When Porsche launched its Cayenne in late 2002, the German manufacturer left journalists puzzled and enthusiasts outraged. It was the last thing expected from the celebrated sports-car company, yet there it was: a heavy off-roader of ambiguous design. What were they thinking?
The answer, simply, was survival.
Sports-car sales had long rode economic highs and lows — and Porsche had fallen victim too many times. By the early 1990s, it faced extinction. Noting that people still purchase “normal” cars, even expensive ones, in hard times, Porsche decided to build a four-door SUV. The resulting Cayenne was both marketed and regarded as a new direction for the manufacturer known for its sports cars, but it wasn’t. Porsche had a rugged off-roader in its history, one that seemed to be deliberately forgotten.
That would be the Porsche 597, just a bit better known as the Jagdwagen, or, in English, the “Hunting car.” Was this forgotten forebear, with its spartan characteristics, just too far removed from the lavish Cayenne concept? Or perhaps the inevitable link that the 597 had with World War II made it a marketing tool the Germans chose to put aside. Nevertheless, it exists.
Like the Touareg-based Cayenne, the 597 is linked to Volkswagen. To uncover its history, you must go back to Porsche’s roots, which are just as firmly attached to VW as its future looks to be. Before World War II, Ferdinand Porsche designed the famous Kübelwagen as Germany’s primary military vehicle. Based on early VW Beetle running gear, it came as an open three-seater, with the fourth seat sacrificed for a machine gun. Although more than 55,000 Kübelwagens were built and used extensively in WWII, their off-road performance was often criticized — not least because they came with conventional rear-wheel drive.
The Kübelwagen was developed into the Schwimmwagen, which added not only the much-wanted four-wheel drive, but amphibious capabilities, too. Another 15,000 of these were built up until 1944. After the war, Germany recovered slowly from the impact of Hitler’s devastating regime and the nation was demilitarized, with any plans for a German army forbidden by Allied regulations.
By 1954, however, Germany was ready to fulfill its NATO obligations and assist in the defense of Western Europe. Modern equipment was needed for the newly created Bundeswehr, or Federal Army, and the German government submitted requests for an all-purpose four-wheel-drive, quarter-ton military vehicle. The car had to be simple, rugged, and reliable. Three manufacturers were asked to come up with proposals: Borgward, Auto Union, and Porsche.