Ghosts of Gmünd

We look at the eighth oldest surviving Porsche in the world.

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February 28, 2019

A PATINA TO BE PROUD OF, low-riding and far noisier than is legal, this bare metal Porsche looks as rough as they come. But this coupe has a very good reason for being in such a condition, as it is one of the fabled few original Gmünd 356s, one of the 44 coupes and eight cabriolets made in a tiny workshop in Austria in 1948 and 1949.

This is chassis #020, the eighth oldest surviving Porsche in the world and the most original of all those first cars. But that’s only half the story because this 356 also resides in the same repurposed old sawmill that Ferdinand Porsche and his son Ferry came to after World War II to make their first run of sports cars. I recently went deep into the majestic southern Austrian Alps to meet the curator of the Porsche Automuseum Helmut Pfeifhofer to get the full story of this incredibly special car.

The Birth of the Porsche

In 1945, after years of Allied bombardment, Stuttgart lay in ruins. And because of his role overseeing the production of military vehicles for the ‘regime,’ as modern Germans and Austrians call the Third Reich, Ferdinand Porsche was held by authorities in France for nearly two years. In the meantime, his son, Ferry, keen to continue his father’s carmaking legacy, looked for somewhere to start production of the first real Porsche.

The family had a connection with the small Austrian town of Gmünd. Close to the Katschberg Pass, which, with a 32-degree slope, is one of the steepest roads in Europe and so a perfect vehicle testing ground. Ferdinand often stayed in the town and counted the local mayor as a friend. Keen to encourage any economic development after the end of the hostilities, the mayor offered to set Ferry up with a workshop in a disused sawmill.

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Inside Gmünd when Porsche was just a start-up.

With many of the former engineers and coachwork specialists out of work in the tumultuous years after the war, many leapt at the chance to work with Ferdinand Porsche again. When he was eventually released from custody, without charge, 300 people came to settle in Gmünd. At first, they made a plethora of machines that the local farmers needed such as lawn mowers, winches, water turbines, and tractors—anything to bring money in. But in 1948 they were ready to begin work on Ferry’s new design: a small, lightweight yet practical sports car.

The first job was to send people out around the country to search for scrap metal. After the war, there were dozens of huge scrapyards full of mass-produced Volkswagen-based all-terrain Kübelwagen and amphibious Schwimmwagen military vehicles and damaged VWs to strip for parts and metal. They didn’t just buy bits and pieces but whole tons of scrap.

Unlike the flat floorplan of the VW Beetle or the tube frame of the 356-001 prototype, the chassis of the new car was a steel monocoque design while all the mechanical parts of the early cars came from various recycled VWs. The flat-four engines were heavily modified, though, with reworked heads, new cams and crankshafts fitted as well as a twin carburetor system, all of which helped to increase the 1.1-liter engine’s flat-four power from the VW’s 25 hp up to 40. Standing at just 1,323 lbs, its weight-saving design coupled with the extra power meant it outperformed a Volkswagen in practically every regard.

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A picture from so close to the beginning that you can see 356-001 in the background! 356-020 as it is today.

The mostly aluminum bodies and steel doors and hood were fabricated in the Gmünd workshop. It took the best coach-builder 90 hours to beat out the sheets over a wooden frame into the 356’s familiar curves. One of them used the actual hammer displayed next to a 356 in Helmut Pfeifhofer’s museum.

All the cars that came out of the workshop and down the steep cobbled ramp were sold, and in 1949, once the war repatriations had been sorted out, the father and son company was allowed to move back to Stuttgart, where they’ve been ever since. The rest, as they say, is history.

In Gmünd, the family of cooks that used to cater for the workforce moved to live in the old office and took the wooden panel-beating frames to use as firewood. And the little backwater town has remained pretty much the same ever since. Porsche’s short but significant stay has not been forgotten though, and a visit to the Porsche Automuseum Helmut Pfeifhofer in this small mountain town should be included on the to-do list of every Porsche enthusiast.

From Factory to Museum

As a boy, Helmut Pfeifhofer went to school in Gmünd with the children of the Porsche workers and one day rode his bike to the Porsche workshop where he peered around the thick wooden door. Inside, he saw the line of the first 356s being put together, which looked like spaceships compared to the unexciting pre-war cars on the road. At that time there were only four cars in the whole town! From that day on he was smitten with Porsches.

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It wasn’t until nearly 20 years later that he could afford his first one though, a 356 Cabriolet. But in his job as an antiques dealer, whenever he came across something related to Porsche, he would buy it. Over time, he began to amass an extensive personal collection of paraphernalia and memorabilia. Cars as well. His fleet of 356s grew to be complemented by a 550 Spyder and several newer F-bodied 911s. But, of course, it was always one of the Gmünd 356s he really wanted.

Three of the 44 were sold in Austria. Two of those were modified over the years with different bumpers and lights to make them look a bit more modern, but there was one, sold new to a Dr. Schindler, that was still just as it had left the factory. It had had a few owners over the years, with the fourth keeping it for nearly two decades, although before he sold it, it was stored in a barn as a non-runner.

Pfeifhofer bought it in 1976, and it instantly became his favorite of the 30 or so Porsches he had collected by then. When he saw the cars in production in 1948, they were all bare aluminum with the slightly darker steel doors and hoods. After he’d stripped the paint off 356-020, that’s how it stayed, looking—from a slight distance at least—just as it did on the fateful day he first looked into the workshop. And then he bought that too!

