Feature Story

HISTORY: PORSCHE AT 50

by Bob Hagin

March 27, 1998

Two pieces of Porsche information came into our office in a single day last week. For us, that's some kind of a record.

The first was a newspaper business section article on the impact of the Academy Awards on the economy of Los Angeles and the fact that the most requested rental car for that event is the new Porsche Boxster two-seater roadster. The feature included a photo of one of the cars with the president of the rental company standing beside the car.

The second was a press release about the upcoming vintage car races at Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, Calif. It announced that Porsche will be the featured marque at the event as well as the fact that 1998 is the 50th anniversary of Porsche. A plethora of vintage Porsches will be on hand at Laguna Seca that weekend to race again for glory.

Outside of the ubiquitous Volkswagen Beetle, I don't think that there has been a passenger car ever made whose profile is more universally recognized in the civilized world than that of the rear-engined Porsche coupe. The irony of this is that it was Ferdinand Porsche, father of the designer of car that bears the Porsche name, who developed the Beetle for Adolph Hitler.

The story of the Porsche as a brand name started in Austria in 1946, after the end of hostilities in Europe. Although Ferdinand Porsche and his adult son Ferry were non-combatants and had no real connection with the Nazi government, the French occupation forces imprisoned both of them for collaborating with the German war effort. The father had been a well-known industrial and race car designer in the '20s and '30s and while in prison, French authorities forced him to work up the design of the Renault 4CV. This subsequently popular French car carried the same design parameters as the Volkswagen which was at the time being built in Germany under the auspices of the British military government.

Ferry Porsche was released by the French in the middle of 1946 but his father was incarcerated until the end of 1948. Upon his release, the younger Porsche returned to the family design firm in Austria and gathered around him a cadre of skilled designers and fabricators. The first order of business was to design and build a sports car to showcase the firm's creative talents.

That first Porsche was dubbed the 356 and utilized Volkswagen components, (air-cooled horizontally-opposed four cylinder engine, fully independent suspension, four-speed transaxle, etc.) since they were, in truth, Porsche designs. The engine was modified for more power, rotated and placed midship behind the passenger compartment but in front of the rear axle, while the differential ring gear was flipped over to provide four forward speeds. These components were brought together in a very modern "space" frame (a design common in aircraft but rare in the automotive field) and wrapped in a hand- hammered aluminum aerodynamic open roadster body not unlike the current Boxster.

Realizing that their design was too costly to produce and too race- oriented for universal consumption, the team turned its talents to producing a car that could be sold to the public. The engine was returned to the rear of the car and a steel platform chassis replaced the tubular space frame. Clothed in coupe and convertible cabriolet bodies, the "civilized" version of the Porsche 356 became an overnight success with European sports car enthusiasts. Just four cars were built in 1948, 25 more in 1949 and another 18 the following year.

In 1950, the company moved to its present home in Stuttgart, Germany to do consulting for the auto industry (including our own Studebaker) as well as to construct upgraded versions of its now-world famous sportster. Along the way, the development team also upgraded and refined the 356 engine and running gear, although never straying far from original VW design. In the 1951 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race, Porsche amazed the racing world by winning the hotly contested 1100 cc class, and this was its first outing in the world of international racing. This commitment of Porsche to racing excellence continues to this day. Sadly, Ferdinand Porsche died early in 1951 and didn't live to see his namesake make its initial mark in racing history.

In 1964, Porsche introduced its 911 model to the automotive world and although it was modernized and refined to keep it contemporary with the competition, its aerodynamic two-door coupe design was unmistakably the successor to the original 356. It differed from the earlier car in many ways, including the fact that its overhead cam, flat-opposed, air-cooled engine carried six cylinders rather than the previous four although the aberrant 912 version carried the pushrod VW-based four-cylinder engine. To say that it has been a success is an understatement and I use the present tense here because the Porsche 911 is still in production virtually unchanged (but highly refined) 34 years later. It's only for the 1999 model year that the 911 will be radically altered in its running gear and body design. Even then, the new-millenia Porsche 911 will remain identifiable as a Porsche.

Over the years the company has made other models with water-cooled engines mounted in front and has even ventured into the world of purpose-built open-wheeled race car design. But the 356/911 coupe body style is the design the public will always link to the Porsche name.

I didn't rent a new Porsche Boxster for the Academy Awards banquet this year, but I'll be in the crowd at the Laguna Seca vintage car races later this year to watch those old Porsches do battle again and I have a personal interest in doing so.

At the first race ever held on the Laguna Seca race track 41 years ago, I was in the fourth row of the starting grid at the wheel of a 1954 Porsche 356 coupe.

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