Sunday, February 15, 2009

Seeds That Grew Into Porsche Legacy


FOR some Americans, a mention of Porsche conjures up images of Cayenne S.U.V.’s — or even the watches and sunglasses at Porsche Design stores. But enthusiasts have put the company on a sports car pedestal almost since Porsche sold its first production car 60 years ago.

A Porsche 356 Speedster.

After all, the very first Porsche won the first, and only, race it entered. Subsequent models continued that racing success.

Porsches have always been quite different from other cars in concept, engineering and performance. The company stuck with a rear-engine, air-cooled design into the 1990s, long after that configuration became unfashionable, and built its reputation on small, efficient engines that delivered muscle-car performance. Porsche’s workmanship and quality are legendary.

That is what makes Porsches so desirable today, and why the cars the company built soon after World War II are sought by collectors: cars like the 356, the 356 Speedster and the 550 Spyder.

Even the company’s history is different. Unlike automakers with long traditions dating to the early days of the automobile, Porsche has its roots in the 1930s. But its cars are postwar babies.

Porsche was officially formed as a vehicle design firm in 1931 and did work for car companies. In the late 1930s, Porsche built a streamlined Volkswagen-based racecar, which clearly contained the DNA of postwar Porsche sports cars. But the company spent the war designing and producing vehicles for the military in Stuttgart. That industrial city was a target of Allied bombing, which by 1944 had become intense enough for the company to look for real estate in a quieter neighborhood. Porsche chose bucolic Gmünd, Austria, and after the war it began to consider restarting some automobile projects.

But in December 1945, French authorities arrested Ferdinand Porsche and his son, known as Ferry, for war crimes. Neither was tried and Ferry was released quickly, but the elder Porsche was held by the French for about 20 months. So it was Ferry Porsche and an engineer, Karl Rabe, who revisited the idea of a VW-based Porsche sports car in 1947. (Ferdinand died in early 1951.)

Two projects developed more or less concurrently: a midengine tube-chassis roadster that became 356 No. 1, regarded as the first Porsche automobile, and the 356/2, a unit-body rear-engine design. The latter supplanted the midengine design, but not before 356 No. 1 won a race in Innsbruck, Austria, in 1948 — Porsche’s first competition victory. That car survives and is displayed in the new Porsche Museum in Stuttgart.

The first limited production 356s were based on the 356/2 design. The aerodynamic body was designed by Erwin Komenda — who would remain with Porsche until his death in 1966 — and made of aluminum. The cars were assembled in Gmünd. Fewer than 50 of these hand-built cars were made and about 30 survive. Suspension, engine and gearbox were all modified VW components. They are known to Porsche 356 aficionados as “Gmünd coupes.”

In early 1950, Porsche returned to Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen and began real production of the 356 in steel.

Two men were perhaps most responsible for ensuring Porsche’s survival in the early 1950s. One was Porsche’s business manager, Alfred Prinzing — a sort of German Harold Hill — who took a Gmünd coupe on an extensive and successful tour to drum up orders.

The other was Max Hoffman, a New York-based car importer. An expert on the American market, he was influential not only in building the brand in the United States in the 1950s, but in suggesting savvy changes to the 356 to suit American tastes. Hoffman’s opinions led to the introduction of the model that cemented Porsche’s reputation among club racers and hipsters: the Speedster.

Early 356 coupes and cabriolets were fairly expensive, well-finished products, costing about $4,000 in 1950, or about $34,000 today. Hoffman believed that there was a market for something well finished, but lighter, a bit more austere, and less expensive — and that could be driven on the street and in competition. Indeed, competition driving was the reason the actor James Dean acquired an early example of the Speedster.

With its low windshield and racing bucket seats, the Speedster is coveted by collectors today and has long been a Hollywood favorite, appearing in movies including “Harper” and “Top Gun.”

As James Dean’s racing career progressed, he got a Porsche 550 Spyder, a pure competition car, which according to Road & Track magazine possessed “terrific performance, faultless handling and excellent brakes.” That was the car in which Dean was killed in 1955.

The first Porsche with, from left, Leopold Jantschke, the engine designer; Ferry Porsche; and Ferry's father, Ferdinand.

RM Auctions

A mild-custom 356 coupe.

Dave Engelman

A rare 550 Spyder.

Although the Speedster was short-lived, the 356 continued with refinements, including larger and more powerful engines and finally, with the 356C in 1964, disc brakes. By the early 1960s, however, many aspects of the 356 had become outdated; about 100 horsepower was the engine’s practical limit.

Thus, to the wails of the faithful, the car that became the 911 was introduced at the 1963 Frankfurt Motor Show. Production of the 356 ended in 1965.

Reid Vann, a Porsche collector in St. Louis, was one of the 356 crowd who didn’t necessarily welcome the 911. Mr. Vann was a college student and a reader of Road & Track in the late 1950s when he noticed a small bathtub-shaped car, a 356, weaving through traffic to pass a line of large V-8 Detroit pachyderms. He decided that after college he would buy a Porsche.

The car he eventually acquired was a 1957 356A coupe. Mr. Vann drove the car from the Northeast to Florida and eventually to California, where he was active in Sports Car Club of America events. Mr. Vann, who has an engineering background, says that early Porsches appealed to an educated crowd that included engineers, doctors and pilots.

Mr. Vann says that even today the 356 is perfectly usable as a daily driver “because they’re comfortable, good-looking, excellent highway cruisers and above all, reliable — they’re just little jewels.” They are also quite thrifty, getting 27 to 30 miles to the gallon. Because of its refinement and disc brakes, Mr. Vann prefers a 1964-65 356SC sunroof coupe converted to a 12-volt electrical system. “The 6-volt cars have miserable headlamps,” Mr. Vann said.

In California, a subculture has sprung up among collectors known as the “Outlaw 356” movement, made up of owners who customize their cars with more powerful engines, wider wheels and lower suspensions. Bruce Meyer, a Los Angeles area collector, owns one of these. Although opinions differ as to what modifications make an Outlaw 356, Mr. Meyer says it’s about the car’s attitude. “The way it sits, lowered with wider wheels and tires and a roll bar” gives the modified cars a more aggressive look, he said. Like Mr. Vann, Mr. Meyer uses his car regularly and, come spring, plans to retrace the old Route 66 with it.

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