8 May 2014

Porsche’s Bargain Blockbuster

How the cheapest Porsche in history became a coveted icon of cool for new generations

Viennese émigré Maximilian Hoffman deserved his nickname: “The Baron of Park Avenue.” As exotic foreign cars were imported after the war, Max would flaunt them in his Park Avenue showroom. So when fellow Austrian Ferdinand Porsche started making cars, Hoffman was quick to import them. His first three Porsche 356s arrived in 1950.

By 1954, the American market was a vital lifeline for Porsche. With the little Stuttgart company exporting 75 percent of its output of nine cars a day, 40 percent came to the United States. Although it was clear that Americans liked Porsches, in 1954 it was not yet clear just how much they liked them.

As other sports car makers began to pile into the U.S. to grab our dollars, Porsche and Hoffman felt the pressure. Max Hoffman’s response was to build a new model. “You have a time when sales go down,” he told me, “and you have to do something.” Although tiny bugs among big American cars, the early Porsches were expensive. In 1954, they cost as much as $4,284, pricey against other new cars that were beguiling America’s sports car buyers: the Austin-Healey 100, Triumph TR2 and Chevrolet Corvette.

Hoffman wanted to drop the $3,445 price of the cheapest 356 to get it below $3,000. Grudgingly given the green light by Ferdinand Porsche’s son Ferry, Porsche General Manager Albert Prinzing huddled with coachbuilder Reutter to create a body of absolute minimal cost.

Basing it on the 356 Cabriolet, they covered its rear seat area with new body panels to reduce cockpit length. A low, curved windshield married a skimpy convertible top. Window winders were eliminated, with removable side curtains inserted into the plainly trimmed doors.

Often likened to a bathtub, aesthetically, the result was anything but pleasing. Vision with the side curtains in place was negligible, while headroom was lost when overall height dropped from 51 to 48 inches. Reutter stripped the interior to the bare minimum. The new, flat dash had two main dials and a temperature gauge in front of the driver, a grab handle for the passenger, and that was about all. With their slotted backs and high sides, the lightweight bucket seats had a race car look and feel.

Although the car was frugally outfitted, Reutter did not stint on craftsmanship, and doors still shut with a reassuring “ker-chunk.” Nor did Porsche leave anything important out of its chassis. The standard car was powered by a 64-horsepower, 1500-cc four-cylinder engine; for $500 extra, the 82-horsepower 1500S was optional. Emphasis was on acceleration, to suit American driving and racing, and was enhanced by special gear ratios and light weight. The new car’s 1,750-pound curb weight was some 80 pounds lighter than other Porsches.

Making their official debut in September 1954, these little buckets were liveried in enamel paint of unique white, red and blue colors, instead of more costly lacquer. At a time when Max Hoffman liked Porsches to have names, this one’s name — “Speedster” — adorned the front fenders.

This wonderful moniker is quintessentially American. Between the wars, speed-mad Americans had stripped their Fords and Chevys and called them “speedsters.” The Stutz Blackhawk Speedster and Auburn Speedster were iconic examples of the genre. Studebaker, too, built an early Speedster, a name its managers revived for a new model in 1954 — just when Porsche was building the prototype of a new sedan for the South Bend company.

A magpie for good ideas, Max Hoffman swiped Studebaker’s “Speedster” name. This trope was spot-on for Porsche’s new baby. Like its American antecedents, it was a dashing open two-seater with primitive weather protection. Best of all, while the classic American speedsters were the most expensive of their lines, this was Porsche’s least costly.

The Speedster’s price with the base 1500 engine was $2,870 in Germany — about $120 cheaper than the corresponding coupe. For Americans taking delivery in Europe, it cost only $2,550. And the base figure in New York was $2,995 — Max Hoffman’s magic price tag, and the lowest ever for a Porsche. A typical Hoffman trick made two items built into every Speedster “optional”: the tachometer and the heater.

America’s road-testers were chiefly interested in the Speedster’s performance and price, although several commented about the top. Road & Track found that the top “flaps viciously at anything over 70 mph,” and Walt Woron in Motor Trend said that getting in with the top up is “quite a chore, because you have to jack-knife in; the top is extremely low, and if you’re over six feet, your head is going to touch.”

Woron reported that “putting up the soft top is absurdly easy: you reach behind you, grab the top’s forward bow, pull forward so it reaches the windshield, and snap the two locks in place.” Thus did the Porsche and Reutter engineers ridicule the clumsy efforts of their British rivals.

When Porsche’s improved 356A models were introduced in September 1955, the Speedster was also updated. It remained an ugly duckling, with its humped back and claustrophobic top offering notoriously minimal vision. The Speedster’s innate honesty and simplicity had tremendous appeal, however. In spite of its design quirks — or because of them — it became the most loved Porsche style of the 1950s.

The light and low Speedster was an obvious choice for production-car racing: West Coast Porsche importer John von Neumann entered and co-drove a 1500S Speedster in the model’s California debut on Thanksgiving weekend in 1954. Together they placed 8th overall in the six-hour race at Torrey Pines. Von Neumann took the wheel the following day to win the race for 1,500-cc production sports cars. Elsewhere, Bengt Soderstrom and Lake Underwood used Speedsters to win the SCCA’s F Production Championship.

Two friends and eager sports car competitors in California saw Speedsters as their way forward. Dan Gurney bought a 1956, trading in his TR2 and paying $100 a month to the bank. “They probably didn’t realize what I was going to do with it,” which was race Skip Hudson’s similar Speedster on local roads. “We slammed our cars around turns,” said Dan, “skidded them, downshifted, and had ourselves many a two-man Porsche race. We both learned plenty.” This opened the door to the big time for Gurney, who became one of America’s most celebrated racers.

Anointing the Speedster as the quintessence of cool were three Hollywood heroes. James Dean and Steve McQueen raced Speedsters, and, in the 1966 film Harper, Paul Newman, as the eponymous private eye, bombed around the streets and canyons of L.A. in a rough-looking Speedster.

The Speedster’s last year was 1958, although Reutter did continue to make Speedster bodies into 1959, chiefly for customers who wanted to use these light cars for racing and rallying. Total Speedster body production came to 4,722 units.

Although destined to become the darling of enthusiasts of early Porsches, the Speedster in its prime was simply the cheapest car in the line. Ferry Porsche was never convinced that creating the Speedster as a means of cutting prices was a sound policy. Stripping a car, he said, “only degrades it, without achieving the intended result. Lowering the price is of little help to selling more cars. In fact, it doesn’t help at all.” Luckily he let the perky Speedster prevail over his misgivings.

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