivre, with plenty of history thrown in. From exploring the archways of the Roman amphitheatre in Nimes, to ambling through the Medieval walled city of Carcassonne, there was something to be said about quickly slowing down in a Porsche 356A. 

On 22 December 1958, the Leonards’ passports were stamped at Le Perthus as they exited France into Catalonia, Spain.  Heading for the Catalan capital of Barcelona on the Costa Brava and its gothic splendour, they appreciated the mild winter days.  Later, whizzing south towards Valencia along its magnificent coastline, it was a chance to discover more of the laidback pueblos that peppered the hills inland off the potholed beaten track. The Porsche was hardly inconspicuous. With its U.S. Forces Europe license plates, it also proved an in-road into the heart of a bygone culture that stopped traffic They passed through rural communities that hardly saw a car, let alone the latest 4-cylinder Porsche creating dust plumes in its midst.  This was a country still in reparation post-Civil War.  Life was archaic.

“Somewhere in the remote hills near Valencia we stopped,” muses Michael, “Dad bought a large sack of oranges from a farmer on the road.” 

Sportscar and ox cart, handshakes, and smiles.  As far as Max and Jean Leonard were concerned, it was all you needed to speak the rich language of the road less travelled. Watching their parents (and of course the huge sack of fruit expertly squished between them in the backseat), it was a back country journey that opened up opportunities to connect.   

Whether they were building sandcastles on the beaches of Benidorm further south and wandering along its promenade, or exploring the port of Alicante on the Costa Del Sol, it was a time to enjoy simple pleasures.

Later reaching the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar at the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula, the boys were treated to another language they knew more than well. Having been born in the UK and their subsequent trips with their native English mother, the road signs they identified were pretty close to home. Whether it was little red triangles denoting narrow streets, rocks falling, or even macaques crossing, the little red Porsche never ceased to keep the wheels of life turning.  

It did so without a hitch as the family spent a fun Christmas in the sun, venturing northwest to the ancient port of Cadiz and then historic Seville, north across central Spain before eventually arriving in bustling Madrid.  They then headed back again in the new year towards La Jonquera-Le Perthus and homeward bound. 

To truly take in a continent “von Porsche” was about so much more than getting from A to B.  Be it over smooth tarmac or beat up pothole, what Max Leonard relished most and gave his family was something he would be hard pressed to find today — the purity of a driving experience. Back then, the family reaped the benefits of road trips that only an analog car such as a Porsche in 1959 could offer. Call it nostalgia or as some might argue, sadly a lost art in today’s digital world, the Leonard family’s journeys were devoid of GPS, and electronics — even a radio. That phone call back home to the grandparents was an adventure in itself, entailing finding a phone booth within a post office to finally connect with an operator.   It was a time when they had to truly navigate.  They had to read maps, ask for directions. They engaged in conversation and communed with nature. Over the miles, they stayed connected to it all – in the old-fashioned way. 

Sixty years on, Mark Leonard of Grand Prix Classics in La Jolla, CA, and his own son, Max, found themselves on a quest of their own.  After a tireless search to locate his father’s actual Porsche 356A in Ruby Red, he was sadly unable to find it. He did, however, take great pride in adding one very honest survivor to his collection — the exact same model in Ivory with a red interior.  In tribute to his parents and their passion for the open road, Leonard lovingly restored it, entering it into various car shows and rallies.

All worth it. All sheer pleasures of a very beautiful life — and a very special Porsche.