Genesis of the Marque of Excellence
THE FIRST AUTOMOBILE to bear the sole Porsche name and badging wasn’t imagined as a “Porsche” at all. In fact, Porsche No. 1, as it is now cult-like known, was originally designated as a “VW Two-Seater Sports Car” according to the original conceptual-design drawings.
So, early in 1947, what was destined to become Porsche No. 1 was conceived as an open two-seat roadster based in large part on pre-existing Volkswagen engineering, designs and components.
Yet despite ancestral ties to the VW, today all Porsches possess No. 1’s unique, unmistakable DNA, with a singular bloodline stretching all the way back to No. 1’s birthplace at the foot of the Reisseck Mountains — in Austria.
Nestled in the tranquil Malta Valley high in the Austrian Alps along tasty hilly, twisty mountain roads is where it all began for the marque of Porsche — in the secluded Carinthian village of Gmünd . . .
Porsche on the Lamb in Gmünd
In the thick of World War II, conversely, the Allies escalated their devastating air raids. More and more bombs rained down on the centers of Germany’s mighty industrial complex — which included the bustling industrialized districts of Stuttgart–Zuffenhausen where Porsche headquarters were located.
This dire turn of events became a major cause for concern for the company, which was mainly an industrial/military design firm at the time.
Then it happened. An Allied bomb scored a direct hit on one of Porsche’s office buildings, destroying all of the company’s archived drawings. Even though there were duplicate sets of drawings stashed away in two other offsite locations as a sensible precaution, this almost-fatal strike was the last straw.
Restructured earlier as a limited partnership in 1938, Porsche Kommanditgesellschaft (KG) made the covert move to Gmünd in late-autumn 1944 after grappling with the usual wartime red tape.
The company’s clandestine relocation to a rickety old wooden Gmünd sawmill had gone undetected until after the war. But this wasn’t for any lack of trying on the part of the Allies to ferret out the company whose reputation for superior military design and engineering preceded it among the Allied Forces.
Ferry Porsche — along with only sister Louise Porsche Piëch, who adeptly shared in the running of the company in partnership with her attorney husband, Dr. Anton Piëch — secured a second location for storage purposes in Zell am See, Austria, a stone’s throw from “Schüttgut,” the Porsche family vacation estate.
So, while a small nucleus of managers and employees held down the fort in Zuffenhausen, Ferry Porsche and the company’s upper-echelon designers, executives, engineers and staff had uprooted from Germany, taking with them the homegrown genetic design strands from Stuttgart.
It is a given, then, that no matter where else the company might have relocated, all finished Porsche products would still bear that unique, inherent Stuttgart DNA.
At any rate, deep within the serene, top-secret sanctuary of Gmünd, the creation of successful designs from the house of Porsche resumed largely uninterrupted for almost 6 years.
The cornucopia of projects to surface from that cloistered Austrian sawmill included the Type 360 Cisitalia Grand Prix racecar, as well as prolific designs of engines, tanks and other military vehicles.
The penultimate Gmünd designs in terms of importance were of tractors and other farm equipment. This no doubt was the result of Porsche KG’s shrewd anticipation of looming peacetime edicts that would oblige Germany to revert to an agrarian economy. Thus the company sourced a new, lucrative revenue stream for the ensuing postwar years.
But the most extraordinary seminal endeavor embarked upon at Gmünd was the timeless iconic design and creation of Porsche No 1.
Porsche Beginnings: A Question of Origin of the Species
Yes, some pundits will contend that the true forebear of the Porsche marque is the Type 60K10, also known internally as Typ 64.
The Type 64’s bodywork was chiefly designed by peerless Porsche designer extraordinaire Erwin Franz Komenda, and the 60K10 was purpose-built in early-summer 1939 to capture the world spotlight. The coachwork builder credited with its construction was Reutter, the coachbuilder of many Porsches to come.
Porsche KG’s grand marketing inspiration was to capitalize on the 60K10 in order to promote the new Volkswagen, or “people’s car.” In short, the company planned to showcase its design expertise to the automotive industry and marketplace on a global scale.
