Marqued

Feature

This Malaysian Porsche 911 went from scrapheap to showstopper

Written by Aaron McKenzie, Photography by Chua Chung Zhi

The 2020 covid pandemic led a lot of people to undertake a lot of harebrained schemes. Being cooped up at home – unable to travel or go to the office or hang out with friends at the local coffee shop – will do that to a person. Just ask Lawson Lee. An entrepreneur with an allergy to idleness, the Kuala Lumpur resident suddenly found himself, like billions of other people around the globe in early 2020, with too much time on his hands, a dangerous situation for a man whose brain, by his own admission, doesn’t do down time. 

“I always have a lot of ideas,” says Lee, “but the thing is, whenever I have an idea, I have to make it happen.” Which is how Lee came to find himself in the back of an oil and gas facility in Malacca, on Malaysia’s southwest coast, looking at a ratty 1976 Porsche 911 that was more a jumble of parts than it was an actual car. 

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“There was a group of six or seven guys sitting around in there, gambling, smoking, and nobody cared about this car,” recalls Lee. “‘What do you want with that thing?’ they asked me.”

Little did Lee know that this car, this basket case, would consume the next two years of his life. Fortunately, Lee was not entirely unprepared for the task ahead.

Born and raised in Batu Pahat, on the southern coast of Malaysia just across the Strait of Johor from Singapore, Lee grew up on the shop floor with a mechanic father whose passion for British motorcycles and air-cooled Volkswagens rubbed off on Lee at an early age. As Lee neared his eighteenth birthday and started eyeing his driver’s license, he began to pester his father for a car, preferably something modern, something cool. Instead, the elder Lee took his son to an old neighborhood in town and pointed to a tattered 1965 Volkswagen Beetle parked on someone’s lawn. 

“Hey, check it out!” said Lee’s father. “There’s your first car.”

“What was I supposed to do? Complain?,” says Lee. 

Father and son took the car back to the shop, where Lawson set about cleaning it up and learning the rudiments of an air-cooled engine. As it turned out, the car was not just an education, but an entrée into an entire universe, a community that would come to define his automotive life. The Beetle carried Lee to college in Kuala Lumpur where, he admits, he spent more time hanging out with his new group of air-cooled enthusiast friends – most of whom were older and wiser than he was – than he did with his own college classmates. In addition to deepening his Volkswagen bonafides, these relationships, along with a 2013 trip to Japan for the Mooneyes show, also spurred Lee’s love of Harley-Davidson motorcycles and, eventually, custom chopper-style builds, which attracted him for the creativity they allowed.

“If you have a Ducati, it’s a Ducati. What more can you really do?” says Lee. “Maybe add a new faring or a different exhaust, but that’s about it. But for a chopper, it's a blank canvas. How you want it to be is totally up to you.”

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And so, when the Porsche came into Lee’s life, its rough condition gave Lee permission to follow his own muse with the restoration. 

“When the budget is constrained, you need to be creative about it,”

“A lot of my friends said, ‘Oh, you should do it in the RWB style,’” recalls Lee. “I’m all into the hot rod custom culture, the Americana culture, and also the Japanese way of doing things, but I said ‘No, I'm just going to do it more like how I did my Volkswagen, so the performance won’t be full-blown and obvious. It’ll just be a nice, well-performing street rod.”

But first he had to extract the car from the back of that oil and gas warehouse and get it home to Kuala Lumpur. Lee started by enlisting the help of the resident smoking gamblers to assist in laying all car’s loose parts (the gearbox, for instance, was in the frunk) out on the floor so that Lee could confirm that the car, even in its disassembled state, had everything he would need to put it back together again. 

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“We just started to lay everything out on the floor,” recalls Lee. “Fortunately, I was already an air-cooled guy from my Volkswagen days, so I knew what parts I’d need to make the engine work. I found the crank and the case. I found the pistons, the cam. Where’s the carburetor? Where’s the manifold? Oof, the exhaust is shot. Once I laid everything out, though, I saw that I had 70-80% of the core parts and the interior was basically intact.” . 

From those scattered beginnings, the Porsche came together surprisingly quickly. 

"I just completed the car in August of 2023," says Lee. "I'm actually very lucky because I'd never done anything like this before but I had all the contacts that I had accumulated over the years, so I had a person to do the interior, another who could do the body work, the paint work, the engine work, the wiring, and so on. It helped everything come together pretty quickly." 

...but I still have to buy used stuff, but that's also the fun part of it. It's like thrifting for clothes – you never know what you're going to get, and you have to find a way to use what you get.”

Despite this quick pace, Lee was nevertheless anxious to drive his Porsche. Finally, after waiting for two years, he could contain his desire no longer. Lee stopped by his mechanic’s shop and begged to drive the car. At this point, the 911 was a running, driving shell, but it lacked a windscreen and nothing about the steering or suspension had been properly set up. Still, Lee insisted on taking it for a test drive. The mechanic shrugged and brought the car down off the lift. 

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As Lee got out on the road and brought the car up to speed, shifting through first, second, and third gears, his excitement vanished. “This is just an overpriced Volkswagen,” he remembers thinking to himself, "Have I spent all this time and money just to have another, more expensive Volkswagen?" 

Fortunately, once the car neared completion and received its proper tuning, Lee’s assessment quickly changed. Says Lee: "Once the car was dialed, it stopped being a Volkswagen and I could really understand the attraction of Porsches.” 

True to his plans for an understated street rod, Lee mated 911R headers, an MSD ignition, and a fast-flowing M&K exhaust system to the Porsche’s 2.7-liter engine. After hemming and hawing over color options, Lee finally opted for Porsche’s Olive 414 paint, albeit with about 10-15% more green than the original paint. And he did it all on a budget, a particular point of pride for Lee.

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“When the budget is constrained, you need to be creative about it,” says Lee. “The Porsche community has a lot of loaded guys who kept telling me, ‘I'm going to buy the best carbon fiber, or this rare headlight.’ All right, good for you, man, but I still have to buy used stuff, but that's also the fun part of it. It's like thrifting for clothes – you never know what you're going to get, and you have to find a way to use what you get.”

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Since finishing the restoration on the 911, Lee and his wife have taken numerous trips up and down the length of Malaysia, roaring through the highlands and along beaches and down the twisty jungle roads that crisscross the country. But, of course, these projects are never truly finished: Lee’s 911, for instance, still does not have air-conditioning. 

"At first when I was driving the car, I was cursing at it a lot," says Lee. “I was just nonstop: ‘god, it's so damn hot in this car.’ But my wife, who's been through all the Volkswagen and chopper adventures with me, didn't complain at all.  She just told me, 'When you're at peace, that is when you are the coolest,' so she told me to chill out and remember that I'm driving the car I always wanted.“

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More about Lawson Lee

You can follow Lawson's automotive and entrepreneurial experiences on Instagram (@speedaddicts).

Meet our contributors

Chua Chung Zhi is a Malaysia-based creative and photographer—you can see more of his incredible work on Instagram (@zetto.works).

Aaron McKenzie is a Los Angeles based writer, photographer, and producer with an eye for all things automotive.

Additional photos courtesy of Lawson Lee, Faizal Reza, and Mò Shēng Rén.


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