October 16, 2009
1955 Porsche Speedster. Click image to enlarge
Article and photo by Bill Vance
When the German Porsche 356 coupe arrived in North America in the early 1950s it was a sensation. Here was a car with just a 1.5-litre (91 cu in.) engine that could accelerate to 96 km/h (60 mph) in under 14 seconds, top 161 km/h (100 mph) and still get up to 35 mpg. It’s not surprising that Road & Track’s testers (11/’52) called it “the Car of Tomorrow.”
And that wasn’t all. While such open British sports cars as MGs and Triumphs subjected their passengers to stiff rides, wind buffeting and leaky canvas tops, Porsche passengers enjoyed the snugness and relative quiet of their “little limousines.” They were treated to better riding qualities too, thanks to Volkswagen-derived, four-wheel independent torsion bar suspension.
The Porsche’s Volkswagen ancestry was very apparent – not surprising because Ferdinand Porsche was the father of the Volkswagen, and he and his son Ferry used the “People’s Car” as the basis for their first 1948 prototype Porsche and subsequent production models.
Thus, in addition to lateral torsion bars, trailing arms and swing axles, the Porsche had an air-cooled, horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine mounted behind the rear axle. It also used similar unit-type construction with a central backbone frame and a four-speed overdrive transmission ahead of the rear axle.
With their excellent performance it wasn’t long before Porsches were racing and winning. They soon became the scourge of the under-1500-cc class, thanks largely to a few specially built lightweight sport racers called the America Roadster introduced in 1952 for the American market only.
Although the Porsche came with glowing credentials it had a problem: its price. In spite of humble VW lineage the Porsche was expensive. The first 356s brought into the U.S. in 1950 were priced in the $4,000 range. This was Cadillac country, which seemed like an awful lot of money for a little 816 kg (1,800 lb) coupe that still had a non-synchromesh transmission (soon rectified) and looked to some eyes like an inverted bathtub.
The high price prompted Vienna-born Max Hoffman, a New York-based imported car distributor who sold everything from Volkswagens to Jaguars, including Porsches, to approach Porsche in West Germany with an idea. He wanted a more affordable model to sell for under $3,000 and compete with cars like the Triumph and Austin-Healey.
Porsche listened, and the Porsche Speedster was the result. Introduced in late 1954 as a 1955 model, it was an evolution of the America Roadster, another Hoffman idea, and was much more spartan than regular Porsches. Light fabric tops and side curtains were a far cry from snug coupes and cabriolets.
The seats were smaller and cheaper than the luxurious recliners found in other models, the instrument panel was spare, and it had a low one-piece windshield. With these changes, Porsche managed to bring it in at $2,995, just under Hoffman’s suggested $3,000 mark and the lowest-priced Porsche ever.
Due to its lighter weight the Speedster’s performance was better than its stablemates. Road & Track (5/’55) compared the Speedster with the 356 coupe it had tested the year before. They both had the 70 horsepower (DIN rating) Super engine compared with the standard 55, and the Speedster’s zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) of 10.3 seconds, was 2.1 seconds faster. But the coupe’s better aerodynamics gave it a slightly higher top speed: 173 km/h (107.6 mph) vs. the Speedster’s 167 km/h (104 mph).
The Speedster was successful in competition, which got even better for 1956 when it and the revised 356A regular model got a 1600-cc, 60-horsepower engine, or 75 in Super form.
For those who were really serious about their racing, the double overhead cam, roller bearing, 100-horsepower Carrera engine was available, although specifying it removed any pretensions of the Speedster being a “cheap” Porsche.
While the Speedster somewhat addressed the price problem (a Buick could still be had for $3,000), Porsche’s fling with British-type, flimsy-topped sports cars was relatively short. For 1959 the hard edges came off the Speedster and it became the Convertible D (for body supplier Drauz) with wind-up windows and a regular windshield.
Porsche purists were disappointed at the demise of the Speedster, but Ferry Porsche had never been happy with building a Porsche “down to a price.” With the Convertible D, Porsche was really only marching with the times, recognizing that enthusiasts were abandoning the masochistic “wind in the face, bugs in the teeth” style of motoring.
The Speedster, in spite of its short four model-year run, and total production of less than 5,000, was a significant milestone in Porsche history. It is considered one of the most desirable and collectible Porsches.