Early projects for Porsche's new firm were a design for a new Wanderer saloon, the Kübelwagen military vehicle, the Elefant Panzerjäger tank, Hitler's people's car the Beetle, and the Type 64, a streamlined racing car based on the Beetle.
Porsche 'No. 1': the 356 Roadster that started it all
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As this striking little car clatters away from the start line at the year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed, spare a thought for the driver nursing one of the Porsche museum’s rarest exhibits; the Number One car. But also spare a thought for the historians, for the genesis of this little car is by no means straightforward.
For a start Porsche isn’t 70 as is being celebrated here, but 87 years old. It was in 1931 that Porsche formed his own company, Dr. Ing. h.c. Ferdinand Porsche GmbH, Konstruktionsbüro für Motoren und Fahrzeugbau (a design office for engine and motor-vehicle construction). Ferdinand Porsche was the majority shareholder, with his son in law Anton Piëch and Adolf Rosenberger, each contributing the remainder of the start-up capital. Rosenberger became the managing director and the staff consisted of Porsche's former colleagues, including Austrian engineer/designers Karl Rabe and Erwin Komenda, and his son Ferry Porsche.
Ferdinand Porsche was an engineering prodigy working at the very beginnings of the automobile. He’d first worked at an electrical firm which became Brown Boveri where he invented an ingenious hub motor. In 1897 he joined carrriage-maker Lohner, where his precocious talent delivered the first-ever petrol/electric hybrid car, before moving to Austro-Daimler where he designed the streamlined 85hp Prince Henry, and then to Daimler as technical director where he designed the Mercedes-Benz SSK. But he fell out with Daimler, and was made redundant from his next job at Steyr, which is when he formed his company.
Porsche kept his people close, but he wasn’t above borrowing ideas from others or dropping those who’d become an embarrassment. The Beetle’s swinging axles were designed by Edmund Rumpler in 1903, but its backbone chassis and rear-mounted air-cooled engine were all first used by Hans Ledwinka in his designs for Tatra – Porsche even admitted that he ‘might have looked over Ledwinka’s shoulder.”
356 “No. 1” Roadster. Photo / Porsche Museum
Tatra sued for patent infringement and Hitler said he’d sort it out, which he did by invading Czechoslovakia. After World War Two, Volkswagen settled out of court with Tatra. Similarly Rosenberger had to flee Nazi Germany and give up his Porsche shareholding. He changed his name twice and ending up in America. After the war, Porsche and Piëch sent begging letters and Rosenberger sent back food and money, yet when he sued for the reinstitution of his shareholding in 1950 the German courts offered a derisory sum and a Volkswagen Beetle in compensation.
But while poor Ledwinka mouldered in prison after World War Two on dubious collaboration charges for five years, it wasn’t plain sailing for Porsche, either. The French wanted Porsche to move his offices to France as part of their war reparations. In the end they tried Ferdinand, his son Ferry and Piëch for collaboration, though it’ll take until 2047 to learn the full story of that trial as the French sealed the court transcripts and papers for 100 years.
Ferdinand and Piëch were sentenced to 22 months while Ferry served six months and returned to what was still a going concern of 200 or so people in Gmünd in Austria where Porsche's offices had been moved during the war to avoid Allied bombing raids. Ferry applied himself to the needs of the time including agricultural equipment, mowers, tractors, winches and water pumps. And it is Karl Rabe's extraordinary diary of these tough, hand-to-mouth times which has given historians such insight.
356 “No. 1” Roadster. Photo / Porsche Museum
“Rabe had also to organise the refurbishment of the company’s offices and workshops,” says Alexander Klein, manager of Porsche’s historic vehicle collection, “and he had to report to the Allied powers about how the business was going. [The diary] is incredibly detailed, right down to the type of wine they’d have with clients.”
Contract work with the Spanish firm of Cisitalia for a grand prix car helped secure Ferdinand and Piëch's release from gaol and he set about repurposing his designs for the unraced Auto Union flat-12 supercharged 1.5-litre design as the Cisitalia 360.
It was that work and his designs for the Type 64/Type 114, which Klein thinks helped persuade Ferdinand and Ferry to design their own car. Rabe's diary first mention what he terms the 'VW Sport' in July 1947 detailing its humble Beetle origins with a tubular frame reinforced with stout bulkheads, a mid-mounted air-cooled engine and the Beetle's transmission, axles, worm-and-roller steering, 16-inch wheels and cable-operated nine-inch drum brakes. The pretty speedster body on the 85-inch wheelbase was designed by Erwin Komenda in just a few weeks.
