This review written by Griff Borgeson at Sports Car Illustrated was a treat, as it’s the first vintage review I’ve read about the Porsche Speedster. Like certain other automotive icons, its reputation, influence and most of all its valuation have grown all out of proportion over the decades. It’s all become myth.
But just how was that myth built? With a glorified 1938 KdF wagen with all of 60 horsepower (70 gross), swing axles and drum brakes? How could a chassis and engine design that were already twenty years old inspire these words? “The new Porsche 1600 is one of the world’s truly fine cars….one of the most significant technical achievements of our time?” (by “new”, he means the enlarged 1600cc engine that replaced the 1500 in 1956).
Griff will explain it; eloquently and convincingly. And I’ll stick to some related commentary and swing axle experiences.
This time I’m not going to quote the article, as you need to read it yourselves. But let’s just say the superlatives are not wasted on me. I have a very intimate relationship with Dr. Porsche’s work; both of them, Ferdinand and Ferry. It’s hard to put into words, but I’ve somehow internalized both the VW and Porsche 356; every detail is familiar and obvious to me. I understand why it is the way it is, and the thinking that created it. I’ve sort of channeled the Porsches, which may sound a bit pretentious or woowoo, but what can I say.
Maybe it’s being Austrian; maybe when one is from a certain locale certain automotive solutions tend to arise. Is it a coincidence that the Austrians Hans Ledwinka and Ferdinand Porsche both become the greatest exponents of rear engines, swing axles and aerodynamics? An inherent inclination towards solutions that were inherently the most effective and efficient for their time? As well as inherently embracing the crucial concept of a stiff unitized structure and supple suspension as the way to maximize both ride and handling with the same solution? A solution that evaded both the Brits with their punishingly hard suspensions and the Americans with the opposite? There was a way to do both.
Although very first 356-1 was an open mid-engine true-blood sports car (its first racing outing was in Innsbruck in 1948) the sports car market right after the war on the continent was terrible. Almost nobody in Germany or Austria could indulge themselves in such toys. Something much more pragmatic was needed.
So the production 356 was intended to be a compact high speed car that could carry two adults and two children (adults squeezed in the back was not uncommon) on any kind of journey, regardless how difficult the terrain or long the distance, or who was trying to catch up with you on that Alpine pass. It was much more than a mere sports car; it was a car intended to be the sole car of its owner, one that could carry kids and luggage in all weather and conditions comfortably, efficiently, economically and reliably. And yet still be a sports car too. There simply was no there car like it in the world.
Even one to go boar hunting in.
Or racing, depending on the mood and inclination. Porsche won its class in the 1951 LeMans, its first major outing.
This was the concept and image of the Porsche as I internalized it. A jack of all trades, not a specialized, fragile, or complicated “sports car”.
And the Cabriolet, which joined the coupe in 1950, had a fully insulated and lined top and roll-up windows, ready for the coldest Alpine winter outing.
But this all was not the Americans’ concept of a sports car. They could afford one as a second car. And they wanted something overtly sporty, with maximum impact, visually, image-wise, and even on the track, should that be the case.
Max Hoffman, another Austrian, was America’s biggest importer of European fine cars, including the new Porsche. He let it be known back home that something different was needed; a genuine roadster, or…Speedster. Stripped down to the essentials, and in price too. Thus in 1954 was born the car that became the icon. Coincidentally enough, that $2995 price adjusts to almost exactly $29,000 in today’s money. And a genuine Speedster will set you back at least ten times that again.
And it paid off, very handsomely; by the mid 50s, Porsche was sending three-quarters of their production to the US, and they were hard to find at that. Demand outstripped supply for many years.
I’m old enough to remember ratty ones in LA in the mid-late ’70s; paint fading and inherently with traffic dings on the very vulnerable front end. That seems like an eternity ago now.
Here we get to the inevitable characteristics of its rear engine and swing axles on fast curves. I’ll let you read it, but the bottom line is this: it’s not for everyone. One has to be able to transcend the instinctive fear that comes from the sensation of the rear end beginning to slip outwards. Actually, I’m going to break my promise and quote this key section:
“The Porsche does not break away suddenly. it drifts from inside to outside in a gentle, casual way. The sensation is very much like cornering on half-inflated tires….Is this bad? Only if you believe it is. Is it good? Emphatically yes, if you accept and understand it. You can corner a Porsche in a sedate and conventional manner if you chose. Just as easily, you can wag its tail and get through short, tight radius turns with amazing nimbleness and speed. In more open curves you can drift all four wheels and the smooth transition from bite to slip is almost imperceptible….the Porsche is hilariously controllable and agile”.
In the right hands, that is. With a heavy hand and foot, it could be a handful, as all of its kind could be. You either got it, or you didn’t. There was no middle ground.
I got it, on Skyline drive and The Blue Ridge Parkway, in late October of 1972. My brother had just gifted me his ’63 Monza, with the up-rated 98hp engine, four speed and handling package. I bought new tires, changed the oil, packed my camping gear and left Iowa City for my intensive lesson in rear engine swing-axle handling. 600 miles of endless curves, hills, mountains, and the road almost to myself, as was the case back then at that time of year. I took the curves faster and faster, and my confidence grew quickly. Set up the car in the transition, wait for the rear to start gently exceeding its grip, and then get back on the gas, gently but confidently. Never, ever hit the brakes once it was set up. And just ride it out, like a Disneyland E-Ticket attraction.
I was mostly alone on that trip, but I never got bored of boring through the curves, making the most of momentum to get up the grades and letting the car have its way as it wanted and was intended.
So many folks have this impression of the Volkswagen as a rolling relic, highly compromised in every way except perhaps its reliability and funny looks. But that’s not how the Beetle phenomena started in the US; in 1955, when its sales started to pop, it was objectively the best small car on the market, and not by a narrow margin. Veteran tester Tom McCahill makes the case eloquently here in his review of a ’56. It’s obvious: every quality that made the Porsche so good and desirable was also in the Volkswagen. Sure, a few less horsepower (which could readily be raised) and a somewhat taller body, but in 1955, the kinship between the two was still very great. Undoubtedly Porsche was still getting a number of parts from VW then, although they had been building their own version of the air cooled boxer for a couple of years.
It was those qualities that drove me into a series of two VWs after the Corvair, a ’64 and a ’63 with a hopped-up 1385 cc motor that ran surprisingly strong. After the Corvair, with its overly-heavy engine, the VW’s felt light and unshakable to me. Even bombing downhill on windy roads in the Rockies full-out, the Semperit radials humming in the curves, I never even remotely felt that its rear end wanted to actually beat me through the curve. ’nuff said; either you got, it, or you didn’t.
I can only imagine (rather readily, thanks to my overactive imagination) what that would have been like in a Speedster, ripping down (or up) Hwy. 36 between Boulder and Estes Park to buy some groceries and enjoy a bit of social life during my numerous extended camping trips way up in the Rockies. I remember barreling back up 36 late at night, with a running start and being able to keep the 1385cc engine in fourth gear the whole way, by keeping my speed up. That was thanks to a local VW mechanic who clued me in on advancing the timing quite a bit to compensate for the altitude. It felt like I had a 356 engine back there.
The Speedster got a totally different dashboard, with a three-dial cluster under a rounded dash cover. The seats were buckets in the true sense of the word: this is what was meant by that back then.
That wood steering wheel is not original. The long, spindly shifter most definitely is. It even came in for a bit of rare criticism here. I think it was the only one. Read it to understand how this car was the best all-round sports car in the world, 60 (real) hp, swing axles and all.
The Speedster was also available in 1600S form, with 75 DIN/88 gross hp. Or if you were really modest, until 1957 or so, you could still get the 1300cc engine, making 44 DIN/50 gross hp @4200 rpm, exactly the same specs as the VW Beetle 1300 in 1966, but with a single carb. That was the sportiest Beetle ever made, and I had a lot of seat time in my brother’s ’66, although my 1351 ’63 was faster yet.
The test 1600 (Normal) still managed to hit 98.1 mph, and given its light 1670 lbs, was livelier in real world driving than its acceleration numbers might suggest. But it was brand new and not yet broken in. 100 was just a few thousand miles away. You can only go in a straight line for so long…
That chassis cutaway looks to be from about 1949 or so, with the large and very narrow 16″ tires. It does show the 356’s built-up “frame” although that’s not really in the usual sense, as the bodies were quite rigidly joined with the frames, as was the case with the VW body and its platform.
The adulation continues non-stop here, for the ride comfort, although Griff did jack up the tires from 20/26 F/R to 28/32 F/R. That’s right about how I kept my tires inflated (26/32, actually). The steering in Porsches (and VWs) is not the kind of ultra-mechanical-direct feel of the classic British rack and pinion of the times, that can border on being nervous with too much feedback. The Porsche steering is like everything else about it: light, direct, but never intruding. And very stable; the author took his hands off for half a mile on a highway before he needed to make a minor correction. My VWs were like that too, unless a side winds kicked up.
The Porsche (and VW) transmissions were as good as it got back then; “the smooth, silent, butter-slicing engagement of gears is uncanny, positively spell-binding“. British boxes were notoriously not so, in these qualities.
His description of the Porsche’s engine power characteristics are also so familiar, if slightly toned down in the VW: First gear is low enough to handle even difficult forest roads and steep Alpine starts. Shift into second well before the engine runs out of steam. Third is a great gear for a wide range of applications, and fourth is surprisingly flexible, usable in town and of course all the way up to the end, which was 98 mph for this Speedster and right about 81 for my 1351 cc big-bore 1200. And of course 72 on the dot for the stock 40 hp 1200. All on level roads, of course.
Needless to say, the Porsche exhibited no squeaks or rattles, and everything worked as it should, but not as it always did on lesser cars. This is how reputations (and icons) are made. Everything works, and very well at that; from the solid thunk of a door closing to the ability to leave larger and more powerful cars in its wake thanks to its exceptional qualities.