(first posted 12/13/2015) This may look like a Fiat 500, but it’s almost completely different in every respect, except for the basic body panels. At the risk of sounding chauvinistic, it was a much better car than the Fiat (and more expensive too). One could even say it was something of a midget Porsche or Tatra. The Puch 500/650 was Austria’s last home-grown passenger car, and its technical ambitions reflected the long history of Austrian automotive engineering excellence as embodied in three of its leading exponents: Ferdinand Porsche, Hans Ledwinka, and his son Erich Ledwinka.
The Puch 500 may be short, but the story of the rise and demise of the Austrian car industry is a bit longer, so lets fire up its roarty little hemi-head boxer twin and take a ride back in time. Depending on which version of that engine is hiding back there, it could be a very leisurely trip or a wickedly fast one.
Prior to WW1, Austria was the core of a large empire, and had a thriving automobile industry. Austro-Daimler, whose Chief Engineer during its formative and peak years was Ferdinand Porsche (here behind the wheel of the winning 1910 Austro-Daimler “Prince Henry” sports-racer), built some of the most luxurious, advanced and fastest cars in the world. Austro-Daimler had initially been a subsidiary of the pioneering German firm Daimler, but thanks to Porsche’s hectoring, the firm was eventually split off as a separate company and became one of the most respected in Europe.
Hans Ledwinka, who spent most of his brilliant career with Tatra (called Nesseldorfer until after WW1), took a brief break from that firm to help the Austrian weapons firm OEWG develop its first automobile, the stately and advanced Steyr 12/40 of 1920. It was highly regarded technically, and eventually spawned successful sports racers too.
Ledwinka had already made his mark, pioneering the hemi-head engine in Europe, on his advanced 1908 Nesselsdorfer NW Type S. He presumably saw or heard of the world’s first hemi-head car engine, the American 1905 Premier racing car, and understood that its improved breathing was the key to greater output. Hemi-head engines were used almost exclusively on subsequent Tatras, and Ferdinand Porsche quickly adapted it too, for the Austro-Daimler sport-tourers like the overwhelming 1910 Prince Henry cars. The tradition was established, and Steyr used hemi heads extensively, including on the Puch 500/650.
After Ledwinka returned to Tatra, he designed a new light car, the Tatra 11, which pioneered key elements that would be used and adapted to so many other cars, as well as being used on Tatra trucks to this day: A central tube chassis and swing axle independent rear suspension. And it was powered by a hemi-head boxer twin.
Puch started as a bicycle manufacturer and expanded into motorcycles, like this 1939 S4 I found high up in the Alps this summer. Puch’s two-stroke engines were also regarded for their high quality, and in the post war years, Puchs were sold by Sears in the US, under the Allstate brand. Later, Puch sold its very successful Maxi mopeds directly in the US. And Puch bicycles were legendary for their ruggedness.
After Porsche left for Benz (Mercedes), Austro-Daimler floundered and merged in 1928 with Puch. During the Depression, Steyr also merged with Daimler-Puch, to form the sole Austrian automobile manufacturer, Steyr-Daimler-Puch.
During the 1930s, Steyr built an ambitious range of advanced cars, including the very compact 50 (“Baby”).
The 50 was an alternative to Porsche’s VW, and also had a boxer four, but at the front, and driving the rear wheels. The Steyr 55 was lengthened for more interior room, which was said to be roomier than a VW’s. My mother often told the story of riding in one once, out in a remote valley, when the drive shaft or universal joint became loose and started banging on the tunnel, and tried to enter the passenger compartment. But the tough Steyr kept moving.
There were larger models too, and the top model was the Steyr 220 six cylinder, including this very handsome roadster from 1938. Steyr had a legacy of building fine cars, and it assumed to continue to do so after the war, but that turned out to be more difficult than expected.
During the war, Steyr built the very successful 1500 series light truck that was built in a variety of configurations and sizes. It was very advanced technically, with a torsion bar independent front suspension and all wheel drive; that was decades ahead of just about everybody else was doing. It was powered by a hemi-head 3.5 L air-cooled V8. A tracked development was also built. The 1500 was so successful, it was also built in Germany by other manufacturers.
During the early years of the war (1939-1941), Porsche and Steyr co-developed a new high-performance aerodynamic sedan that was to use a water-cooled 3250cc version of the air-cooled V8 as used in the 1500. In 1946, this prototype was developed further, now using the air-cooled engine from the 1500, but never put into production. The post war years were going to be difficult enough, but a 3.5 L V8 car was utterly out of the question.
