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by Larry Roberts

January 16, 1999

There is probably no one in the civilized world that doesn't recognize a Porsche and know that it's one of the most exotic, high-tech sports cars sold to the general public.

And around a third of them are also aware of the fact that Porsche is a force to be reckoned with in international sports car racing and has been for a long, long time. But what most of them don't know is that the initial Porsche professional sports-racer is a direct descendent of the humble Volkswagen Beetle of 1949.

Ferdinand Porsche was in a French jail accused of war crimes when his son Ferry started producing sports cars in 1947. While the primary purpose of the company was to do engineering subcontract work for the recovering European industrial community, Ferry Porsche was at heart an auto enthusiast and longed to produce a high-performance car that bore the family name. His father had been a world class race car designer in the '20s and '30 and was also tapped by Hitler to design a car for the German population. That car was the prototype Volkswagen Beetle.

At war's end in 1945, the British military government rescued the Beetle from oblivion and production began even as the war-ravaged factory was being rebuilt.

One of the first owners of the new Volkswagen Beetle was Ferry, who used it as the basis for his first "production" car, the mid-engined Model 356 prototype. He had some lucrative business agreements going with VW which, among other things, allowed it to use some patents still held by the elder Porsche. In exchange, Porsche was allowed to expanded on the original VW flat-four air-cooled engine to produce the first genuine Porsche powerplant that shared very few parts with its more workaday "cousin." The chassis platform of that first Porsche also utilized running gear and suspension parameters from the Beetle. The resulting car was successful enough to attract some Swiss capital which lead to the first 50 Porsche coupes to be offered to the public, but these cars had the engines installed behind the back axle just like the Beetle. That is what launched Porsche into the role of an auto maker.

But Ferry Porsche himself longed to reenter world-class racing. To secure enough money to pay for his father's release, he designed the Cisitalia Grand Prix car for a wealthy Italian. It's rear-mounted flat-12 engine and fully independent suspensioned chassis were based on the pre-war Auto Union Grand Prix cars that his father had designed.

Despite the fact that his production-based coupes had considerable success in the emerging European world of auto racing, Porsche wanted to enter the "big-time" with Porsche race cars. Walter Glockler, a German shop owner and VW dealer in Frankfurt, had enjoyed considerable racing success with Porsche-powered mid-engined VW "specials" in the early '50s. Taking a lead from Glockler's pioneering effort, Porsche began producing the company's first purpose-built race car, the Porsche 550, in 1952. Using a much-modified production push-rod engine, the 550 achieved considerable success in Europe (including a class win at Le Mans in '53) and in '54 the car appeared with Porsche's first all-out racing engine, a quad-cam flat four that was designed and built for one purpose - to propel race cars.

From these humble beginnings came a flood of race cars that won races all over the world for almost four decades. The most recent an overall win at the 1998 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the 16th overall win for Porsche at the famous French track since its first victory in 1970.

By today's standards, the 1953 Porsche 550 race car is simple and low-tech, but its progeny has gone on to be a top contender in the world of big-time endurance racing. And it all started with The Beetle.