BOXSTER TO GMÜND
We drive back to Porsche’s beginnings 70-years on
Every date, every day, every year is significant to someone or something and no more so than birthdays or anniversaries. They are how we mark the passage of time. A chance to reflect and look back during the march forward. And so it is for Porsche this year. You can't have escaped the Porsche at 70 party, but more than that, there is a specific day and month that has been designated as Porsche's genesis moment: June 8, 1948. The date is significant because this is the very day that the first Porsche was road registered in the Austrian town of Gmünd and, as a magazine that's dedicated to all things Porsche, we knew that on June 8, 2018, Gmünd was where we needed to be.
Of course we now associate Porsche with Stuttgart and Stuttgart is where Professor Ferdinand Porsche based his design consultancy before and during WW2, and afterwards from 1949. Gmünd was a blip, but a hugely important one in the history of our favourite marque. It's where Porsche relocated as Stuttgart became ever more targeted by the Allies, and the German war ministry decided that Porsche and its employees needed to be out of harm’s way, to continue serving the war effort. Czechoslavakia had been mooted, but Porsche chose the remote Alpine village of Gmünd, which was not far from the family's country retreat at Zel am See in southern Austria. So, in the Autumn of 1944, 200 skilled designers and engineers found themselves toiling in a converted wooden sawmill and waiting for the inevitable Allied victory, one that Professor Porsche, and son Ferry, had seen coming for some time.
When the victors came it was the Americans that made it to Gmünd first, although most of the Allies were in and out and all were interested in making the most of plundering Porsche's war time contribution and engineering knowledge. These were, of course, more than difficult times, not helped by Porsche father and son being commanded to go to France to help Renault produce its own 'people’s car' and then being imprisoned on flimsy charges in poor conditions, which did little for Professor Porsche's ailing health or his enthusiasm for Renault's project. Meanwhile in Gmünd the Porsche workforce turned its hand to anything that would earn a living. Fixing up abandoned Kubelwagens being an obvious revenue stream...
” Both Ferdinand and Ferry made it back to Gmünd in 1946 and set about designing and building whatever they could, that would be useful in their largely rural environment: tractors, water and wind turbines, logging equipment, but of course cars were never far from their mind and a sports car built from VW components had been a long held ambition. Porsche was
A sports car built from VW components had long been an ambition
lucky, then, that the British REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) had near miraculously managed to get the Volkswagen factory up and running and, in 1946, built a staggering 10,000 cars. A parts source was therefore guaranteed and work began on project number 356 in “the summer of 1947. Once again the synergy between Porsche and VW, which started with Porsche's design for Hitler's 'people's car' vision in the 1930s and continues to this day, with Porsche under VW ownership, was to prove more than an asset and without VW'S early return to production, the moment could have been lost.
Porsche started working on the lightweight, aluminium, space-framed roadster in summer 1947. The VW engine and transaxle layout was turned around to create one of the world's fist mid-engined designs and the smooth, if slightly bland, bodywork was all enveloping and aerodynamically efficient. With no means to mass produce bodyshells, the aluminium body was hand shaped and formed on a wooden buck, as would be the subsequent production 356 coupes, that would roll out of Gmünd.
But enough of the history lesson right now, because you join us en route to Gmünd in 2018 in what must surely be the closest modern relative to Porsche 356/001: A Boxster 718 complete with its 2-litre flatfour engine, albeit turbocharged, rather than naturally aspirated. If time travel were possible, then this is a car that Professor Ferdinand Porsche would surely recognise as a direct descendant, right down to its ‘push me, pull me’ looks and front and rear luggage capability. Indeed, he might just wonder why 70-years of progress hasn't delivered something rather more radical. Indeed, we had considered making the journey in a Porsche hybrid of some description, but you sense that even that would have been sniffed at, given that the Prof was messing around with hybrid and all-electric cars before the turn of the 20th century. The Mission E (now named Taycan), might have impressed, but would
With a parts source guaranteed work began on project number 356
have struggled with our near 800-mile journey (having said that, Porsche is claiming an 80% charge in just 15 mins). Maybe for Porsche's 80th birthday we will return sans fossil fuel.
For now, though, we're glad of the instant “energy source and the good old internal combustion engine. It makes light work of tackling multiple countries, giving a range of 300+ miles per tank, which you wonder if all-electric power will ever match, despite what manufacturers might claim. And this is my first time in a four-cylinder turbo flat-four of the Boxster/cayman variety and I have to say that I'm quite taken with it. Some of my esteemed colleagues have likened it to sounding rather like a generator – one that develops vibrations, but not of the good variety. For what it's worth, while it doesn't have the smoothness and soundtrack of the flat-six, there is an offbeat throb to its power delivery that's still charismatic compared to an inline four and a corresponding offbeat exhaust pulse, that is in no way offensive and sounds quite gruff. And, let’s not forget the important bit here: it's still a boxer engine, with all the low centre of gravity handling benefits that come with it. 'Nuff said.
