PORSCHE’S START IN the sports car industry was very modest compared to the world famous manufacturer it would become. Engineer Ferdinand ‘Ferry’ Porsche – son of Volkswagen and Porsche founder, Ferdinand Sr – already had an idea for a sports car using Volkswagen parts before World War II, and developed the Type 64 model for a prominent new race from Berlin to Rome. The Type 64 had many details from Volkswagen’s Beetle, but also features that would end up on the first Porsche, the 356 No. 1 Roadster, and early production 356 models. The race was to take place in 1939, with the first 603km on newly built autobahns, but it was cancelled at the outbreak of war. Ferry’s Type 64 was not forgotten and at the end of the 1940s, Porsche really got going.
“There is still real Beetle technology in this Gmünd (the Austrian town where Porsches were first built) car”, explained Klaus Bishop, the former head of historical archives and former supervisor of the historic vehicle collection at Porsche, when we had the privilege of driving Porsche No. 1.
However, this very first Porsche has a lot in common with its successor, the Porsche 356/2 Gmünd Coupe and Cabriolet.
It is one of the first mid-engined road cars because its fourcylinder boxer engine sits in front of the rear axle. Unlike the Volkswagen, though, it does not have a central tubular chassis. Its lightweight aluminium body is bolted to a tubular frame, which in turn accommodates the drivetrain and the suspension originating from the Volkswagen.
Ferry Porsche, chief designer Karl Rabe and Erwin Komenda, head of the body department, acknowledged that the power of the VW-sourced engine was very modest so the chassis had to be as light as possible and the car weighs just 585kg. Its 26kW, 1131cc four was only slightly modified from Volkswagen’s design and, compared to modern Porsches, the small roadster’s performance is easily manageable.
It accelerates more gently than quickly, taking 23 seconds to hit 100km/h, and has a top speed of 135km/h – 140km/h with the tonneau covering the passenger seat. That performance was praiseworthy in 1948 and the first Porsche was a lot faster than an 18kW Volkswagen.
Although the steering, front suspension and brakes also came from the Beetle, Ferry Porsche was convinced of the success of his concept after test drives on the Katschberg Pass. He signed off his first sports car on June 8, 1948, and on June 15 it was registered with the number plate K45286. A few weeks later, on July 11, Ferry’s cousin, Herbert Kaes, drove the sports car to a class victory at the city race in Innsbruck, Austria.
Interest in the roadster rose sharply after this high-profile racing success and Porsche sports car production was assured. The original 356 Roadster was soon sold for 7500 Swiss Francs by car dealer Rupprecht von Senger. However, Porsche reacquired the No. 1 in 1953 and it has remained in the factory’s historic collection ever since.
A visionary Australian became just the second Porsche agent
AUSTRALIA’s love affair with Porsche is almost as old as Ferry Porsche’s first car, the 356. It’s folklore now, but in 1951 pump manufacturer Norman Hamilton was lumbering up the Grossglockner Pass in Austria in an Oldsmobile 88 when he was passed by a small silver sports car being driven rather vigorously. He eventually caught up with the car and followed it to the Porsche factory where he did a handshake deal to become only the second Porsche agent after the USA. A few months later the first production righthand drive 356s, a cabrio and a coupe arrived Down Under.
Hamilton’s first Porsches didn’t just sit in a showroom, he used them mercilessly to promote the brand, entering them in hillclimbs and circuit racing. But in the ultimate test of Porsche reliability, Hamilton entered the coupe in the 1953 Redex Round Australia Trial.
The little air-cooled 356 was so well engineered it finished the car-killing, 10,400km outback rally in one piece, even with mud in its sump!
And that bulletproof engineering has been a Porsche hallmark ever since.
Today, most of the more than 32,000 Porsches delivered from the factory to Australia are still on the road.