The height of fash­ion

Speed­ster’s cut-down screen slashed head­room, but de­sir­abil­ity was through the roof

Wheels (Australia) - - Retro Series -

FERRY Porsche built his first sports car in 1948. The lit­tle sil­ver road­ster was based on lightly mod­i­fied Volk­swa­gen me­chan­i­cals, but its tubu­lar space­frame had the en­gine and rear sus­pen­sion turned 180 de­grees, mak­ing it mid-en­gined. Even as this ‘Type 356’ was be­ing de­vel­oped, how­ever, Porsche was de­sign­ing a more pro­duc­tion-vi­able coupe, with a sheet-steel chas­sis re­tain­ing the VW’S orig­i­nal rear-en­gine place­ment.

Very quickly, the pro­duc­tion 356’s fit­ness for rac­ing and ral­lies crossed the At­lantic. In 1950, with the US post-war mar­ket boom­ing for Eu­ro­pean sports cars like the Jaguar XK120, Porsche’s new US agent, Aus­trian-born Max Hoff­man, pro­posed a more af­ford­able, stripped-out road­ster ver­sion.

Ah, reader – not so fast. This car, the Type 540 (or Amer­ica Road­ster) ap­peared in 1951. Prov­ing too heavy in steel, Porsche out­sourced pro­duc­tion in alu­minium. It proved spec­tac­u­larly ex­pen­sive (at US$4600 in 1951) and just 17 were pro­duced.

By 1954 – Porsche built only its 5000th car in March of that year – Hoff­man’s US mar­ket alone was ac­count­ing for around 30 per­cent of Porsche pro­duc­tion. (In to­tal, 75 per­cent of an­nual pro­duc­tion was for ex­port mar­kets in­clud­ing, since 1951, Aus­tralia.)

The 356 coupes and cabrios were still ex­pen­sive, how­ever (US$4284 for a Su­per coupe, $4584 for a cabrio), prompt­ing stripped-out Amer­i­can ver­sions of each (US$3445/$3695). How­ever, week­end racer ri­vals like the Tri­umph TR2, Austin-healey 100 and the new Chevro­let Corvette, reignited the road­ster idea – with Hoff­man set­ting the bar at US$3000.

The re­sul­tant 356 Speed­ster made its de­but in Septem­ber 1954, priced at US$2995 (be­fore ‘manda­tory op­tions’). Based on the 356 Cabri­o­let, but with re­vised rear body­work, it fea­tured a cut-down wind­screen, slot-in side cur­tains and a low, ba­sic soft-top that re­duced over­all height by 80mm (to 1220mm), mak­ing head­room a joke.

How­ever, with its 760kg kerb weight, ag­ile han­dling and strong drum brakes, the Speed­ster was quick to make its mark on the US sports car rac­ing scene.

Porsche built 1234 ‘pre-a’ Speed­sters (pic­tured) be­fore the heav­ily re­vised A-se­ries re­placed it in Oc­to­ber 1955. Also re­leased to other mar­kets, the 356A Speed­ster in­tro­duced 45kw 1600 and 56kw 1600 S en­gines, along with sig­nif­i­cant sus­pen­sion and gear­box up­grades and 15-inch wheels.

Iron­i­cally, Amer­i­cans also killed the Speed­ster (with a to­tal of around 4500 built), with de­mand for more com­fort prompt­ing its re­place­ment in Au­gust 1958 by the 356 Con­vert­ible D.

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