The first Speed­ster

The 991 con­cept is Porsche’s fourth gen­er­a­tion of 911 Speed­ster. We take a look at the first it­er­a­tion, which cel­e­brates its 30th birth­day next year

Total 911 - - Contents - Writ­ten by Kieron fen­nelly

Never mind the 991 con­cept, Porsche’s 911 Speed­ster idea be­gan with the 3.2 Car­rera

Porsche rarely misses an op­por­tu­nity to pro­duce an an­niver­sary model, but it is sig­nif­i­cant that the 991 Speed­ster Con­cept cel­e­brates 70 years of the sports car rather than 30 years since the best known 911 Speed­ster, the im­pact-bumper 3.2. In fact, there was a 356 Speed­ster built from 1954 for the US; a spe­cific cut-down and de­nuded barchetta sold for own­ers who wanted a com­pet­i­tive week­end racer. Not of­fered in Europe, the Speed­ster was the choice of the think­ing Amer­i­can club racer who might oth­er­wise have bought a Corvette, an Austin Healey or a Tri­umph TR2. The Speed­ster’s re­place­ment was ef­fec­tively the 1955 550/1500 RS Spy­der as Porsche’s com­pe­ti­tion-build mod­els switched to mid-en­gine.

When the 911 was launched, its sub­se­quent race-ori­ented ver­sions – the S with its var­i­ous Sport­paketed up­grades or the race-en­gined R – were all based on the Coupe, as there was no open ver­sion of the 911. A some­what half-hearted at­tempt to make a 911 con­vert­ible to re­place the 356 Cabrio had been aban­doned, with prob­lems of struc­tural rigid­ity gone un­re­solved. Af­ter the ruckus stirred up by Ralph Nader, fu­ture US leg­is­la­tion seemed likely to out­law open cars. In the cir­cum­stances Porsche’s Targa model, con­ceived quickly in 1965, ap­peared to fill the gap in the mar­ket for an open sports car.

Ten years later Porsche knew how to make an open 911 suf­fi­ciently rigid: work on a pos­si­ble Cabrio 924 had shown that a com­bi­na­tion of the trans­mis­sion tun­nel and stronger pas­sen­ger bulk­head largely over­came struc­tural con­cerns. How­ever, this was at a time when un­der CEO Ernst Fuhrmann, devel­op­ment of the 911 had been halted in favour of the transaxle 924 and 928. Board mem­ber for en­gi­neer­ing Hel­muth Bott, an open car devo­tee, was frus­trated at this, as there was now no tech­ni­cal rea­son not to rein­tro­duce a con­vert­ible, and as far as Porsche sales per­son­nel were con­cerned there was plenty of de­mand to jus­tify the model. Fuhrmann how­ever was in­creas­ingly de­ter­mined to make his legacy at Porsche the 928, and would not hear

of it. Worse, feel­ing more and more iso­lated by his uni­ver­sally dis­liked stance on the 911, he is said to have threat­ened Bott with dis­missal if the chief en­gi­neer per­sisted in a pet project of a sim­pli­fied con­vert­ible 911, a lat­ter day Speed­ster. Al­ways loyal, Bott du­ti­fully rolled the par­tially com­pleted pro­to­type out of his work­shop in Weis­sach and into a dis­creet lock-up at the back.

Then Porsche un­der­went one of those sea changes, which seem to oc­cur at ten-year in­ter­vals dur­ing its his­tory. Fuhrmann left Porsche, and his re­place­ment Peter Schutz, a Ber­lin-born US cit­i­zen, was the prover­bial new broom. An en­gi­neer with a sales back­ground, Schutz was quick to re­alise that the 911, that very sym­bol of Porsche, was also the only car of Zuf­fen­hausen’s three-model range which in fact made any profit. One of his first acts was to restart the 911 devel­op­ment pro­gramme. This en­abled Weis­sach to pro­ceed with the up­grade of the SC to the next 911 and to dis­in­ter plans for a con­vert­ible ver­sion, a hole in the line-up that Schutz, with his knowl­edge of the Amer­i­can con­sumer, could not com­pre­hend. When he saw Bott’s ten­ta­tive Speed­ster, he gave his sec­ond in command en­thu­si­as­tic per­mis­sion to de­velop that too.