It's the mid-engined configuration which makes what became known as 356/1 unique, however. Porsche's design reversed the Beetle's rear swing-arm suspension so trailing arms become leading arms and the one-off four-speed gearbox sits behind rather than in front of the engine.
The cockpit is spacious but it's strictly a two-seater, with the wide sills pushing the seats tightly together. The dashboard is far simpler than the production 356, with a simple speedometer in front of the driver and a clock in front of the passenger. It's snug and the heat from the engine wafts around your neck, but it's very charming especially when you look down the bonnet over the frameless glass windscreen.
So why didn't Porsche keep the mid engine configuration for the production 356?
“Ergonomics were incredibly important to Porsche,” says Klein. "And with a mid engine, it’s hot... and there is also cabin space issue, which is much better with the rear-engined cars. Porsche wanted that two-plus-two layout for the production cars.”
And that reversed Beetle rear suspension made for some hair-raising handling traits on corners, too. But it's the unique four speed you have to be careful of; there's no replacement if it goes wrong. "We could fit a Beetle gearbox instead," says Jan Heidak, engineer with Porsche’s museum, "but then we'd have four reverse gears and one forward."
There's no synchromesh on first and second, so you have to double declutch up and down, and fourth is an incredibly long ratio which you seldom use in the Swiss Alps where the car was first developed. It's also incredibly slow. Despite its kerb weight of just 585kg, there's only 35hp available from specially-tuned twin-carburettor, 1,131cc, flat-four engine. Contemporary reports conclude that the performance was highly satisfactory, but with a top speed of 84mph and 0-62mph in 23 seconds, you have to work hard to maintain momentum. At one point in our drive we are overtaken by a moped.
Perhaps that's just as well as the steering is vague and there's scant grip from the L-section Dunlops, although Number One rides very well and its tiny brakes are surprising good. The steering feels vague, however and the heights of the floor-mounted pedals are all over the place. What worse is the engine begins to heat up, which makes the oil pressure fall. Dancing your feet around the pedals to keep the engine revs and oil pressure up, double declutching and not over revving is especially nerve wracking.
"You have to do a Walter Röhrl on the pedals,” jokes Heidak as this priceless car’s red oil-pressure warning light winks on again.
We stop and let the engine cool before continuing with the engine cover removed so the hot air can rise out. Rabe's diary makes no mention of an overheating problem, but they did have to strengthen the rear frame after it twisted on the Swiss Alps.
“We built that car only for experience,” explained Ferry Porsche in 1984, “It was to see how light we could go and how many VW parts we would need.”
In July 1948 Number One debuted 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 – and it's that event 70 years ago that Porsche is celebrating this year. Number One was supplied to Swiss agent Bernhard Blank, who rather 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 which went to Peter Kaiser a Zurich architect for 7,500 francs – about £600.
It passed through several hands and was even fitted with a modern 1.5-litre engine and new brakes by Porsche for one owner. Porsche bought it back in 1958 (swapped for a new 356 Speedster) after its body had been modified to look like a Speedster. There've been various attempts to get it back to original condition, but as Klein says, quite what 'original condition' is, is the subject of some debate. The paintwork for example is Boxster silver rather than the grey it would have been originally.
Porsche tends to divide opinion; the company's history as much as its products, but it's hard not to have a grudging respect for Number One, as much for its charming design, as what it did with a set of very ordinary components. I wasn't sorry to hand back the keys to Heidak, though, I don't think I've ever driven as slowly or as carefully as I did in this flawed but very special and utterly authentic little motor car. Happy birthday Number One.
1948 Porsche 356 Number One – specifications
Price: when new 7,500 swiss francs in 1949
Value now: insured for over two million euros but priceless.
Engine/transmission: 1,131cc with 75mm x 64mm bore and stroke. Horizontally-opposed, air-cooled four cylinder with SOHC and one carburettor per bank, four-speed manual transaxle, rear-wheel drive
Power: 35bhp @ 4,000rpm
Suspension: front; trailing arms with torsion-bar springing. Rear; leading arms with torsion bar springing
Brakes: 9 inch drums all round
Top speed: 84mph.
Acceleration: 0-60mph in 23sec