Built from the Heart

Story By Tom M’Guinness
Photos By Michael Alan Ross
December 2022 Panorama
When Ralsh Francis decides to squeeze in some quality father-son time, he thinks bigger than a fishing pole and a bucket full of fish. Much bigger. Ralph is one of those people who gets more done in his spare time than many of us get done all month. He's a remarkably positive person with enough credentials and life accomplishments to fill a binder full of résumés. So naturally, when he needed a break from the stress of work, he used the time to create once-in-a-lifetime memories with his son and, oh by the way, this jaw-dropping 1975 "outlaw" 911.

Ralph's accomplishments are vast, varied, and humbling - law firm founder with a thriving practice; community center co-founder for at-risk kids; juvenile court judge; juvenile justice advocate; professor at a prestigious university; mechanical engineer; carbon-fiber pioneer that sort of thing.

Not impressed yet? He's also a Vietnam veteran (special ops); "played a little college ball"; has clerkships involving federal judges and the U.S. Supreme Court; learned Mandarin and attended a Chinese university; is a loving husband to Lori and father to Derek, Taylor, and Matthew; and, in his free time, is currently involved with a medical start-up.

Must be a trust-fund baby born with a silver spoon in his mouth, you say? Nope. He was brought up in the federal housing projects just outside of Philadelphia. That may explain why he mentored many of the at-risk youth who came through his courtroom, and why he helped some get into - and even pay for - college. Ralph is an extraordinary person, touched with amazing grace.

BUT WE'RE HERE to talk about cars, and Ralph is also a serious car guy. He's owned and built a wide range of cars, including Ferraris, Cobras, Bentleys, and more, but the Porsche 911 holds a special place in his heart. As he said, "I tasted a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and just kept coming back. I love the 911. The marque just keeps pulling me back, and that's really home for me."

His devotion to Porsche began when he was at the University of Illinois pursuing a mechanical engineering degree.

"Bob White - I think he was actually an officer in the Porsche club--took me under his wing," Ralph said. "I did quite a bit of vehicle dynamics work with him. I'd be over in his garage as often as I could, looking at his collection of Porsches, and just became a Porsche nut. I couldn't wait to get myself in a financial position to purchase my own."

But this 911 is different from all the other cars he's owned. Yes, it's an amazing over-the-top bespoke creation, but this car was always more about the journey than the destination. After a medical wake-up call, Ralph realized he needed to back off from work, take care of his own health, and cherish his family.

"I was spread pretty thin. I definitely had a warning from above. I had a heart incident that not only freaked me out but freaked the family out," Ralph said. His wife and three children were all imploring him to slow down, but it was his son Derek who came up with the idea that got Ralph to finally do it. Derek is a senior patent agent at Ralph's law firm, so he had a first-row seat for the daily stress that comes with such a large and successful practice.

Knowing his father, Derek didn't suggest a week on the beach with frozen cocktails. Instead, Derek walked into Ralph's office and suggested the bespoke 911. That was all Ralph needed to hear.

"We went to lunch and started to lay out a game plan. I figured if I was going to do it, I needed to really step out," Ralph said. The plan from the start was to make it a father-son project, from planning to execution. Working side by side with Derek was just what the doctor Ordered. And while his son was his wingman at every turn, the project created memories and friendships that went way beyond just building a car.

Indeed, it's a challenge to get Ralph to talk about the car itself without bursting into praise and appreciation for all the people who were involved. He and Derek quickly assembled a dream team of West Coast car builders, and now consider many of them to be lifelong friends. Among others, Ralph credits Gary George at Gary's Rods & Restorations for the body and paint work; James Heth at JH Motorsports and Jeff Gamroth at Rothsport Racing for the engine and suspension work; and Byron Robeck at Finish Line Interiors for the interior. This was an A-team, and it shows.

Bespoke details are everywhere. Gary's Rods & Restorations created the unique sideview mirrors and rear grille. Why clutter the lines with brackets? Just glue the mirrors to the glass!

RALPH'S PLAN FROM the start was to build an outlaw 911 based on a G-series 911 coupe. Porsche claims it built nearly 200,000 G-series cars from 1973 to 1989, so good examples are still easy enough to find. But don’t expect used-car pricing. Their popularity, age, and iconic silhouette have turned them into popular (a.k.a. ex-pensive) collector cars. To make it more of a challenge, not just any G-series coupe was going to work for Ralph.

