Tales of valuable classic cars turning up as barn finds are the stuff of legend. And when you dig deep into the history and the lives of their owners, the story behind such a car is usually a fascinating one.
I first came across the “Beirut RS” when I was speaking with Josh Sadler, owner of Autofarm, the world-renowned independent Porsche specialists based in Oxfordshire, England. Sadler has been in the business longer than I care to remember, and has forgotten more about Porsches than most people will ever know. On top of that, he is a true gentleman, an accomplished race driver and a total petrolhead.
He explained to me that he had received a phone call one day from James Shead, the son of Don Shead, whom he knew because he also raced an Allard sports car. It seems that Shead had classmate from his university days who was one of the three daughters of a car dealer and rally enthusiast from Beirut, Lebanon. Her father had taken delivery of a Carrera RS Lightweight in May 1973, and he drove it in local and regional rallies, a high point being the Beirut-Damascus Rally.
Then the Lebanese civil war began in 1975, and by 1980 things were really out of control. In June 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon with the aim of destroying the PLO. While they appeared to have achieved this, the country was plunged into an even bloodier period when the Christian Phalangist militia carried out massacres at refugee camps in West Beirut.
So the car’s owner parked the car in the building next to their house, and started driving an ambulance for the Lebanese Red Cross. But in the summer of 1985, on the very day he was supposed to finish his driving stint under pressure from his family, he never came back. Soon afterward, a mortar shell hit the building, and part of it collapsed on the car, severely damaging its roof.
When hostilities finally ceased and some semblance of normalcy began to return to the city, the family, who had long since departed the war-torn country, was contacted by someone involved in the rebuilding work. He had uncovered the car and wanted to know what to do with it. So in early 2007, many years after having graduated from university and returning home, the RS owner’s daughter contacted Shead out of the blue. She told him that their family had moved out of Beirut years before, and wanted to sell their father’s old rally car parked in the building next to their old home ever since.
“When I heard the story I nearly fell out of my chair,” Josh Sadler says. An ensuing conversation prompted Shead to board a plane to Beirut to verify the car’s authenticity using the tale clues that Sadler had given him on how to identify a real RS.
“James rang me from Beirut,” Sadler continues. “He was very excited, and e-mailed photos that proved the car was indeed an original 1973 Carrera RS Lightweight with just 47,000 km on the clock.
“As the owners were totally unaware of the potential value of the car, and somebody else had already offered them £15,000, James could have easily bought it for a song. But being the gentleman that he is, he informed the family of the car’s potential value.”
In the end, they struck a deal whereby the proceeds from the sale would be used to buy two ambulances for the Lebanese Red Cross, for whom the girl’s father had been driving for when he disappeared that fateful day in 1985. The Carrera RS was theirs.
“The dry climate, and the fact that the car was under cover, helped to preserve it all those years,” says Mike Wastie, Projects Manager at Autofarm. “Normally you would do a complete restoration on a car in this condition, but the totally unique history would be wiped out if it came out looking like new.”
“We sat down with Don and James and discussed this at great length,” Sadler says. “They both agreed that it would be sacrilege to lose the history of a car that by now had become referred to as the Beirut RS.”
And so began one of the most interesting projects ever to pass through Autofarm’s workshop, and possibly the workshop of any Porsche specialist anywhere. “We call it a sympathetic restoration,” Sadler says, “only rebuilding what was necessary for safety or functional reasons.”
While the roof was severely dented where part of the building had collapsed on it, by a miracle all the glass was intact. “Considering that the thinner Glaverbel glass used for the side windows of the RS is like hen’s teeth, this was a blessing,” Wastie explains. “As the last thing we wanted to do was accidentally break a window while removing it, we had to be extra careful.”
Once the battered shell was stripped down, the roof was pushed back to more or less its original shape, and various other dents teased out as well. Since the damaged panels were clearly a part of the car’s patina, the decision was taken to treat the surface corrosion with rust converter, and then use clear lacquer to protect the exposed metal from further oxidization.
“It is not the normal way we would work on a battered car, and I thought at first that the owner was mad to do this,” says Wastie. “But halfway through the project, more and more people who had heard about the car and its unique history came to see it for themselves.
“That’s when the penny dropped for me,” he continues. “I then fully understood the worth of the way we were handling the restoration. By preserving the evidence of its past this way, the car tells the story all by itself.”
The car had survived pretty well considering what it had been through. But the fuel in the 85-liter long-range plastic tank had turned to jelly, and had sprung a leak, so it had to be replaced. Everything rubber had also perished, so the car was given a set of new suspension bushings and anything else that was needed.
A crude front spoiler had been bolted to the front of the car when it was new, along with extra lights. “Anything added to the car in Beirut was a mess,” says Wastie. “It’s obvious the mechanics out there in those days were little more than butchers.
“The headlamps were broken, so we put in new glass and lenses. Underneath, we found that the car had been beefed up for rallying and steel plates had been welded to the front A-arms to strengthen them. However, the steel brackets welded on to attach underbody protection panels looked like they were done by the factory.
“We replaced the bushings with a combination of original Porsche and polyurethane ones, and renewed the torsion bars, dampers, bearings and brake discs, along with the fuel and brake lines.”
The RS came with 6- and 7x15 Fuchs wheels and a spare. One of these wheels was not right, so it was replaced with one from stock with the correct date stamp, and they were fitted with new 185/70VR15 and 215/60VR15 Pirelli P6000 rubber.
“The interior came with lightweight seats, but as James could not get comfortable in these, we fitted the later Recaros,” says Sadler. “As a finishing touch, we even managed to find a retro-look Becker Mexico radio.”
The engine bay had a thick layer of sand and grit over it, so the motor was removed and everything methodically cleaned out. The oil tank was refinished and the 2.7-liter, mechanically injected flat-six was stripped down and its fuel pump sent away to a specialist for a complete rebuild.
As Shead intended to drive the car on road rallies, the engine was fitted with high-compression barrels and pistons, and the gearbox stripped down and rebuilt. Although they are not original, the customary 3.2 Carrera pressure fed chain tensioners were fitted as a precaution to protect the valuable engine.
Some detail work had to be done to bring the engine bay up to scratch, and this involved new tin work, and a rear light and bumper center panel. Interestingly, this car came with the standard engine cover, sans the ducktail rear spoiler you see on every other RS. Because of this, the metal rear Carrera RS badge is a very rare item indeed.
The Sheads are keen to use the car as often as they can, and its first outing in 2008, soon after it emerged rejuvenated from Autofarm’s workshop, was the Coupe des Alpes. It was no surprise that it won the trophy for “Most Historic Car” at the event.
Indeed, the Beirut RS is a unique car with a unique history, so it’s good to know it’s now in the hands of enthusiasts with a clear connection to its original owner.
1973 Porsche 911 Carrera RS Lightweight
Longitudinal rear engine, rear-wheel drive
Wheels and Tires
Fuchs alloys, 6x15 (f), 7x15 (r)
Pirelli P6000, 185/70 (f), 215/60 (r)
Recaro seats, Becker Mexico radio
Peak Power: 200 hp