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Aluminum and steel body panels.

The production portion of the building had been empty since Porsche moved out, but Pfeifhofer felt it was too historically significant to be left to go to waste, so he put his own money into fixing the roof and re-fitting the windows to keep it weather tight. In the mid-1980s, his wife suggested that his personal collection was so big and important that he ought to open a museum…and there was a certain building that would be the perfect location. The mayor of Gmünd also thought it would be a great idea, so he sold the workshop to Pfeifhofer and just like that the Porsche Automuseum Helmut Pfeifhofer was born.

Now with 70 important and rare examples, as well as ones on loan from Stuttgart, over 80,000 people a year come to see a sublime Carerra GT parked next to a tractor, the wooden 550 Spyder panel beating frame, and the hand-painted Martini livery on the 935 2.0 ‘Baby’ DRM car. But it’s chassis number 020 that has pride of place. Against the back wall it’s a car you walk up to, but the only one you can’t walk past. Not many people get to step over the rope to see this early 356 up close but thanks to Helmut’s son, Christoph, who has taken over the day-to-day running of the museum, I was given exclusive access.

When Pfeifhofer bought the car in the 1970s, it was already 30 years old, and corrosion had begun to set into its steel panels. It had been pretty well used, too. Today, the single front seat looks a bit like a mattress found on the side of the road, the dashboard has had most of its paint scraped off, and the missing clock (sent for restoration) has left a fair-sized hole in the dash, all of which help to inadvertently create a rat-rod aesthetic. But sitting in the passenger seat, taking a close look at all the old-fashioned dials and switches, it struck me that they were all installed in the same place that the car is now sitting.

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The interior is worn but original.

Alone in the room, I could almost sense the ghosts of Porsche’s people as they made this reverential old lady, thinking at the time she was one of the most advanced cars in the world but surely never imagining they were working for a carmaker that would one day be known the world over.

Number 020 was last driven in the early 1970s, but last year Christoph decided to get it roadworthy again, and because of the car’s relative simplicity (and the fact that it is basically a VW Beetle underneath), it actually wasn’t such a complicated job.

The engine pistons were slightly worn with the 63,500 kilometers (39,457 miles) they’d done, the same with the valves, so they were replaced. The spark plugs, gaskets, fan belt, and brake shoes were all renewed, as in any full service, but that’s all that needed changing. Obviously for a car like this originality is vitally important, so even though many parts are well aged, if they were not dangerously worn, they were left alone. For the sake of preservation, all the original parts taken off were kept and stored.

Interacting with History

All of the earliest press photos of Ferdinand and Ferry with 356s were taken in and around Gmünd, and Christoph had the great idea of taking the car to those same places to make a recreation shoot. It was a clear day, which was fortunate, as Christoph was adamant we wouldn’t be leaving the workshop if there was even the slightest risk of rain. A bare-metal Porsche with such fantastic history wouldn’t be getting wet.

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Bare metal, just as it looked when it was being assembled.

Turning the tiny key in the center of the dashboard, the whole shop reverberated with the wonderfully rasping exhaust note, just as it would have 70 years ago, filling the room with a heady miasma of fumes. There’s a fairly steep and cobbled ramp out of the front door and with various aged components creating a cacophony of squeaking and creaking we bumped down, the springs of the seat softening the ride far more than the suspension. On the road, though, we were quickly into second gear…quickly being relative, of course.

As we gathered a slightly worrying amount of speed, Christoph smiled and said that how despite being old and made with war-era VW parts, #020 is still faster and more agile than his 1950 356 Cabrio, as the Gmünd car’s mostly aluminum body is significantly lighter than the later Reutter-crafted steel versions. “It’s bolted onto a steel frame so that you have the rigidity of steel combined with the lightweight aluminum,” he explained.

With postcard-size printouts of the old photos, we found the places the shots were taken, which was pretty easy as the town is small and hasn’t really changed in the intervening 70 years. But as we talked of getting Helmut and Christoff to stand in the same places as Ferdinand and Ferry did nearly three-quarters of a century ago, we realized that Ferdinand never got to see what he began. He passed away in January of 1951, so he didn’t get to see his cars win its class at that year’s running of Le Mans, or that the planned 1,500 units of 356s turned into a production run of approximately 78,000.

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A 40-hp 1.1-liter flat four.

This early 356 is absolutely unlike any Porsche I’ve ever had the pleasure to drive. With the massive steering wheel for the humorlessly vague steering, power that runs out at the slightest suggestion of a slope, and the definitively Beetle-sounding 1.1-liter engine behind us, it feels more like a soapbox racer than a Porsche. But knowing that this is where it all began—that #020’s DNA runs all the way through the various iterations of the 911s to the upcoming all-electric Taycan—and that the whole factory and museum complex celebrate the success of this car and its 43 brethren, make it very, very special indeed.

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Original ’40s-era gauges.

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Also from Issue 263

  • First Drive: 992 Carrera S & 4S
  • 1997 911 GT1 Strassenversion Drive
  • Market Update: 911 Turbos
  • 718 Boxster at Rouen
  • 1972 911T Gentleman’s Hot Rod
  • Facelifted 2019 Macan
  • Styling the 924 for VW & Porsche
  • Interview: Earl Bamber
  • Porsche Tire Technology
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