1948 Porsche Number One. Click image to enlarge
Article and photo by Bill Vance
Although today’s Porsche cars are sleek and powerful, the Porsche had quite modest beginnings: it was based on Volkswagen’s humble, original Beetle.
Ferdinand Porsche’s Stuttgart-based Porsche Design Office completed the design of the Volkswagen in the mid-1930s. But with the construction of a new factory, and then the onset of the Second World War, production didn’t really get underway until 1945. And then it was in small numbers, taking until 1948 to produce the 25,000th Beetle.
After completing the Volkswagen design, Ferdinand and his engineer son, Ferdinand “Ferry” Porsche, had envisioned building a sports car before the war. The company, now based in the Stuttgart suburb of Zuffenhausen, designed and built prototypes of two small high-speed coupes, one to be a Porsche, and the other on a commission from Volkswagen.
The two-passenger coupe built for the Volkswagen company was based on VW components, but with a much more aerodynamic shape. Its purpose was to gain publicity for the new Volkswagen, or Kdf-Wagen as it was then called, by entering the Berlin-to-Rome race that was in the planning stages. It was powered by the VW’s flat-four, air-cooled engine, modified to produce 50 horsepower, twice that of the Beetle’s.
Porsche had also planned to use Volkswagen components for its own car, but when it was not allowed to buy them, it designed something quite different. This was a sleek sports coupe powered by a water-cooled, 1.5-litre, double overhead cam V10 engine mounted between the passenger seats and the rear axle. It had swing rear axles and torsion bar suspension, and promised very high performance.
The onset of the Second World War in 1939 put an end to Porsche’s sports/racing car activities, and the company became engaged in war work for the German government, including the design of military tanks.
With Stuttgart coming under increasingly severe Allied bombing as the war progressed, part of the Porsche group was quietly relocated in 1944 to an old sawmill in the tiny village of Gmund in the province of Carinthia, Austria, some 113 kilometres south of Saltzburg. That’s where the first Porsche-badged cars were designed and built. The consulting engineering company that had made its name designing cars for others was about to launch itself into the car building business.