In its first decade, 356-001, the first vehicle to carry the Porsche name, suffered a number of ignominies. The letters in that nameplate got rearranged, an Opel full of nuns rear-ended it, and two of its seven private owners allowed it to lapse into neglect. Porsche itself, which has owned the car for the last 60 years, hasn’t done much better, restoring it but leaving intact many of the modifications those seven owners made. Using modern technology, however, the Porsche Museum has created a far more authentic replica as part of the marque’s 70th anniversary celebrations.
As it was conceived, the 356-001 wasn’t supposed to be badged a Porsche. Instead, as Karl Ludvigsen noted in “Porsche: Origin of the Species,” the Porsche family and senior staff wanted to renew the company’s design-consultancy relationship with Volkswagen and give the 200 or so workers on the company’s payroll in Gmünd, Austria, something substantial to do.
Inspiration came from a variety of sources, though chiefly from the design work Porsche was doing at the time for Cisitalia. “At the time that company was building a small sports car with a Fiat engine,” Ludvigsen quoted Ferry Porsche. “I said to myself: Why shouldn’t we be able to do the same thing with VW parts?” War-surplus Kubelwagens were common in that part of Austria, so Porsche had plenty of raw materials to work with.
The tubular space frame chassis that Erwin Komenda drew up in the summer of 1947 used Volkswagen suspension front and rear, though it placed the engine ahead of the rear axle to conform to Ferry Porsche’s wish that the car’s design emulate the pre-war Auto Union Grand Prix cars. To accommodate the mid-engine design, Komenda simply rotated the Volkswagen suspension 180 degrees with the transaxle. As Ludvigsen pointed out, that was less than ideal.
The leading-arm design of the rear-suspension geometry meant that when the rear wheels bounced up, or when the car rolled in a turn, the wheels toed outward instead of inward. In theory this reduced their cornering power and tended to increase oversteer. As well, torque reaction from rear-brake application tended to lift the rear of the car.
For an engine, the Porsche team simply repurposed a Volkswagen flat-four with a handful of modifications to bump output from 25 to 35 horsepower. Despite the increased performance, the Porsche team relied on cable-operated brakes.
Komenda finalized the body design in the early months of 1948 and by April Porsche craftsman Friedrich Weber began construction of the aluminum body, ultimately finished in yellow. While Ferry Porsche once stated that construction of the body took two months, Ludvigsen wrote that Weber finished the body in a little more than three weeks, plenty enough time for the Porsche team to road-test serial number 356-001 prior to its July 4 debut at the Swiss Grand Prix in Bern and its July 11 demonstration laps at Innsbruck’s Rund um den Hofgarten road race.
By this time, Porsche had already turned its sights toward producing the 356 itself, albeit in a rear-engine configuration dubbed the 356/2. With their sights set on production, the Porsches decided to sell 356-001 in September 1948 to Josh Heintz of the Reisbach garage in Zürich. Heintz in turn sold it to Peter Kaiser, who rearranged the Porsche lettering on the car’s nose to read Pesco, a name he found snappier than Porsche.
Kaiser had the brakes converted to hydraulic and drove it regularly until he sold it in 1951 to Zürich-based importer AMAG, which in turn sold 356-001 to Rosemarie Muff who, according to Ludvigsen, drove the car into the ground. Its next owner, Hermann Schulthess, rebuilt the car and replaced the Porsche lettering, but ended up sandwiched between the aforementioned Opel full of nuns and another car in a crash on the Gotthard pass. AMAG repaired the damage and in the process reshaped both front and rear ends and converted the single-piece rear-hinged engine and rear trunk cover to two pieces: one for the engine bay, one for the rear trunk.
Schulthess also had Porsche itself install a 1500S engine and larger hydraulic brakes before entering 356-001 into its first and only competition event, the Mitholz-Kandersteg hillclimb, in 1953. A baker by the name of Igoris swapped a 1300 coupe for 356-001 but, as Ludvigsen wrote, suffered from buyer’s remorse and simply garaged the car. Auto mechanic Franz Blaser bought it from Igoris and overhauled the car once again before exchanging it for a brand-new Speedster when Porsche finally decided to track down its very first car in 1958.
Around 1975 Porsche then restored the prototype one more time, though not to its original configuration: The 1500S engine remains part of the car, as do the hydraulic brakes, two-piece decklid, reshaped front and rear sheetmetal, and the bucket seats it picked up at some point.
To celebrate the car’s 70th anniversary, the Porsche Museum decided – rather than subject 356-001 to another restoration – to re-create 356-001 a it appeared in 1948. To do so, the museum had 356-001 3D scanned and compared those scans with original photographs and with digitizations of Komenda’s original drawings.
Museum staff then edited the 3D scan to the prototype’s original shape and used that data to carve a life-size model of the prototype from rigid foam. That foam then served as a buck of sorts for modern-day craftsmen to build from scratch a new chassis and aluminum body before finishing the car with exact replicas of the trim, upholstery, gauges, and other fittings that adorned the original prototype.
For the most part, that is. Museum officials decided not to install a drivetrain in the replica. Instead, they had a basic tube axle fitted to allow the replica to roll around. According to a spokesperson for the museum, the decision to build it sans drivetrain was to avoid labeling it with terms such as “replica” or “recreation” and to avoid confusion with the original; instead, the museum considers it a “showcar.”
The Porsche Museum has scheduled an extensive tour for both the prototype and the replica, starting with a June 8 ceremony in Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen and continuing to Johannesburg, Goodwood, Guangzhou, and Vancouver. The prototype itself will also make an appearance at this year’s Rennsport Reunion in September at Laguna Seca.