For some reason, this groundbreaking Porsche design became known in many circles as the Type 64 strangely because it was predicated on the Volkswagen Type 64, which consisted basically of parts originally slated for the Type 64 VW Beetle.
But this detracts from the crucial genetic fact that this is a seminal evolutionary vehicle in its own right — the Typ 60K10.
The international stage on which this marketing coup was to officially debut was the German regime’s hoped-for Third Reich propaganda extravaganza: The inaugural Berlin-to-Rome Race, set to take place later, in September 1939.
Regrettably for Porsche KG, the much-ballyhooed 800-mile Berlin-Rome race on both new Autobahns and country roads suffered sudden death before it ever began, as World War II rudely intervened, on September 3, 1939.
With three cars already built for the challenge, the 60K10 was also based on the Typ 60 chassis of the rear-engined Volkswagen. As such, the 60K10 technically epitomizes a dominant Porsche genetic precursor because of the similar drive-train configuration it shares with the Type 60, as well as with the successive first-of-their-kind production Type 356s.
As seen here in hammered aluminum form and not in actual vehicular form, the 60K10 is now commonly referred to as only the Type 64. It is displayed at the Porsche Museum, and was here in America from March through June 2010 at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia, home of Porsche Cars North America.
Secondly, the Type 64 constitutes a dominant phenotype of the Porsche genome simply yet elegantly because of Komenda’s unsung design genius, which influences as well as pervades all Porsche styling — The Komenda Touch, in essence.
For instance, one can identify the Type 64’s aerodynamic curves, angles and lines in most Porsches, especially all 911s, as well as in Caymans and Panameras, to this day.
The Type 64, consequently, has come to exemplify Porsche’s proverbial “missing link” between the Volkswagen Type 60 and Porsche No. 1.
Porsche Automobiles: The Komenda Touch Immortalized
In any case, Porsche No. 1 is bona fide progenitor of each and every Porsche we love to drive — and sometimes red-line too, of course.
First, it’s no coincidence that Erwin Komenda also designed No. 1’s slippery aerodynamic body, an indisputable classic in the Porsche pantheon of design. Thus there’s no escaping the fact that Komenda’s quintessential Porsche styling organically manifests itself and its vocabulary in nearly every Porsche ever built to present day.
Writer Dan Proudfoot in Excellence magazine* precisely distills the essence of Komenda’s design style down to this: “Spare with flair.” StuttgartDNA couldn’t agree with you more, Mr. Proudfoot.
As an interesting side note, this astute deduction might also imbue some substance, sparse though it may or may not be, to the ethereal, inscrutable Porsche Mystique.
For example, in the November 2009 issue of Gabriel’s Horn, the award-winning Porsche Club of America newsletter of the San Gabriel Valley Region outside Los Angeles, columnist Jim Alton II touches on this very issue. Describing the Panamera, Mr. Alton discerns, “Like most Porsches, the styling looks like it will be handsome forever rather than the beauty of the moment.”
Mr. Alton could be on to something: That is, what is logical to infer from his pithy observation is that faddish, avant-garde styles come and go, and beauty is fleeting as well as fickle, but thanks to Komenda’s immortal styling, Porsche designs — because they are timeless — will always be stylish.
Indeed, this is elemental to Porsche No 1’s streamlined, spare-with-flair body design.
No. 1’s descendants, moreover — most notably the 550 Spyder, 914, Boxster, and Cayman — all share not only No. 1’s original mid-engine drive-train concept, but also that very same spare-with-flair sensibility.
Finally, as the first car dubbed a “Porsche,” No. 1’s existence actually pre-dates Ferry’s move to add the “Porsche” badging to his personal 60K10 automobile. It so happens that he did this to publicize the inaugural launch of the first Porsche production cars.
The original Gmünd beauties were the very first Porsche 356s, all aluminum bodied — known as the Gmünd Porsches. So it stands to reason that Ferry’s course of action was a subtle yet legitimate marketing tactic announcing the fact that these first Porsches were going to market.