A slightly more realistic but still ambitious project was the post-war Model 60, a proposed mid-range sedan with a new 1.8 L ohv four. Several prototypes were built, including this one from 1950 or 1952.
A prototype wagon (Model 160) was built too. Both have a rather British style to them.
But the challenges to bringing the Model 60 to actual production were too great in the stunted economy of the post-war years. Austria’s economy’s bounced back more slowly than Germany’s, and the market for new cars of this size was very limited, as one had to be rather well-off to afford any new car, let alone something like this.
There was simply no way that Steyr could develop and build new cars by itself. So it became a licensee for Fiat cars. Fiat was one of the giants of the European industry then, and had the resources to develop a modern range of cars after the war. Among the first was the 1400, which was built by Steyr along with the smaller and older pre-war Fiat 1100.
For Europe, the Fiat 1400 was a very advanced car design-wise when it arrived in 1949. Fiat development director Dante Giacosa had visited The US a few years earlier, and had obviously seen the new 1947 Kaiser (above), the 1947 Studebaker, and undoubtedly was exposed to what GM, Ford and Chrysler had in mind for 1949. But the Kaiser appears to have been the primary inspiration for the pontoon-sided Fiat 1400.
The Steyr-Fiat 1400 (along with the new Fiat 1100 and later 1200) was built assembled in Graz with Fiat supplying the bulk of the body panels, parts and mechanical components. Steyr did build a number of its own components, and others came from Austrian suppliers. This was a fairly common practice in many parts of the world at the time, and in Germany, NSU was also building Fiats under license in Germany (“Neckar-Fiat”), until it eventually graduated to its own designs. That’s something Steyr-Puch aspired to, but never quite attained.
As modern as it looked, the Fiat 1400 was rather modestly-powered, with only 44 hp. And although the more powerful 68hp Fiat 1900 arrived in 1952, Steyr had something more ambitious in mind: its own engine. Austria’s tradition of top-performing cars was impossible to stifle, and being partly situated in the Alps, good performance in the mountains has always been a priority.
The all-new 1.8L OHV four developed for the still-born Steyr 60 was increased in displacement to 2.0 liters, and installed in the Steyr 2000, although still referred to as “model Fiat 1900” as required in its licensing agreement. The Steyr engine made 86 hp @4600 rpm, resulting in a significant increase in performance.
But even that didn’t satisfy the urge for more power. The Steyr four cylinder was increased to 2.3 liters, resulting in an unusually large four for the times. But thanks to five main bearings (the Fiat engine had only three), lightweight pistons and connecting rods, and special engine mounts, vibration was kept within reasonable levels. Output was now a lofty 95 hp for the times, resulting in a 100 mph (166 kmh) top speed, excellent acceleration, and exceptional flexibility, particularly beneficial in mountainous driving. The Steyr 2300S was rather ahead of its time, as the benefits of larger four cylinder engines would eventually make them very common. This was as close as Austria got to building a BMW 1800/2000, but ten years earlier.
There was even a Steyr 2000/2300S version of the Fiat “Grande View” coupe, but I have no memories of ever seeing on in Austria in the 50s. For that matter, the Steyr 2000/2300S sedan was quite a rare sighting. It was expensive, and its 1946-vintage styling was starting to get old by the second half of the 50s.
And the competition from other larger manufacturers was torrid; their large volumes allowed them to offer more modern-looking cars, and for less money. The Steyr 2000/23000 still performed well, but its age was showing in too many ways. In 1959, it was finished; and the last Steyr branded passenger car left the S-P factory.
Steyr did license-build the new Fiat 1800/2100 six cylinder cars, but only from 1969 to 1961. The economics of license-building higher-end cars on a very small scale simply didn’t work anymore. And by this time, S-P had already put all of its passenger car eggs into the little Puch 500 basket.
Back in 1954, Steyr-Daimler-Puch (“SDP”) undertook the development of an all-new small car, intended to be something of Austria’s own Volkswagen, scaled to its smaller market and lower incomes at the time. The first prototype, U1, had a two-stroke engine in back, and a folding top and rear roof section. At this time, Hans Ledwinka’s son, Erich Ledwinka, was hired to develop a new four-stroke engine.
Consistent with the technical ambitions of the company and Ledwinka, this was no ordinary micro-car engine. It was a short-stroke, hemi-head boxer twin, with 493 cc, and looking very much like a BMW motorcycle boxer twin with a VW’s blower housing. Thanks to its nitride-treated forged crankshaft and other high-quality internal components, an external oil cooler, oil filter, and other aspects of top-notch engine building, it was designed to cope with the mountainous conditions. Compared to the Fiat 500 engine, it was more powerful (16 hp initially, and much more in later models), and able to run full-out for extended (all?) periods of time.
Ferdinand Porsche would have been proud; his VW Beetle, and even the Porsche 356 didn’t have such an ambitious engine design (until the later four-cam Carrera).
SDP built two more prototypes; this U3 being the final version. It was a very compact car, but designed to be certified to carry four adults.
These U3 prototypes date from 1956. The car was essentially ready to go into production, but the question was: in what quantities? SDP realized that the market would likely absorb no more than 10-15k per year. That would make the cost of tooling up to build the body difficult to recoup. Especially since the rest of the mechanical components all were of high quality and none too cheap to manufacture.
There was another issue. In 1957, Fiat unveiled its new “Nuova” 500, with almost the same wheelbase as the planned SDP small car, and also with an air-cooled 500 cc twin. Given SDP’s role as Fiat licensee and sole importer of Fiats for Austria, this was both an obstacle as well as an opportunity. How about using the 500’s body as the basis for the new Puch?
It was a very pragmatic solution, but one that also involved swallowing some pride. The SDP U3 was a much more advanced and ambitious car in almost every way to the Fiat 500. And there were some obstacles to overcome: The Fiat 500 (above), as originally presented, was technically only a two-seater, with a cargo area in the back, presumably one that kids could ride in. Later versions did have a rear seat, of sorts, but it was never adequate for adults, and in Austria and Germany, the licensing authorities did not certify the Fiat to carry adults in the rear seat.
Part of this problem was that the Fiat 500’s engine was a vertical twin, and its tall block did not allow the rear seat to be back far enough to seat adults. And the engine was designed to be as cheap as possible to build, with no center main bearing, no proper oil cooler or oil filter, and other economy measures. And an in-line twin has intrinsically rough-running characteristics.
Not to disparage it, but the Fiat 500 had a number of other limitations, as a consequence of being designed to be cheap above all else. Its transmission was completely unsynchronized, the brakes were tiny, and the engine had very low output (12.5 hp @4000 rpm), and was not really designed for continuous high-speed running. Even the main door window panes were fixed (for the first few years). All of these factors and more kept SDP from building the Fiat 500 as is.
But by using all of the mechanical components of their own still-born small car, and adapting them to the 500’s body, SDP was able to overcome all of these limitations. The little low-mounted boxer twin meant that the rear seat could be pushed back some, resulting in a legitimate (if cozy) four seater, and licensed for that purpose.
In addition to the superior boxer twin, the Puch’s own transmission was synchronized in the top three gears, its rear suspension was fully double-jointed and with better geometry, and the over-sized Alpine-ready brakes had large and finned aluminum drums with a cast iron inner liner. The wheels were wider, as were the tires.
In the first two years of production, S-P only bought the roll-top cabrio-sedan bodies of the Fiat 500, because its thin fabric roof gave (semi)adequate head room for the rear seat occupants in the pushed-back rear seat.
In 1959, the Puch 500 D received a newly-designed screwed-on roof center section that extended to the rear, giving the rear-seated adults the head room they deserved.
That’s not to say it was all that generous back there, as I well know.
My aunt Maria had a series of two Puchs, and in 1969 I spent a bit of time in both the front passenger seat as well as the back one, on several outings that included her (6 foot tall), my mom, 6+’ tall 16 year-old me, and my two younger brothers. I can still hear the little boxer working away at full chat on the steep mountain roads, inches behind the back seat. Indelible memories.
The raw bodies in-white were shipped from Fiat, some body parts made by S-P added, then the 500s were painted and assembled at S-P’s Thorndorf factory with their own components.
The Puch 500 was well received, and sold reasonably well, although less than hoped for, and modest in comparison to other volume cars. Some 60,000 total were sold through 1975, so SDP made the right call in not trying to build their own bodies. The Puch 500 was designed with an Austrian mentality, and it was embraced as its own, despite the Fiat body. Austrians generally are thrifty, rugged, value quality and longevity, and are not prone to showing off, so the 500 fit the national character. It was affectionately called Pucherl, and became an out-sized national icon. Austria may have become a smaller country, but its qualities could still be imbued in its products, even small ones like the Pucherl.