To start, G-series cars had a noticeable design change starting in 1974. Until that year, the 911 had a longer hood that extended past the end of the front fenders and curved down toward the bumper. These are known to the faithful as long-hood cars. Starting in 1974, the hood was shortened to make room for the newly mandated impact bumpers. "We loved the G-body Porsches and felt that backdating them was becoming too common," Ralph said. His plan was to retain the short-hood look, so his search was limited to 74 and newer models, but he didn't want just any car.

In California, gas-powered automobiles from model year 1975 and older are exempt from smog testing. For all practical purposes, smog requirements would significantly limit what he could do if he started with a car from 1976 or later. To find a smog-exempt, short-hood, G-series 911, that meant the donor car needed to be either a ‘74 or '75 coupe, not something you're likely to find at your local CarMax.

Ralph originally engaged Brad Goldstone, owner of San Francisco Sports Cars, to help with the search. Ultimately, Ralph found the donor car (a white '75) on a dealer lot in Houston during a family trip for a wedding. It was a low-mile, two-owner car, and was perfect for the project.

"After the purchase, we met with our build team... That's where our vision and game plan for the build were further refined," Ralph said. Preliminary mechanical work involved sourcing and sorting a long list of parts, including a dual fender cooler system from Elephant Racing, a rebuilt 915 transmission with close-ratio gears and a limited-slip differential, and a fuel cell up front.

The suspension was upgraded with the help of Elephant Racing parts. In the front, the car is now equipped with raised spindles, a 19.3mm sway bar, a 20mm hollow torsion bar, 930 tie rods, a race bump steer kit, spherical bearings, and de-cambered ball joints. The rear was fitted with a 19.3mm sway bar, a 27mm hollow torsion bar, poly-bronze bearings, and quick-change spring plates. Bilstein B6 shocks cushion the ride at all four corners.

For brakes, Ralph opted for a StopTech system with stainless steel braided lines, Hawk HPS brake pads, and rotors that are both drilled and slotted. The car rides on Toyo Proxes R888 tires, 205/50R17 in front and 255/40R17 in the rear, wrapped around three-piece, Fuchs-style wheels. "The Fiske wheels have an RSR finish and fit perfectly, although we did end up going with a lower-profile tire since the first set rubbed a little during a full tun," Ralph said.

A Carrera 3.2-liter engine was sourced and sent to James Heth at JH Motorsports in Santa Cruz, California. Although Ralph was prepared to do whatever was needed, he opted for a more conservative route. He wanted an engine that retained the character of the 911 and would be fun for spirited cruising, without being a fussy, high-strung monster. Of course, everything is relative, so the conversion involved some eye-popping parts.

"Since the leak-down on all cylinders was within 2%, and after extensive discussions with Rothsport Racing, we decided to merely install 964 cams, Rothsport Racing throttle bodies, and a Rasant EFI engine management kit," Ralph said. Toss in a set of stainless headers and GT3-style muffler from RarlyL8, and this simple street engine starts to sound pretty exotic.

The Rasant EFI system is optimized for use with the Rothsport Racing throttle bodies and delivers fuel and spark with a level of precision simply not possible with the original CIS systems. With the modern engine management system, the engine is inherently more efficient than anything sold in the 70s.

Chassis dyno numbers are good fodder for armchair racers and internet mechanics everywhere, so no build like this would be complete without a dyno run. This car put down 210 horsepower at the rear wheels. Factoring in drivetrain loss, 210 horsepower at the wheels means this 1975 911 has more power than the flagship Turbo Carrera 930 introduced that same year. In an era when Honda sells a Civic that can beat the Miami Vice Testarossa in the quarter mile (seriously, Google it), it's refreshing to come across a vintage Porsche that can hold its own against modern cars and then some.

Rothsport Racing throttle bodies top a show-ready 3.2 Carrera engine with 964 cams and Rasant fuel injection. Like everything else on the car, the engine bay has the look of modern industrial design.

GO-FAST BITS ARE NICE, but Ralph is not the type to stop halfway. Looks count, and that's where Ralph and Derek really spent plenty of time making their 911 unique and special. The modifications are subtle, but they combine to ensure more than one double-take at the local car show. They are also in perfect keeping with the style and spirit of the original car. Several features are so right, they will have you wondering if they are modifications or factory options.

Needless to say, this was no simple respray. Gary George has a long, award-winning history of custom and exotic car paint and body work, originally under the wing of Bruce Canepa in the early 1980s. After a number of other painting stints, Gary opened his shop in 2012 and has never looked back, with many national award-winning car builds over the years.