Porsche No. 1: Origin of a Marque
But before those 50 Gmϋnd 356s could in fact come to market, they had to be designed, developed and prototyped. Porsche No. 1 embodies the metamorphosis into that seminal prototype.
Getting there, though, took some doing, beginning in 1947. Ferry Porsche and Karl Rabe, Chief Engineer of the Porsche Design Office, hatched a plan to get back in the good graces of the Volkswagen Company pursuant to future lucrative automotive deals.
Ferry and Mr. Rabe embarked on a campaign to build the company’s first sports car, deciding that it would be an open two-seater affair, cobbled together from various Volkswagen odds and ends to keep costs as low as possible.
They settled on a mid-engine layout — not unlike today’s Boxster / Cayman configuration — which meant fitment behind the cockpit. Thus the engine would rest amidships within a tubular space frame, a very costly chassis structure, especially when mass produced.
But this was a prototype after all, so the space frame was ideal both in terms of weight and durability by virtue of its sophisticated design, which deliberately factored in maximum stiffness.
The engine was to be a boxer powerplant, specifically a flat four, placed ahead of the rear axle shaft, with the transaxle trailing behind it. So the engine sat within the wheelbase and drove the rear wheels.
Naturally, this being the polar opposite of the typical Type 60 Volkswagen configuration, the VW suspension had to be reversed and completely rearranged.
One appreciable benefit was reaped from going to all the trouble: This novel configuration paved the way for dovetailing the stiffened springs with the mid-engine’s much-better-balanced weight distribution and lower center of gravity to mitigate oversteer, which is the tendency of a vehicle’s rear end to whip outward during a twisty turn, especially a spirited one.
Of course, oversteer is a common phenomenon that many Porsche owners have happily mastered over the generations when driving rear-slung-engined models.
The cobbled-together Volkswagen parts included the:
- Steering box
- Nine-inch-diameter drum brakes which were operated mechanically via a system of tensioned cables
Contrary to conventional wisdom, though, durability of the finished Porsche No 1 was never problematic: According to Karl Ludvigsen’s masterwork, Porsche: Excellence Was Expected, Ferry Porsche confided, “We had a saying: ‘If it held up in the Kϋbelwagen, it’ll certainly hold up in the sports car!’”
Porsche Research and Development: Cultivating the Marque
Finally built, the chassis of the sports-car prototype was officially christened the Type 356 on June 11, 1947. The Porsche Design Office fully understood the rich potential of this car.
Ferry Porsche and Karl Rabe embraced the promise that Porsche No. 1 would enable the company to rekindle its favorable relationship with the Volkswagen Company. As we know, much earlier, Ferdinand Porsche’s entry was awarded Best Design of the “People’s Car” by the state-sponsored German Labor Front. Ferry and Karl knew they could curry favor once again.
After all, in the years following World War II, the VW Company began enjoying sustained prosperity. Several thousand VWs were produced each year despite Germany’s deep post-war depression.
Needless to say, Ferry shrewdly negotiated the rights to substantial fees from the engineering and designs of the Volkswagen automobile. Each and every time a VW rolled off the production lines year in and year out, a royalty was earned.
Ferry invested these royalties right back into the research and development of the Type 356. He also secured distribution deals whereby the VW Company would retail 356s through its network of dealerships.
In March 1948, the Porsche Design Office was ready to test the chassis of Porsche No. 1, now assigned the serial number 356-001. Komenda’s less-is-more open roadster body was married to chassis in late April.
Ultimately the car wound up with a wheelbase of 84.6 inches, and a dry weight of 1,330 pounds. Porsche No. 1 was ready for thorough testing at the end of May 1948, already three years after the fall of Germany in the war.
As the Porsche family members were of Austrian descent and not apologists for the Nazi regime, it seems fitting that the inception of the marque of Porsche occurred in Austria. Later, in 1950, Porsche KG returned to Stuttgart, which had since been cleansed of the stench of Hitler.
It stands to reason, then, that DNA is not a matter of where one is born, but rather how one stays true to one’s genome map. Thank goodness this applies even to the slow evolution of Porsche automobiles.
But there was more work to be done in serendipitous self-exile. Renowned throughout Europe as one of the most accomplished international test drivers of automobiles at the time, Ferry Porsche himself put No. 1 through its paces. Gmünd proved to be an ideal venue for this.
Not only did the surrounding windy foothill roads serve as good proving grounds, but just a dozen miles north of Gmünd there was also the Katschberg Pass. It consisted of a series of twisty switchbacks with a challenging 32-percent grade. Much of Porsche No. 1’s robust development and ultimate fine-tuning took place on these tight, steep, meandering roads.
The Marque of Porsche is Born
The world was first introduced to the fledgling marque of Porsche at the Swiss Grand Prix on the fourth of July, 1948.
This was a very auspicious debut because such prestigious automotive journalists as Max Troesch of Great Britain’s The Motor and Robert Braunschweig of Switzerland’s Automobil Review tested Porsche No. 1 on the racecourse before the running of the Grand Prix.
These and other automotive writers’ findings were published in their respective automotive journals. They were virtually unanimous in proclaiming Porsche No. 1’s revolutionary traits:
- Superb agile handling
- Tenacious road adhesion
- Consistent straightaway stability on even the roughest of road surfaces
- Overall modern road-motoring comfort
A week later, on July 11, 1948, Porsche began its rich racing heritage:
- The city: Innsbruck, Austria
- The driver: Herbert Kaes (Ferdinand Porsche’s nephew)
- The race: Rund um den Hofgarten, a through-the-residential-streets, by-the-seat-of-your-pants hell raiser
- The historic reverberation through time: Porsche earning its place in the record books as topping the podium for the very first time in its first automotive race ever
- The car: Porsche No. 1
The Austrian Rund um den Hofgarten began Porsche’s long string of racing victories enjoyed to this day after Porsche No. 1 won its class. Racing victories beget car sales. Car sales beget Porsche ownership. Porsche ownership begets a lifetime of utter driving pleasure and just-good-ol’-fashioned happy motoring.
There is no substitute for the sensation experienced while finessing a Porsche through tortuous switchbacks and twisty, hilly back roads anyplace on the planet. It is simply exhilarating, yet Zen-like — something akin to Komenda’s design philosophy itself.
With the drafting of Work Orders No. 556 and No. 557, Porsche Kommanditgesellschaft (KG) launched the manufacture of the first 50 aluminum-bodied production 356s from Gmünd in March 1948.
The wheels that set these historic beginnings in motion were the first orders from middle-man Rupprecht von Senger and actual financier Bernhard Blank. Both Swiss nationals keenly recognized the commercial potential of selling the first Porsches, which were designated internally as Type 356/2.
As we all now know, Type 356/2 — and each and every other Porsche since produced — owes its very existence to Type 356-001 – Porsche No. 1.
And as they say, the rest is history — a rich, proud, illustrious, triumphant Porsche history that continues to this day and hopefully far, far, far into the future . . .
© 2020-2021 Copyright Larry Domasin / StuttgartDNA.com. All rights reserved.
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Suggested further bibliographical reading, research and study:
* “About Face” [article about Erwin Komenda] by Dan Proudfoot, Excellence magazine, No. 147, June 2006
The Concise Biography of Ferdinand Porsche by Larry Domasin — StuttgartDNA.com (2020)
The Concise Biography of Ferry Porsche by Larry Domasin — StuttgartDNA.com (2020)
Gabriel’s Horn, November 2009 newsletter issue, Porsche Club of America — San Gabriel Valley Region
Great Cars: Porsche (DVD), Michael Rose Productions (2004)
Porsche: Excellence Was Expected by Karl Ludvigsen — Bentley Publishers (2003)
The Porsche Family Tree — Porsche Club of America (1995)
Porsche: The Incredible Porsche 911 (DVD), The History Channel (1994)
Porsche: Victory by Design (DVD), Goldcroft Films, LLP (2003)