One thing it certainly isn't lacking is power. Force feeding air via a turbo might be something of a blunt instrument, but it's a great way of getting 300bhp from 2-litres. Let's not forget the original 2.5-litre Boxster flat-six made little more than 200bhp and the most recent 2.7-litre, flat-six Boxster and Caymans had a peaky 275bhp, that struggled to cope with the tall gearing demanded by eco and emissions demands. With a full turbo torque curve, such gearing issues are simply bludgeoned aside. Not very purist, maybe, but very effective.
Power is also what you need on the German Autobahn, particularly if you find yourself on the derestricted sections between Ingolstadt and Munich at kicking out time, where the weapon of choice is an estate from either Audi, Mercedes or
Let’s not forget the important bit here: it’s still a boxer engine
Vw/skoda, painted a stealthy black/dark grey and travelling absolutely flat-out at between 130–140mph. Convoys of three or four at a time come blasting past, and while we've got the firepower to join in, we're lacking the concentration required to maintain such velocity. You've got to love the speed-crazed free for all, though, or 'Freie Fahrt für frei Bürger' as they say in Germany! Translation? 'Free driving for free citizens.'
Gmünd is a long way, make no mistake. Tucked away in a stunning valley in the southern Austrian province of Corinthea, it’s a stone's throw from Slovenia and accessed now by the A10 super highway, with Salzburg 130kms to the north. It's an 11+ hour slog for us and the Boxster and when we arrive it's nearly dark and our hotel owner has to beg a nearby bar/bistro to keep the kitchen open for a toasted sandwich. Fortunately the beer is a little more forthcoming and we've certainly earned a couple of tall ones.
So here we are in Gmünd, where it all happened, or the day before it all happened. Well, kind of. Fact is, Porsche 001 would have seen action on the surrounding roads and the Grossglockner Pass from late 1947 onwards, but the fact that it was road registered on June 8th is the symbolic line in the sand that lends itself to a definitive date. It's certainly where history was made, something that hasn't been lost on Gmünd as a town, with its long established, privately owned Porsche museum and Porsche Park. Even the original design office still exists. The following day would doubtless see the Porsche faithful descend on Gmünd to pay homage and to mark the occasion? Indeed, there was already an uber early, split
The following day would doubtless see the Porsche faithful descend
windscreen 356 Coupe at our hotel. Could it even be a Gmünd car? In the dark it was impossible to tell.
It's quiet, too quiet. Gmünd is bathed in early morning light, as the sun climbs slowly above the surrounding mountains. We breakfast outside in the pure alpine air and strain for the sounds of flat-fours and sixes, but get assaulted only by the high-pitched parping of a couple of local teenagers on mopeds. The 356 has gone. This can't be right, have we even got the right date, we ponder? The museum opens at 10am, that will be the place to head. Best get there a bit early to ensure a prime photographic hot spot, so there's just time to wash the Boxster and get it looking its best for this day of days, its own birthday of sorts.
Ok, ok, you can see where this is going can't you. I could spin the tension out for another couple of paragraphs, but really what's the point. The fact is we've driven all this way for a birthday party that clearly isn't going to happen. We are the only party people in town. What's going on, apart from clearly not a lot? Well, we know that Porsche is officially having something of a bash at the Porsche Museum, where the great and the good will be, but while that's all very nice, and had we talked to the right people we probably could have been there, it's rather missing the point. Porsche 001, wasn't designed in Stuttgart, it wasn't built in Stuttgart. It was designed and built right here. No, we're clearly in the right place. It's everyone else that's got it wrong. Sure, Gmünd's historic cobbled town square would have looked great with Porsches of all sorts parked up, and we could have got ourselves a few vox pops to add to the story, but actually, we've got the place to ourselves and that will do nicely, thank you.
We’ve driven all this way for a birthday party that isn’t going to happen
And besides, Gmünd hasn't forgotten. It celebrates every day thanks to Helmut Pfeifhofer, who remembers Porsche chassis 001 zooming around the locale and whose family even helped Porsche move its industrial equipment into the wooden sheds that would become home in 1944. He never strayed from Gmünd (why would you, it’s simply stunning) and opened his eponymous private museum as a tribute to Porsche in 1982.
Helmut is in residence, too, and while his English is as patchy as our German, he seems pleased to see us and gives us the run of the place. The two-storey barn building museum is the antithesis of the Stuttgart edifice, but it contains some crucial historical artefacts from Porsche's Gmünd period, from mundane water turbine generator to a Gmünd built 356 Coupe, with its unpainted, hand formed aluminium body as bare as the day it was created, and beside it a curvaceous structural ash body buck. Most of the exhibits are contained in the upper timber beamed gallery, access to which from the outside is via a ramp. Some of the exhibits are on loan from the Porsche Museum, including one of our all time favourites, a 924 Carrera GTS, plus a Carrera GT, which revives memories of a spine tingling V10 adventure, tempered by recollections of its frankly moody clutch.