And for those that did want to show off, in a distinctly Austrian way, there was the 500 DL, Steyr-Puch’s answer to the 1958 Buick. It had mini-finlet tail lights, acres of Harley Earl-worthy chrome slathered on its sides (the Austrian version, anyway), white wall tires, and a flamboyant front side parking/marker light.
A Saxomat automatic clutch was even available, the closest thing to an actual automatic. And there was a bump in power to 19.8 hp, to keep just under the 20 hp threshold for higher annual vehicle tax. Flamboyant Austrians were still thrifty. Not surprisingly, the DL was not very popular, and dropped after a few years.
At this point in the chronology of the little Puch we need to take a quick off-road detour to acknowledge the remarkable little Steyr-Puch Haflinger. In the mid-50s, the Austrian Army was using WW2 surplus American Jeeps. There was a need for a new vehicle, and one particularly suitable to the extreme Alpine terrain. Erich Ledwinka, here sitting in his creation, designed the Haflinger (named after a breed of rugged compact horses), using the basic concepts laid down by his father Hans Ledwinka decades earlier at Tatra, and still being used by the legendary Tatra 6×6 AWD trucks: a central tubular chassis, with independent “portal” swing axles (reduction gears on ends of axles) that created exceptional high ground clearance and unparalleled off-road capability. It was built from 1959 to 1976.
In order to power it (relatively) adequately, Ledwinka developed a larger displacement version of the boxer twin, with 643 cc, making 22, 24 and eventually 27 hp.
There were long and short wheelbase versions, and even a 6×6. The Haflinger’s off-road capabilities were simply unsurpassed, and it developed a strong following around the world. They were used to some extent in the military, but were particularly favored by those needing to carry loads high up into the Alps. This is how all those Alm huts were re-supplied with beer and fresh sausages regularly. And some still are.
There was even a version with a less-rustic fiberglass cab. Due to their slow top speed (32 to 45 mph, depending on gearing), the Haflinger was not really highway capable, and most spent their lives working in the mountains, some all over the world.
The Haflinger’s diminutive size and road speed was a limitation that was addressed by its replacement, the Pinzgauer. It had the same basic construction, with a central chassis (and engine), and the portal swing axles for equally-unparalleled off-road capability. It’s still being built, but not by Steyr-Magna.
In 1961, the Puch 500 range was expanded with this very charming station wagon, based of course on the Fiat 500 Giardiniera. In order to haul the heavy loads of potatoes or turnips from the farm to the market, it also got a larger engine: the same 650 cc version of the boxer twin as used in the Haflinger, rated at 25 hp for the 700C (“Combi”), and 20hp for the 700E (“Economy”). The extended body had a surprising amount of room.
These were actually used mainly by commercial firms and tradesmen; if you called a plumber or electrician or such, he might very likely have shown up in one of these. As such, they mostly lived a hard life, and not many of the 9,077 made survived the ordeal.
Despite being more powerful than the Fiat 500, Austrians weren’t nearly yet satiated with the 19.8 hp the Puch 500 DL had on tap. Hey; it was the swinging sixties, the muscle car era was becoming a global phenomena, and Austrians were not to be denied! So Steyr-Puch got on the bandwagon, and started stuffing bigger and ever-more potent hemis into the little Pucherl to turn it into a giant killer. Starting in 1962, the bigger 643 cc engine from the Haflinger and 700C was now available, and replaced the 500DL. The first version, the 650T, packed all of 22.8 hp. I know…without those pesky decimal points, these power figure would really mean something. But then these cars did weigh just around 1,000 lbs (470-580 kg).
My aunt’s second Puch was a 650T, the one she took us on outings in the summer of 1969. It took us up some great roads into the mountains, but still none to briskly. She should have gotten the 650TR.
In 1964, S-P got a bit more serious about this power jag they were on. The 650TR packed 660 cc, had a dual carb engine, and now belted out 27 hp. Just the thing for those wanting something genuinely sporty.
The next step up, designed for entry-level racers, hill-climbers and rallyists was the 650TR II. It sported a number of changes, including a hotter camshaft, special “Monte Carlo” exhaust system, and other modifications which now resulted in a full 42 hp. Not bad, for 660 cc (40 cubic inches). And soon enough, there were factory and aftermarket parts to take that up to well over 50 hp; even over 60 hp if one wanted it badly enough. Austria’s version of the Mini Cooper S had arrived, and it could out-accelerate a number of bigger and more expensive cars like the Fiat-Abarth 695 SS and even a Lancia Fulvia 1.2 GT.
So naturally, the Pucherl went racing. And it acquitted itself very well, at the Rallye Monte Carlo, starting in 1963. Already in that first year, it came in first in its class, but was disqualified for not yet having been properly homologated. Damn paperwork. It did well in 1964, and in 1965, it came in first in its class, again, and was properly recognized this time. The Pole Sobieslaw Zasada even won the 1966 European Rally championship title for Group 2 touring cars in his little Puch 650 TR II ahead of the Finn Mäkinen (BMC Cooper) and Swede Trana (Volvo). The little giant killer was on the loose.
The Puch 650 TR in its various stages quickly found a cult following that has never waned, and has been active on the racing, hill-climbing, rally and vintage racing scene since it arrived.
Here’s what they look and sound like when hard at work.
There’s a lot more 650 T/TRs now then were ever built originally, as many Puch 500s have been upgraded. Folks are even converting Fiat 500s to S-P 650 T/TR specs, or just transplanting the drive train, as Fiat 500s are easier to come by.
Off the race courses, things were not going so swimmingly for the little Puch. Sales peaked in the early 60s, and were never as good as hoped for. That jewel of an engine was expensive to build, and as Austria’s economy finally got into high gear during the 60s, the basic Puch 500 was looking small, slow and pricey, compared to the ever-growing competition.
Economy measure were taken to sustain production, the first being to adopt the Fiat 500’s complete body starting in 1967, including its roof. Instead of the bulging rear roof section that had been added by Steyr-Puch to improve rear head room, now it looked more like a Fiat 500. These later models are called “Europa”.
But that wasn’t enough. In the face of continued falling sales, SDP took a last ditch shot at keeping the 500 going somehow. But that was a painful step: Buying complete Fiat 500s, just without the engine. All S-P now did is install the 19.8 hp version of the 493 cc boxer, and call it…not so good anymore. It was essentially the end of the road for Austria’s last passenger car.
The mostly-Fiat Puch 500 soldiered along a few more years, and then was replaced by the “Fiat 126 Motor Steyr-Puch”, an accurate description. It was what it said it was: a Fiat 126, which was really just a 500 with a new body, with the Steyr-Puch boxer twin installed in back, with 25 hp and 643 cc. It was built for a few more years, 1973 to 1976, in very small numbers; all of 2,009 of these were sold in those three years. After that, it was truly over for the little hemi-head boxer twin.
Even modest Austrians were moving up to a class or two of larger cars; like my aunt, who replaced her second Puchrl with a little Peugeot FWD hatchback.
I’ve long held off writing the Puch 500/650 story, hoping to find one on a trip back home. That happened this summer, when I saw this this slightly-customized red 500D sitting in the underground parking garage below the building where we rented an apartment right in central Innsbruck.
I’m not sure of its exact vintage, as the 500D was built from 1959-1967, although the suicide doors date it to the late 50s or early 60s. It does have the full roll-down cabrio-sedan roof, which must be fun to take out in nice weather. Nothing like looking up and seeing peaks above as one is (slowly) driving up into them.
Now that’s an experience I’d like to relive, but this time behind the wheel, not squeezed in the back seat with my two younger brothers.
And why is there a trumpet on its hood? To play Taps, for the death of Austria’s last indigenous passenger car.
Postscript: In addition to passenger cars, Steyr-Daimler-Puch also built Steyr trucks, tractors and buses, diesel engines, mopeds and bicycles, off-road and military vehicles, and the Mercedes G-Class, among others. Starting in 1987, Steyr-Daimler-Puch was gradually split up and the various divisions sold off. Automotive production remained with S-D-P, until a controlling interest was bought by Canadian Magna (headed by Austrian Frank Stronach) in 1998, and then full absorbed in 2001, and thereafter called Magna-Steyr. A wide range of automobiles and SUVs have been built there in the past few decades, including Chrysler minivans and 300C, Jeep Grand Cherokee, A number of Mercedes models, BMW X-3, Mini Countryman, and others. Magna Steyr also develops major automotive systems and components for the industry.
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