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Revelations in Porsche - Origin of the Species

Karl Ludvigsen's in-depth researches into the origins of the Type 356 have overturned many long-held beliefs about this crucial period in the creation of the car that established the classic fingerprint of the Porsche sports car for all time. Here's a sampling:

Think that the first sports cars designed by Porsche in the 1930s were at the cutting edge of aerodynamics?

  • In fact the French and Italians were far ahead of Porsche in their use of the most streamlined body forms.

Think that the mid-engined Grand Prix cars that Porsche designed for Auto Union were its only racing-car creations for that company?

  • Porsche designed a sports-car version of the Auto Union, the Type 52, that would have made a formidable road and racing car. A five-passenger version was even planned.

Think that the dispersal to rural Austria of the Porsche engineers in 1944 was forced by Albert Speer over the objections of Ferdinand Porsche?

  • At the last minute Speer changed his mind, barring the Porsche move. Ferdinand Porsche interceded with Speer and got his approval for the move plus 80,000 marks to help cover the cost.

Think that the ideas that underpinned creation of the 356 took form during the war when Porsche's designers were thought to be safe at Gmünd in Austria?

  • The bloodlines of the 356 reach back well into the mid-1930s when Porsche's Erwin Komenda began designing sports versions of the Volkswagen-to-be.

Think that Piero Dusio was the key man in the post-war decision to commission the Porsche engineers to design a new Formula 1 car?

  • The initial plan was actually for a car to be designed to meet the ambitions and needs of ace driver Tazio Nuvolari, who found nothing available that suited his talents. Dusio only came into the frame during a search for funding for the project. Tazio later remained in touch with Gmünd about a possible sports-car design.

Think that the Type 360 Grand Prix car was the only project the Porsche team worked on for Dusio's Cisitalia?

  • In fact the contract also covered a small tractor, a water turbine and a sports car, the Type 370. This was designed as an eight-cylinder two-liter, in two road-car versions having its engine behind the rear wheels. Work continued on it well into 1948.

Think that the Swiss involvement with the Porsches at Gmünd began with their sports-car project?

  • Relations with Swiss entrepreneurs started in 1946 with a commissioning of the Porsche men to design a new 1 1/2-liter family car to be produced in Switzerland, the Type 352. Designs were prepared for two versions, front-engined and rear-engined, the latter with air-cooled engines of either four or eight cylinders.

Think the Porsche people in Austria created the first 356 so that they could have a "Porsche" car to produce?

  • The first 356 was created as a "VW Sports", a car that the Porsche men hoped would lead to a closer connection with the VW works and perhaps be produced by them.

Think that the 356 was pretty much Ferry Porsche's project and that his father had little to do with it?

  • Prof. Ferdinand Porsche was very much involved. He had lengthy meetings with Karl Rabe about the designs of both the roadster and the coupe and test-drove the prototypes.

Think that the open mid-engined Type 356 was completed and tested well before the first 356/2 coupe was built and run?

  • Although work on the open car started half a year earlier, the two versions almost dead-heated. The roadster was registered for the road on June 8, 1948 and the coupe registered on July 13th.

Think that the 356 roadster's rear suspension, with its torsion bars at the rear and forward-facing radius arms, gave it vile handling characteristics?

  • Without exception those who drove the 356 rated its handling as first-class, thanks to the car's other design features. With its VW-like layout the 356/2 coupe naturally reverted to trailing radius arms.

Think that the first success in competition of the 'Porsche' brand was on July 11, 1948 when Herbert Kaes won a race at Innsbrück with the original mid-engined open 356?

  • In fact the appearance of the Porsche at Innsbrück was in demonstration laps only, between races. It didn't compete in any races that day or on any day while still in the hands of Porsche.

Think that Porsche decided to change from the tubular space frame of the 356 roadster to the platform frame of the production cars because it would be easier and less costly to produce?

  • The tubular frame was viewed by Ferry Porsche as the cheaper alternative for a small production run, but Erwin Komenda persuaded Ferry and Rabe to accept the greater effort and cost of a platform frame with the future of the project in mind. This was to prove a crucial decision for the team. Karl Rabe made important contributions to the frame's ingenious design.

Think that the 356 frame design created in Austria was greatly improved when the car was finally reengineered for volume production in Zuffenhausen?

  • It was one of the greatest regrets of both Ferry and Komenda that the Zuffenhausen platform turned out to be much more compromised than the original. The latter's greater stiffness was one of the main reasons why Porsche used the Austrian-built cars for racing.

Think that the Austrians were thrilled to have the Porsches, father and son, back in their nation after the war, men who had done so much for their motor industry?

  • Regarded as "German" after their more than a decade in Stuttgart, the Porsches were welcomed by Austrian enthusiasts but shunned by the establishment, which shrugged off all their efforts to get funding and support. Ultimately they had no option but to return to Germany.

Think that the 50-plus Austrian cars were all manufactured at Gmünd?

  • Only the first roadster and the first coupe were completely produced to a finished standard at Gmünd. Porsche relied on various subcontractors, including the Salzburg works of Anton and Louise Piëch and the Viennese branch of Tatra, to complete and trim all the other cars from panels made at Gmünd.

Think that Swiss customers accounted for the bulk of the sales of the cars produced in Austria?

  • Far from it. In spite of price reductions the Swiss demand dried up very early. By far the chief customer for the Austrian Porsches was the Swedish importer, Scania-Vabis, the truck maker that also imported Volkswagens.
Karl Ludvigsen
Karl Ludvigsen

In addition to his motor industry activities as an executive (with GM, Fiat and Ford) and head of a consulting company, Karl Ludvigsen has been active for over 50 years as an author and historian. As an author, co-author or editor he has some four dozen books to his credit. Needless to say, they are all about cars and the motor industry, Karl's life-long passion.

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