We request a photo opportunity outside the remaining original Porsche building from the wartime occupation, which Helmut owns and has restored, and lies just a mile down the road. The timber building was Professor Porsche's design office and bears the legend: Porsche Konstrukionen Ges.m.b.h, Werk Gmünd. It is again a reminder that we're in the right place, even if the giant timber sheds in which the cars were built
Gmünd hasn’t forgotten. It celebrates every day
are long gone. Again, it's hard not to feel that Porsche has missed a trick on this day of days. Why is Porsche 356/1 not here on the roads that it pounded and tested on? Ah, but imagine the media bunfight? “
In the town and just off the main square/strasse, lies the Porsche Park, a tranquil tribute to the Professor, where a bronze bust of the great man resides. Gmünd itself has clearly not changed one bit and adheres to the Austrian stereotype of alpine beauty and charm mixed with the sort of obsessive tidy and clean thing, that we Brits will never get or aspire to. So pleasant is it that we decide to have a spot of lunch in the middle of town and imagine Porsche's engineers doing much the same 70-years ago, perhaps taking a break from testing, or perhaps grabbing a quick bite before heading for the more challenging terrain that is the Grossglockner Pass, which is exactly where we're going next.
The Grossglockner High Alpine Road – to give it its full title – is a toll road and at first the 36 Euros demanded to proceed seems a little steep, but after an exhilarating afternoon of driving and snapping, it's an utter bargain. Split into roughly two panoramic routes, peaking at 2571 metres above sea level in the shadow of the Grossglockner itself, which at 3798 metres is Austria's highest mountain. Between the end of the road and the mountain's peak is the Pasterze glacier. So high into the thinning air are we, the sky turns a deeper shade of blue.
Needless to say the Boxster scythes through the terrain of manic ess-bends with mesmerising speed and brutal efficiency, thanks to grip, electronically enhanced suspension and turbo punch. Even so, at this altitude there is a slight pause as the engine gets on it from low revs out of the tightest, uphill corners. You wonder, then, what 356/1 must have been like, with just
So high into the thinning air are we, the sky turns a deeper blue
35bhp at 4000rpm from its 1131cc flat-four, and presumably even less than that at this sort of altitude. Sure, its 585kg kerb weight would have helped, but one thing is for sure, 70-years on and 356/1 would dissolve in the wake of the modern Boxster, hardly surprising given that it has roughly 10-times as much power.
But it's not all about power, though. With its centrally located, flat-four engine, low centre of gravity, weight and relatively sophisticated suspension, 356/1 boasted handling that was way beyond anything else that was available in 1948. Something that wasn't lost on those pioneering motoring journalists of the day, that were lucky enough to be in the right place to get behind the wheel, which included Britain's The Motor, whose European correspondent, Max Troesch, who reported on the roadster’s “really remarkable road holding, combined with a pleasant softness of springing and very light, accurate steering...” Wonder what Max would have made of 356/1's Boxster descendent? He certainly couldn't fail to spot, or appreciate, the tangible Porsche DNA.
Unlike in Gmünd, there's no shortage of other Porschephiles enjoying the Grossglockner Pass today. Whether they realise the significance of the date, or the terrain, is anyone's guess, but the suspicion is that they're just here to enjoy the drive. And why not? Us? Well, it's been something of a pilgrimage, a calling even, to mark a moment in time, that itself was borne out of extraordinary circumstances and has led to some extraordinary cars. Happy 70th, Porsche. PW
70-years on and the 356/1 would dissolve in the wake of the Boxster
Left: Hard to know why Bennett deserves such a big pic of his bespectacled mug, but he can confirm that the Boxster driving experience is pure Porsche, even with a couple of cylinders missing
Outside Helmut Pfeifhofer’s Porsche Museum in Gmünd. It’s well worth a visit
Thanks to Helmut Pfeifhofner, Porsche’s original design office is still standing in Gmünd offering a tangible connection with Porsche’s Gmünd tenure
As it was in 1944 (below) and latterly as Porsche’s own facility, post war (left) from 1946 to 1949, when Porsche moved back to Stuttgart
Boxster poses in front of the distinctive arched entrance to Gmünd’s centre
Below left: MD of Gmünd Werks, Otto Huslein, at the wheel of 356/1. Same place, but 70-years in the past
Above: Museum has original wooden buck, plus an example of a Gmünd built aluminium bodied 356
Bennett in Gmünd’s attractive centre. He’s clearly confused, wondering where everyone else is on this significant date
The museum also features exhibits on loan from Porsche’s Stuttgart museum
Gmünd-built 356s testing on the Grossglockner Pass
Above left: A simple bust of Professor Ferdinand Porsche in Gmünd’s peaceful Porsche Park. Above: 356s under construction in Gmünd factory/wood shed
Reach for the sky. At 2571 metres above sea level, the Grossglockner Pass certainly gets you a lot closer
The Boxster is dwarfed by the terrain and even its turbo engine feels a little out of puff at such altitude
Boxster on the road up to the Eidelweiss Spritze. Note glacier in the background