GRR

Driving the first ever Porsche sportscar

19th July 2018
Andrew English

It's probably one of the best-looking Porsches ever. It's so low that the top of the coachwork barely reaches my thighs, yet the whole car's appearance hangs on a single curve running from front to rear. In 1947 Erwin Komenda designed this little speedster's aluminium body in just a few weeks and while it might be based on a Volkswagen Beetle, the proportions on the 85-inch wheelbase and 16-inch wheels are just about perfect.

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This is the first-ever Porsche, with the number 356001 proudly stamped on a plate on the bulkhead under the bonnet, just in front of the 50-litre fuel tank. Sit inside and while the cockpit is large, the wide sills cram the two seats together so that you can't change gear without driving your knuckles into your passenger's leg, the heat from the mid-mounted engine heats the bulkhead to scorching levels and the unique four-speed gearbox has no synchromesh on first and second gears, so you have to dance around the pedals double declutching up and down the 'box.

This is the first Porsche, registered 70 years ago (although Porsche was formed in 1931) and sold the following year for 7,500 Swiss Francs (about £600) to Peter Kaiser, a Zurich architect. He sold it on quickly and it passed through about seven hands before in 1958, Porsche bought it back (it was swapped for a new 356 Speedster). By that time it had been widely changed, at one time it had been fitted with a more modern 1.5-litre engine and new brakes by Porsche for an owner who wanted to race it. Another owner had even modified the body to look like a 356 Speedster. Porsche slung it in its museum and there were a number of attempts to restore it back to original condition over the years with various degrees of success. Yet these days authenticity is more important than originality, which implies a single date when the car was perfect, which isn't really possible with a prototype. And this car, Number One, as Porsche calls it, reeks of sincere and genuine graft even if the silver coachwork is a Boxster silver rather than grey, or even unpainted as it was when Ferdinand and his son Ferry Porsche first tested it on the Swiss Mountain roads..

The car's origins lie in the immediate post-war period when Ferry Porsche, released after a six-month term in a French jail had to return to Gmünd in Austria where his family firm had been moved to from Stuttgart during World War Two to avoid Allied bombing. Times were tough. His father, Ferdinand Anton Piëch, his uncle and a minority director were serving a 22-month jail term. Adolf Rosenberger the other founding minority director had fled Nazi Germany for France, Britain and finally America, changing his name twice in the process.

Ferdinand and Piëch wrote begging letters to Rosenberg, which he answered with food and money, but the firm's 200 staff needed work and Porsche turned his engineering skills to designing and building agricultural equipment, mowers, tractors, winches and water pumps; to this day, you can still see Porsche tractors at work in Austrian pastures. Ferdinand was still earning a royalty on each Beetle produced and there was consultancy work on that car's further development, but it was a contract from the Italian car maker, Cisitalia, to develop a grand-prix car which got him released from jail as Piero Dusio, business man and Cisitalia's owner, fronted up the bail so that Ferdinand could repurpose his unraced design for Auto Union's flat-12 supercharged, 1.5-litre race car as the Cisitalia 360.

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Was it this which convinced Porsche and his son that they could build their own car? Alexander Klein, manager of Porsche's historic car collection thinks is was, although the decision would also have been influenced by Porsche's work on the Type 64 Beetle-based streamlined racing car in 1939 (which many think is really the first-ever Porsche).

Research into this car has been helped by the incredibly detailed diaries of Karl Rabe, the talented Austrian engineer and designer who'd worked with Ferdinand Porsche almost continually from 1913 when the two were employed at Austro Daimler. The first mention of Number One, which Rabe calls 'VW Sport', was in July 1947 when Rabe recorded just how much it owed to the Volkswagen Beetle, with its mid-mounted, air-cooled, single-cam engine, the front and rear suspension, worm-and-roller steering, 16-inch wheels and Simplex cable-operated nine-inch drum brakes all mounted in a tubular frame bookended with sturdy bulkheads. Apart from the speedster body, the other major differences were that Number One was mid-engined, with the engine set against the back wall of the cockpit and the four-speed gearbox was behind rather than in front of the engine as it was with the Beetle and the subsequent production models of the Porsche 356.

The mid-engined configuration would have been familiar to Ferdinand Porsche with his work on the Auto Union race cars, and while it gives distinct handling advantages, it's a packaging nightmare and as Klein explains, Porsche also wanted his new car to be practical.  

“Ergonomics were incredibly important to Porsche; how you sit in the car,” says Klein. "And with a mid engine there is the engine right behind the rear seats; it’s hot. There is also cabin space, which is much better with the rear-engined cars. Porsche wanted a two-plus-two layout for the production cars.”

There was also the rear suspension arrangement, which was a sort of reversed Beetle system with leading instead of trailing arms, which meant wheel geometry changes when cornering could be fairly hair raising. 

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"It isn't the most balanced system," admits Klein, especially mounted on Number One's old fashioned racing tyres, which slide around on Bern's tram tracks.

Porsche knew all this of course when in 1948 they started testing the car in the Swiss mountain roads. The rear subframe twisted and had to be reinforced and the space limitations of the car were apparent, so much so that the production two-plus-two 356 was already under simultaneous development.

“We built that car only for experience,” explained Ferry Porsche in 1984 about Number One. “It was to see how light we could go and how many VW parts we would need.” 

Out of town you can see the appeal of this lovely little motor car, though at six-foot my head sits high above the frameless glass windscreen in the teeth of the wind blast.

The dashboard is charming with a simple speedometer in front of the driver and a clock in front of the passenger and everything else is done with a combination of switches, levers and warning lamps. One lamp which refuses to extinguish is the oil-pressure warning light. The engine has overheated in traffic and the steep mountain roads, and trying to keep the revs up to maintain a respectable flow of oil to the bearings only makes things worse. We have to stop and let things cool.

Don't expect tyre burning starts, though, as it's very slow. Although it's specially tuned with special cylinder heads and twin carburettors, the 1,131cc flat-four engine only produces 35bhp at 4,000rpm and 70Nm at 2,600rpm. Despite the 585kg kerb weight, that's only enough for a top speed of 84mph and 0-62mph in a leisurely 23seconds. You have to husband all momentum and on these hilly roads, seldom select the long fourth gear.

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Number One car debuted in July 1948 at the Bern Grand Prix and journalists were invited to drive the car, including Robert Braunschweig from Automobil-Revue which published the first road test. That September Porsche received an export licence for the new car and in December Number One became the first officially registered Porsche - exactly 70 years ago. Number One was supplied to Swiss agent Bernhard Blank, who mainly by chance became a major investor in Porsche and the company's first salesman. Blank sold many of the first 356 models including Number One.

Not everyone likes Porsche, as much for its beginnings as its products which tend to be derided as expensive Beetles. That latter criticism would be fairly levelled at Number One, but my goodness what a job they did with such humble parts and meagre resources. It's also very touching the obvious affection the museum has for this little car. That said I'm not sorry to hand the keys back, it's fragile and difficult to drive and while I wish the car-making arm of Porsche AG a very happy birthday, I'm glad it's going to be someone else taking Number One up the hill.

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