The 911 was stripped to the tub and then media blasted down to bare metal. From there, not any old primer is good enough for Gary. "We have it powder coated primered. The powder coat is magnetized, and it gets in areas you can't even get to.. and you want to seal the metal up as quickly as possible. So for me to transport them back here (after media blasting), blow them out, get them in the booth, it's already too late. I do a powder prime on all my cars," Gary said.

Ralph's car includes a pair of metal rear fender flares from the 911 SC; rocker panels akin to the 964; a one-of-a-kind rear deck screen; bi-LED headlights; custom brake and oil cooler ducting; a bespoke cover for the windshield wiper motor; and more. The fiberglass bumpers were sourced from EB Motorsports with the help of Rothsport Racing and were modified over many hours by Gary and his team. So while you may have seen these bumpers on a show car here and there, you've probably never seen them like this.

Beyond the big ticket visual items, subtleties are everywhere on this car. If the moldings and door handles look somehow better or different than normal, it's because they were all sent off to a specialty plater in Atlanta and finished in a custom black nickel plating. That work alone cost more than a new 911 when they first came out in 1965!

Vintage style bullet mirrors are not uncommon on outlaw Porsches, but have you ever seen them mounted to the front vent window glass? Unlike some, Gary is happy to reveal his tricks of the trade. "I think it was a Lucas racing type of mirror, and we machined some aluminum parts to make a puck, and then glued it to the side vent window glass, because we couldn't drill a hole in tempered glass," Gary explained.

Once the body work was done, Gary's shop went to work on the black paint. One might assume he used Glasurit paint, or some equally high-brow European painting system. Why stray from paint that's won awards everywhere from Pebble Beach to Amelia Island? Well, Gary has his reasons. To get just the purest, deepest black they could find, the team opted for, surprise, House of Kolor paint!

House of Kolor may be best known for candies, flames, flakes and metallics, but Gary points out those deep candies need a very pure black base to work their magic. That's where House of Kolor had the edge. "We use what's best. This was by far the blackest black we could find at the time…. Any time you put anything else in other than black toner, you're going to start muddying up the color," Gary said. The results speak for them-selves. The finish is second to none, as one might expect from a shop with a long list of national awards. "He hit it out of the park. I can't say enough about Gary and his crew," Ralph said.

THE INTERIOR WAS put squarely in the hands of local legend Byron Robeck at Finish Line Interiors. "Byron and I have known each other for years. He's done six or seven cars for me, complete interiors," Ralph said. From his unassuming shop near the San Jose airport, Byron is known for doing some of the best interior work available anywhere. On any given day, you will find jaw-dropping cars of every type waiting for their new interiors. Classics, exotics, customs, you name it, Byron's shop does them.

Byron is slow to brag about his work, and even slower to talk about his techniques. When asked about Ralphs car, Byron mostly discounts it as "all in a day's work at his shop, then quickly pivots to what a great person Ralph is and how much they enjoy working together.

Much like the rest of the car, the interior adds up to more than the sum of its parts. Working with Ralph and Derek at every turn, Byron installed a custom dash for the car, along with the Daytona-style seats, RSR-style door panels and pulls, Rennline stainless pedals, and a Zuffenhaus 911 ST steering wheel. To complete the look, the interior also sports a Patrick Motorsports roll bar. The overall car is stunning, and the interior is no exception.

Just after the car was completed, Gary took it to Los Angeles for the annual Rod and Customs show. Soon after, Ralph submitted the car in the 2019 Werks Reunion in Monterey, where it won the Griot's Garage Corporate Award.

Overall, the interior reflects the understated elegance that characterizes the whole car. Daytona-style seats are one-of-a-kind customs, while the Rennline stainless pedals with matching 917-style key add their own special flair.

BUT IN THE END, it was never about the car, or the trophies it might win. It was about building the car. It was about Ralph bonding with Derek, reconnecting with Old friends, and making new ones. It was about getting him off the hamster wheel for a while so his heart could mend and be filled with once-in-a-lifetime memories of time with his son. "I actually cherish the build process more than the car itself," Ralph said.

For a guy who has given so selflessly of himself over the years, it humbles the most jaded among us to hear Ralph talk about it. "It's just the blessings, and I count them every day, and I think about the build…. the car itself, wow. Something I always wanted to do. Bucket list. But the car just pales in comparison. I'm actually choking up. The people, reconnecting with my boys... I have been blessed with many amazing experiences in my life, but building the 911 with my son was right up there with the birth of my kids. Besides the decision to marry my wife, this was one of the best decisions of my life!"