The early 1980s were a time of in­tense ac­tiv­ity at Porsche: Fer­di­nand Piëch’s Audi Qu­at­tros had excited ev­ery­body, and both Ferry and Bott thought at least some of the fu­ture lay in four-wheel drive. The en­gi­neer­ing pri­or­ity be­came what would be­come known as the 959, the Porsche 4x4 turbo su­per­car. A joint ven­ture with Mclaren to sup­ply the Wok­ing firm with For­mula 1 engines would oc­cupy Hans Mezger’ group, and a re­turn to sports car rac­ing (also stopped un­der Fuhrmann) took fur­ther en­gi­neer­ing re­sources. The re­main­ing bud­get for the 911 was ab­sorbed first by the Cabrio and devel­op­ment of the 3.2. Nev­er­the­less, with Schutz’s typ­i­cally en­thu­si­as­tic sup­port, which ex­tended to au­tho­ris­ing a pro­duc­tion run of 200 cars, the ‘Bott Speed­ster’ as it had be­come known, started to take shape.

The idea was to re­peat as far as pos­si­ble the 1954 barchetta, which apart from its rac­ing wind­screen was no higher than the tops of its doors. The design stu­dio pro­duced a styling model, and in early 1983 a group un­der 911 pro­gramme man­ager Friedrich Bezner set to work to repli­cate the orig­i­nal. Of course there were no sport­ing pre­ten­sions for this new Speed­ster, which was based up to the waist­line on the stock Car­rera. What made it spe­cial was the wraparound wind­screen, no more than five-inches high, and its top cov­ered by a vast glass-fi­bre cover with an aper­ture for the driver. There were nei­ther screen wipers nor any weather pro­tec­tion, but be­fore th­ese mun­dane prac­ti­cal­i­ties could be ad­dressed the project was again shelved as more press­ing mat­ters ab­sorbed its devel­op­ment en­gi­neers.

How­ever, three years on and with the 25th an­niver­sary of the 911 on the hori­zon, Weis­sach once again dusted off the Speed­ster and pre­sented it at the Frankfurt IAA in 1987. This Speed­ster was a typ­i­cal con­cept car, in­tended to por­tray a ‘Club­sport’ ver­sion of an open 911. Like the orig­i­nal 1983 pro­to­type it had the low wind­screen and glass-fi­bre cover, and this time be­hind the driver’s seat was a slightly os­ten­ta­tious roll bar. This was as ex­otic a

911 as the pub­lic had seen for years, and partly on the strength of its pos­i­tive re­cep­tion Porsche de­cided to launch the model as a de­riv­a­tive of the cur­rent Car­rera 3.2 rather than wait for the new Type 964 as had been its orig­i­nal in­ten­tion. In any case, en­gine devel­op­ment dif­fi­cul­ties meant that the 964 launch was de­layed by over a year; it made sense to mar­ket a pro­duc­tion Speed­ster while the con­cept was still rel­a­tively fresh, even if it en­tailed us­ing the ex­ist­ing 911.

Michel Thiriar, who has writ­ten ex­ten­sively about Porsche Speed­sters, says the pro­duc­tion car, avail­able from Septem­ber 1988, was pro­duced from Cabrio bodyshells which were mod­i­fied by crafts­men in the old Reut­ter body shop at the back of Werk 2.

Nat­u­rally, the Speed­ster dif­fered from the con­cept in that to ob­tain type ap­proval it had to have wind­screen wipers. No longer a ves­ti­gial wind de­flec­tor, the Speed­ster had a proper wind­screen, though it was vis­i­bly more steeply raked and a good three-inches lower than the 911 Cabrio’s. Gone too was the all-over glass-fi­bre cover, re­placed by a neat body-coloured item, slightly hooped to mimic aero­dy­namic shapes of old which masked the space where the Cabrio’s rear seats would have been. This hinged up to re­veal a man­u­ally erected hood which Porsche was at pains to em­pha­sise was not wa­ter­proof. Said to be a strug­gle to as­sem­ble, most Speed­ster hoods were des­tined to stay folded away. As its maker sug­gested, this would be a dis­tinctly fair-weather Porsche.

In other re­spects it was all stock 911: the wheels were seven- and eight-inch Fuchs, the en­gine the same 231bhp ROW or 217bhp Us/ja­pan 3.2 and gear­box and sus­pen­sion stan­dard. Elec­tric ad­just­ment for the seats in­cluded height ad­just­ment, and the head­light wash­ers were fit­ted. To add to the Speed­ster’s ap­peal stan­dard pro­duc­tion was with the Turbo bodyshell, though about 160 nar­row-body cars were made for spe­cific cus­tomer or­ders.

Even today the 3.2 Speed­ster is a strik­ing 911; 30 years ago it was de­cid­edly racy look­ing, but over two years only 2,100 were built be­fore the 3.2 range was with­drawn. This was partly to do with avail­abil­ity of Cabrio shells, but also with de­mand, which ul­ti­mately tailed off af­ter an en­thu­si­as­tic re­cep­tion. The Speed­ster would have stood more of a chance at the be­gin­ning of the decade when its shape and the air-cooled 911 it­self were newer de­signs and the grow­ing strength of the dol­lar as­sured a ready mar­ket in Amer­ica, even if a Speed­ster would in­evitably have du­pli­cated the Targa and newly launched 911 Cabrio.

By 1988 the dol­lar was in free fall, as were much of Porsche’s vi­tal US sales. A North Amer­i­can list price of al­most $66,000 was some­what the­o­ret­i­cal said Mo­tor Trend, whose ap­pro­pri­ately named cor­re­spon­dent Jeff Karr got his hands on a Speed­ster in Oc­to­ber 1989. He re­marked that most pun­ters were having to pay over $80,000 by the time leather seats, a limited-slip dif­fer­en­tial and var­i­ous dealer pre­mi­ums had been added; a 3.3 Turbo Targa could be had for less. This was the para­dox of a 911 whose hood “ripped your fin­ger­nails off” and let in floods of wa­ter if not re­stricted to strictly blue-sky weather, an ex­pen­sive toy likely to oc­cupy the third stall in your garage. Yet, Karr re­marked, as you drove off you were likely to cap­ture more at­ten­tion than any­thing else on the roads of the time.

The para­dox continued: the orig­i­nal 1954 Speed­ster was cut down and light­ened for com­pe­ti­tion and sold more cheaply. The wide­body

3.2 Speed­ster not only cost more, but weighed more than its Car­rera equiv­a­lent. On the other hand, on

Mo­tor Trend’s skid­pad it achieved a higher lat­eral ‘g’ than the newly in­tro­duced 964 Car­rera 4. On the open road it lacked the power steer­ing and slick short-shift gearchange of the later model, yet its throt­tle re­sponse, han­dling and above all sound­track were ad­dic­tive, un­til you tried to go above 70mph, by which time the buf­fet­ing was deaf­en­ing. A man who owned sev­eral over the years, Michel Thiriar com­ments on the “in­co­her­ence of the Speed­ster,” yet road testers were, like Karr, mostly gen­er­ous in their praise. Hel­muth Bott once said that the ba­sic con­cept of the 911 “is so in­ter­est­ing that some­thing will al­ways oc­cur to us to keep it at­trac­tive”. The sub­se­quently as­sured clas­sic sta­tus of the com­pletely im­prac­ti­cal 3.2 Speed­ster un­der­lines how right he was. Thanks The 3.2 Speed­ster in our pic­tures is for sale at Porsche Cen­tre Gelder­land. For more in­for­ma­tion visit porsche­cen­trumgelder­land.nl or call +31 (0) 26 356 0 911

“The pro­duc­tion car was pro­duced from Cabrio bodyshells mod­i­fied by Werk 2”

Pho­tog­ra­phy by rich pearce

ABOVE Left Fab­ric roof is stored un­der fi­bre­glass cover; first 911 Speed­ster came with G50 gear­box

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