Artist Daniel Arsham didn't want to conceal the Speedster's age.
Most automotive restoration projects end with a car that looks as if it has just been driven off the production line, with gleaming paintwork and a blemish-free interior that you'd be too afraid to touch, let alone sit in. Just ask Singer and its exquisite 911 restomods. But that's why artists exist; they allow us to see the world from unorthodox perspectives. Enter Daniel Arsham and his latest project, the '356 Bonsai' based on a 1955 Porsche 356 Speedster.
Arsham has worked on special Porsche models before, such as the off-road 911 Safari, but the 356 Bonsai is a completely different project that embraces, rather than hides, the flaws inherent in a sports car that is nearing the ripe old age of 70.
Taking inspiration from Japanese craftsmanship, Arsham sought to reveal "all of the welds, pit marks, and natural wear over the course of time" that would ordinarily be found in a classic sports car like this.
That only applies to the aesthetics of the machine, though. Lift the battered-looking engine cover, and you'll find that all the components that keep this Porsche going have been lovingly restored to "off-the-factory-floor level," so it drives far more beautifully than you'd think.
Back to the exterior, though. Arsham's approach was inspired by Japanese culture, where the acceptance of imperfections and being content with the natural passing of time are valued. That explains why the stripped-down raw metal exterior looks as it does.
Arsham elected to remove the paint from the car and the work done from prior restorations. Now, nothing more than a layer of linseed oil keeps the body protected from the elements. Original, well-worn components are used for the headlight covers and the vintage license plate, and a patinated bronze shape in the form of a Bonsai tree was added to the rear engine grille.
Retained for this 356 Bonsai are the small curved windscreen with rounded top corners and the same wheel design as the original, although the Bonsai's wheels have a worn, intentionally rusted look.
The 356 Bonsai's "1600" badge at the back indicates that this one was equipped with the 1.6-liter four-cylinder air-cooled boxer engine. Originally, it produced just 59 horsepower and 81 lb-ft of torque, so it's not exactly going to keep up with a 911 Carrera. That's little surprise since the 356 was Porsche's first production model and a reminder of the brand's far humbler beginnings.
Arsham once again turned to Japanese culture and designers when creating the 356 Bonsai's interior. "Throughout my career, I have looked to Japan as a source of inspiration for their love and dedication to craft," he said. "These sensibilities were the base for the Bonsai 356. We produced all textiles in Japan using traditional craftsman."
The 356 Bonsai's cabin uses indigo-dyed boro patchwork textiles for the driver and passenger seat, and the same material for the trunk cover. For the door trim and the edge of the seats, indigo-dyed fabric with sashiko-stitched lines were used. The roof lining is one of the coolest aspects of the interior that completes the worn look; this is fashioned from Japanese denim. These materials embrace the Wabi Sabi concept of strategically using materials that "are intended to progress with use and age."
Arsham could very well have neglected the trunk area, but it wasn't to be. Here, there is a Japanese tatami mat below the spare wheel. The mat is made of rice straw and is often used as floor coverings in Japanese architecture.
On the dashboard, the traditional analog dials and thin-rimmed steering wheel remain in place, and both bear the signs of a car that has stood the test of time.
Arsham's approach to reviving this classic Porsche is as admirable conceptually as it is to look at.