Two years earlier, in 1952, Ferdinand Porsche had died and his son Ferry had taken over the company. Ferry’s sporty 356 became a hit and, by 1954, could be had with no less then ten engine variants, ranging from a 40-horse-strong 1100-cc flat four up to a 70-bhp 1500. Armed with his father’s military experience, Ferry combined elements of both the Kübelwagen and Schwimmwagen for the 597’s design.
The body was designed by Erwin Komenda, who had helped Ferdinand Porsche with his earlier military vehicles. Two prototypes were built without the stamped outer body parts that later production 597s would use to add rigidity. Like the military Volkswagens, the Porsche 597 was a clever car. It had a steel monocoque shell with high sills and no doors, meaning passengers had to climb over them to enter the car. This tub-like body design had advantages, too, as the car could be used in the water.
The first four 597s were fully amphibious, and came with a folding propeller like the Schwimmwagen. Canoe paddles were an option. Even so, it was soon decided the 597 did not need to be amphibious, as it was good enough to ford deep waters and climb steep angles. And, with a slightly redesigned front end and a short wheelbase of only 81.1 inches, the 597 certainly had the ability to do the latter: It could climb grades of up to 65 percent.
It proved to be good in sand, too. An extremely rare factory 597 handbook compares the ground pressure of the Porsche’s tires to a camel’s feet, only to conclude that the Porsche driver is much better off, even when fully packed with four men and their gear! Lights, radios, and other military equipment were powered by two 12-volt batteries that came with standard jump-start connectors, all to comply with NATO standards. Interestingly, these cars were built in the special works race department, alongside the fastest mid-fifties Porsches, like the 356 GT and 550 Spyder.
The example we’ll drive this day is one of a reported 22 Porsche 597s that were built for Bundeswehr testing. Owner Oliver Schmidt bought it after he was offered two 597s for his Hamburg-based collection about five years ago. One was a restoration project, the other this unmodified time capsule. He says that no more than 15 examples of Porsche’s 597 are thought to have survived, which would make the 597 rarer than the far more sought-after 550 Spyder.
Schmidt says the 597 is an easy car to drive. And, once I sit down on its plain driver’s seat and release the clutch, I find that he’s right. Actually, it’s a lot like driving a Beetle. The 597 certainly doesn’t offer the performance you might expect from a Porsche, even though its motivation comes from a slightly detuned Porsche flat four. Christened 1500 Normal when used in Porsches, this air-cooled engine was often called “Damen” (German for “Lady”) by its fans. With plain bearings, low-compression pistons, and a single Solex carburetor, it’s good for 50 hp. Naturally, it is situated out back, and you can feel it. When you floor the throttle, it feels like the rear axle hinges forward, only to slowly bounce back when you release the pedal again.