Musings on the Past

Remembering Porsche’s mid-engine origins

You can not call yourself a petrolhead if you are completely oblivious of the celebrations going on in Stuttgart this past weekend, or indeed this year. For those in the dark or have had their cognitive abilities hampered by excessive petrol fume inhalation, last weekend was the 70th anniversary celebrations of the Porsche ‘brand’ as a sports car manufacturer.

And if you think celebrating a ‘brand’ seems oddly specific, you are right, but for good reason.

Not only it is the celebration of the beginning of the Porsche we recognise of today, but Porsche as a ‘company’ started much earlier in 1931 as an engineering consultancy that was responsible for giving the world the Volkswagen Type 1 and very nearly the Tiger tank, two iconic creations that defined hippie culture and the annexation of Poland respectively. Not the sort of achievements to tell mum about, so let’s not dwell on that.

To be Teutonically exact, the anniversary marks 70 years to the very day, June 8, when Ferry Porsche “received the operating permit” for the 356/1, more popularly known as the 356 ‘No.1’ Roadster, the first sports car to bear the Porsche name. How very Germanically precise, bless their hearts.

Porsche marked the 70th anniversary occasion with the christening of the Mission e production car as the Taycan, and rolled out a gorgeous 911 Speedster concept car that carried plenty of neat design touches that it claims, “forges a link” to the very first Porsche sports car – the 356 ‘No.1’ Roadster.

The Speedster concept’s design touches were lifted from Porsche’s extensive back catalogue of cars. Key amongst which were the lowered window frames that are reminiscent of the 356 Speedsters, the rear double-bubble cover that follows after the 911 Speedsters from the 80s, and last but not least, the livery, central fuel tank cap on the front bonnet, and Talbot shaped wing mirrors that were inspired by Porsche’s early race cars.

Unlike the limited-edition 2010 911 Speedster that earmarked the 997-generation 911, Porsche has yet to confirm if they will be putting this Carrera 4-based concept into series-production, though if Porschephiles have been good, deserving fans (read: ready to pony up some cash), Weissach will build them some in 2019.

There is, however, one connection this concept doesn’t draw with the original Roadster and that it is still based on the 911’s signature rear-engine layout. Despite its 356 moniker, and the widely-held belief that a rear-engined coupe was the layout was Ferry’s vision of a perfect sports car, the actual car he built for himself, the first Porsche, had its modified Volkswagen Beetle powertrain placed midship, in front of the rear axles.

It would have been surprising if Ferry built his first 356 to be rear-engine, he was after all very much a man after his own father, the great Ferdinand Porsche, and it made sense for him to follow in his father’s pioneering work in the development of pre-war Auto Union Type A through D mid-engine racers.

The familiar rear-engine 356 that we know today only came about after Ferry managed to bag the Roadster’s first win at its first race in the Rund um den Hofgarten local race in Innsbruck, Austria. This victory garnered significant interests from fellow racers who wanted Ferry to build one for them.

Buoyed by the interest Ferry obliged, but in order to put the 356 into production, he had to raise some capital by selling ‘No.1’ off to a Swiss enthusiast. With money raised, he moved onto producing a small number of hand-built coupes and cabriolets known as the 356/2, the first true examples of what would become the 356 lineage.

However, due to cost constraints, the 356/2 lacked its predecessor’s tubular space-frame construction, and more importantly, its engine was moved further back to allow for a larger and more usable cabin.

It might not have been the same 356 that interested buyers had seen at Innsbruck, but Ferry had a good reason to the change in engine placement. Porsche felt that customers had little interest for a mid-engine roadster, and believed that a sports car should be built for normal purposes and able to handle all kinds of roads with good passenger and luggage space. To achieve those goals, the engine had to be moved back over the rear wheels to its now familiar position.

Of course, the 356 did prove popular, perhaps more popular than the limited appeal of a mid-engine roadster would have garnered. That popularity would eventually begat the 911 15 years later, with its practical rear-engine layout and all. All the while, the car that started it all faded into history as 356/1 exchanged hands several times before being finally acquired by the Porsche Museum in 1958. By then the original 356 had undergone several modifications through its several owners that it was far from Ferry’s original build.

The changes done to ‘No.1’ was extensive enough for Porsche themselves to deem it unrestorable to its original state. As such the company commissioned an exact static replica for its 70th Anniversary that was based on original photos, drawings, and journals of the Roadster before it was sold off.

When the original ‘No.1’ was compared to the anniversary creation, it was found that Ferry’s creation had indeed undergone significant changes through its decade of private ownership. That being said, in order to preserve the 356 ‘No.1’ Roadster’s hallowed status, the faithful recreation lacks an engine as Porsche wanted to avoid it being labelled as a replica and confuse with the original car.

While mid-engine cars have formed a significant part of the Porsche mythos, what with a mid-engine ‘No.1’ starting the company, mid-engine Le Mans legends, the Carrera GT and 918 Spyder continuously sticking it to Ferrari, and the mid-engine Boxster actually saving the company from financial ruin in the 1990s, many of the more hardcore Porsche fans tend to only acknowledge the 911. After all, to them the 911 is Porsche, and you couldn’t fault them.

For all its imperfections and being unjustly lampooned for being a handful by the uninitiated, the 911 has left an indelible identity amongst enthusiasts as a car you build a relationship around, a car that you steadily have to learn its strengths and foibles and work it to your advantage.

That big heavy engine out back might be in the wrong place, but learn how to trust that pendulum of a powertrain in the rear to pin the rear wheels down and lay every last ounce of torque before an apex and it is as exhilarating as shearing an apex with your kneepad on a motorcycle.

Come to think of it. Testy when not respected, superbly rewarding with familiarity, a 911 could very well be a four-wheeled motorcycle for the amount of dedication one needs to get the most out of it.

Furthermore, over the years the 911’s characteristics had forced Porsche’s chassis engineers to honed their craft as they worked their way around that rear-engine design to iron out its shortcomings and heighten its highs. The experience from which Porsche’s engineers would use in tweaking some of today’s most unexpectedly engaging cars such as the Panamera and Macan.

Couple the 911’s rewarding learning curve to a sports car with space for passengers and luggage that can take on any sort of road you point it towards and you are onto creating a beloved icon.

If Ferry had capitulated and stuck with a mid-engine roadster, it is highly likely that Porsche wouldn’t be the revered powerhouse it is today. Instead, it might just end up as another ubiquitous company, barely standing out in a sea of mid-engine sports cars that are barely scraping by. They could be another Lotus, a car company that has struggled to elevate and define themselves beyond the founder’s original founding principle.

Having an engine in the back was far from being the right formula, God knows how many times they tried to put it to pasture, but it was the defining formula, warts and all. And that’s what mattered.

Pundits might pine for a mid-engine 911, perhaps a road-going version of the mid-engine 911 RSR, but they are missing the point of what made Porsche stand out. The company might have started out, and was saved by its mid-engine creations, but the rear-engine formula had guaranteed its presence amongst enthusiasts hearts around the world throughout those 70 years.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *