The 1950s were indeed happy days for professor Ferdinand “Ferry” Porsche‘s young sports car manufacturing concern. The good doctor and his father had managed to transform Germany’s “people’s compact” — designed by the senior Porsche for Volkswagen — into the lightweight, agile, venerable, and much-loved 356 “bathtub” Porsche that was winning races and Sunday drivers’ hearts. A process of continuous improvement resulted in a steady horsepower increase from the original 1948 model’s 40 to 130 in the highly strung four-cam, pushrod-actuated two-valve Carrera 2000GS engine of 1962-’63. Chassis tuning and brake upgrades kept the aging front trailing-arm and lateral torsion-bar suspension and rear swing-axle setup functional as well. But toward the end of the decade of poodle skirts and prosperity, customers were itching for more refined and spacious touring cars that made less racket and offered more creature comforts.
Hence, in the mid-’50s, the company started doodling designs for a larger Porsche. Long-serving body-design chief Erwin Komenda naturally took the first few swings at a four-seat 356. His designs were informed by two core beliefs: (1) strongly curved body panels are inherently stronger, and (2) humans were expanding, so a larger interior would prolong the design’s useful life. Stretching bathtub curvature over a longer, wider interior resulted in zaftig shapes. Ferry Porsche deemed them too bulbous (do you think he would he have OK’d today’s Panamera?) and hired Count Albrecht Goertz, father of the gorgeous BMW 507 roadster and an associate of renowned industrial designer Raymond Loewy. But Goertz’s time in America rendered him incapable of resisting flashy trends like quad headlamps and six round taillamps, so his design looked a bit like a shrunken fastback ’58 Impala. Ferry Porsche is said to have proclaimed it “a beautiful Goertz, but not a Porsche.”
Meanwhile, in 1957, Ferdinand Alexander “Butzi” Porsche, number-one son of the Professor, left his studies at the Ulm College of Design to join the family business. He began in the design department, training under Komenda. A few of his suggestions were incorporated into successive Goertz designs, but that design direction was ultimately halted. Having successfully penned some beautiful race cars during his short career, the young scion was officially assigned responsibility for the 356-successor project in August 1959.Watch 2018 Porsche Panamera Sport Turismo Gold Rush
Porsche’s engineering department is said to have considered front- and amidships engine placement for its Grand Tourer, but concluded that a proper race car needed rear drive and a rearward weight bias, and that, because mid-engine designs could not accommodate a rear seat within a package small enough to race, the expedient design for a small company lacking the resources to develop multiple driveline variants was the tried-and-true rear-engine layout. The boxer engine design was retained for its low center of mass and compact packaging, and six cylinders were considered essential to produce the required 130 horsepower at an acceptable noise level and cost. Engineering had developed an ultra-compact front-strut design that ditched the space-gobbling coil springs in favor of longitudinal torsion bars keyed to the lower lateral arms, leaving a wide, low luggage-compartment floor. Ferry Porsche wanted a fastback body to continue the visual lineage of the 356, and a 94.8-inch wheelbase was deemed the minimum acceptable for rear-seat accommodation.
Armed with these marching orders, and having perhaps derived some inspiration from the svelte and slippery lines of the 1959 Abarth 356B Carrera GTL (it may have been the work of Franco Scaglione, body man Rocco Motto, or an unnamed Abarth employee), Butzi Porsche put pen to paper and plasticene modeling clay to wood. Two years later, following several iterations on which the wheelbase dithered up and down (it would eventually settle at 87 inches), a scale model of his “T8” design was unveiled in December 1961. With a target production date of July 1963, work began in earnest on a development program involving the construction of 13 prototype development cars, the earliest known survivor of which is our subject car.
By May 1962, the project was officially named 901, a number chosen to fit within the Volkswagen parts numbering scheme in preparation for an envisioned melding of the organizations. (Shortly after the car’s production launch, Peugeot claimed to own the French naming rights to all three-digit numbers that had a zero in the middle, so Porsche changed the name to 911 after somewhere between 49 and 82 (reports vary) 901s had been built — the world still awaits a production Peugeot 901.
In November of that year, chief test driver Helmuth Bott took his first spin in a running prototype (#13 321) powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and four-speed transaxle. It did not go well. The body had weak points, the windows bowed out at speed, and straight-line stability was a mess. By the end of that month, it was clear production would be delayed until well into 1964.
Successive prototypes were built to test various components or serve other purposes. The second prototype (#13 322) posed for the first “leaked” press photo; the third underwent extensive endurance testing; number four was primarily a suspension and brake test car; and number five was the star of the Frankfurt motor show in 1963 and underwent the first press road test by Auto Motor und Sport.
Our number seven (#13 327) went into suspension testing service in February 1964 with the nickname Barbarossa (“red beard” in Italian — the nickname of Frederick I, duke of Swabia, later king of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor). It also spent time in the wind tunnel at an automotive research institute in Untertuerkheim. Frequently updated with production-intent parts, Barbarossa helped sort many suspension, braking, aerodynamic, and heating/ventilation problems uncovered during those early test runs. After completing almost 44,000 kilometers, Barbarossa was still in presentable shape, so the somewhat cash-pressed company sold the prototype to a “friend of the family,” Porsche race driver and automotive journalist Richard von Frankenberg. Perhaps best known for surviving a horrific somersaulting crash at Avus in Berlin while racing a 550A, he ultimately perished in a road accident in 1973, after which Barbarossa’s ownership history gets murky until it surfaced in December 1984 as a derelict hulk for sale to settle a mechanic’s lien in New York City.