The Earlier Early 911

We get behind the wheel of Porsche 901 chassis #78.

Photo: The Earlier Early 911 1
April 11, 2019

As the first European car show of the year, the Geneva Auto Salon is always special. But 2013 was an extra special year for Porsche as it kicked off the official celebrations of the 911’s 50th Anniversary. Around the same time, famed independent Porsche builder Alois Ruf’s team had completed their full restoration of 901 chassis #037 in perfect time to celebrate the 911’s five-decade milestone. That Bali Blue car was featured in Jürgen Lewandowski’s definitive book: “Porsche 901: The Roots of A Legend”.

The by-now-famous Bali Blue 901 was the proudly displayed centerpiece on Ruf’s Geneva show stand where it attracted the attention of some employees from French carmaker Peugeot.

“At one point I found these two gentlemen sitting in our 901,” recalls Alois Ruf. “We struck up a conversation and had a good laugh over the story of how their company’s protest at the 901 moniker came to be an act that shaped motoring history. It is ironic that one of the most significant sports cars in the world started off with the ‘wrong’ name.”

Porsche unveiled the 901 as its 356 replacement at the 1963 Frankfurt Motor Show, but when the production 901 made its debut at the Paris Auto Salon in October 1964, Peugeot promptly protested its ownership of the rights to any three number designation with a ‘0’ in the middle. The Porsche engineers’ approach was very straightforward because 901 was their project number, and the last thing on their minds would have been the infringement of another car company’s patented naming system.

Photo: The Earlier Early 911 2
Porsche built a run of pre-series cars before customer cars began to roll off the assembly line on September 14th, 1964. By November 16th, the factory had made 82 pre-series cars with ‘901’ stamped on their chassis plates. Porsche’s solution was to change the ‘0’ to a ‘1’, and the rest, as they say, is history. The remaining 150 pre-production cars were badged 911.

The 901 serial numbers began with 3000 and all 232 901/0 pre-series cars were assembled in Zuffenhausen in a building adjacent to the 356 production line. For those not familiar with Porsche nomenclature of the period, 356 and 901 were internal model designations used by the engineers, and before the 911 came along Porsche did not need any distinguishing name because they only made one model. If you were a Porsche owner back then, you said you had a 1500 or a 1600, which referred to the engine capacity, or an A, B, or C model. It was only in 1964 with the debut of Porsche’s second model line that the 356 and 911 tags came into use to distinguish them.

In fact, in the months leading up to the 1963 Frankfurt Show debut of the 901 rumors had started to circulate that a new 2.0-liter six-cylinder Porsche was in the offing. It was no surprise that the previous engine capacity number system led journalists reporting on sightings of the first prototypes to refer to it as the 2000!

These very early cars are known in Germany as the 901/0, “Null Serie” or “Zero Series.” Significantly, unlike today where pre-production cars remain on a manufacturers test fleet for long-term evaluation or are simply crushed, some of these period pre-series cars actually ended up in the hands of customers.

Photo: The Earlier Early 911 3
Even as recently as 2014 the burgeoning classic car market had not really paid all that much attention to the very early short wheelbase 911s. Thus the values of certain 356 models and the 911 Carrera RS 2.7s continued to skyrocket either side of the pure and relatively dainty looking 901 and other very early 911s. However, Alois Ruf saw the merits of these cars.

“I love the pure shape, exquisite detailing, and simplicity of these cars and the fact that they are light and easy to drive,” he says. “Although I was already familiar with the car from my youth my real fascination began during our restoration of the Bali Blue car. I became even more excited as I discovered differences in other 901s built around the same time, and it became clear that the factory had made running changes along the way.”

Ruf has now restored six of the surviving 82 pre-series 901 cars made, which is believed to be more than anyone else. The first was the Bali Blue car (chassis #37), and the latest is the Signal Red example (chassis #78) seen on these pages.

In the Details

The story behind Ruf ’s first 901 restoration is one of pure chance.

“I found #37 by accident when I saw it advertised in Auto Trader magazine during a trip to the U.S. in 1990,” Ruf recounts. “These very early 911s were worth next to nothing back then so I bought the car, shipped it back to Germany, and put it into storage. We did not restore it until 2013.”

Photo: The Earlier Early 911 4
Restoration of #78 began in 2017, and it was completed in the summer of 2018.

“Number 78 is significant because it was the first 901 to arrive in Switzerland through the official importer, and it was used as the 1965 Geneva Show car, which adds to its provenance,” Ruf explains.

This car’s first owner was Claudio Ponti, a racing driver who drove it in several rallies. However, the records are a bit sketchy after that and all we know is that the car was exported to the U.S.

“It was returned to Germany from the East Coast in 2016,” says Ruf. “It had undergone a less-than-perfect restoration in the U.S., and the enlightened new owner who had heard of our expertise with the 901 sent it to us. The work done to the car in the U.S. was not up to scratch, so its owner asked us to go through it with a fine-tooth comb.”

Photo: The Earlier Early 911 5
While the bodywork of all 232 cars was identical, small evolutions took place with some interior details. For instance, Ruf found that the earliest cars followed the 356 in having their A and B-pillars trimmed in the same white perforated vinyl material as the headlining, while later cars used black vinyl instead. And yet the above was not a given, and certainly not a hard and fast rule.

“I was wondering about these changes in relation to the chassis numbers, and when I investigated further I found out that cars emerged from the works with chassis numbers different from their actual build order,” Ruf explains. “This happened because if ‘Mr. A’ applied white material to the A and B-pillars while ‘Mr. B’ preferred the look of black material, they did it that way on these pre-production cars until the final specification was settled by their managers.”

The issue was compounded if a car had a problem and was put aside. If a mechanic did not get around to fixing it for a couple of days or more, later built cars that passed inspection in the meantime would leave the factory first. So the faulty car made earlier would end up with a later chassis number, which accounts for why #78 has white fabric on the A and B-pillars while #37 has black fabric. It was just the way things were done back then.

Another change was to the lever for opening the fuel filler flap, which was initially just a thick wire with a finger loop down on the left under the dashboard in the earliest cars. It graduated to something more akin to a proper lever, while the release catch for the front luggage lid was also redesigned during this short run of cars. The seats were of a similar ‘sofa’ design as on the 356C but were a bit wider because the 901 had a wider, more spacious cabin. Also, the first 232 cars only wore a Porsche crest on the luggage compartment lid and the Porsche name on the engine lid. The 911 badge slanted at a 45-degree angle came along after these 232 pre-series cars and is accompanied by a 911 badge on the glove box lid.

Photo: The Earlier Early 911 6
“The charm of those subtle differences is one of the things that makes these cars so fascinating,” Ruf continues. “Having carried out six 901 restorations we are now familiar with the model’s idiosyncrasies and subtle differences. There were also small changes to the engine valve covers, chain housing covers, and some other castings that we have noted. There is nothing like this on today’s ‘perfect’ Porsche models.”

Providing 130 hp and 129 lb-ft of torque, the 2.0-liter flat-six engine that powered the 1964–65 901/0s was fed by a pair of Solex carburetors that provided a single choke per cylinder. In the old days, plenty of customers didn’t want these Solex carbs, and so they used Webers instead. Today, however, the Solex carbs are more sought after because originality is now king in the restoration world.

For tires, Michelin and Vredestein produce fresh examples of the correct 165HR15 rubber for these cars. Thanks to modern tire construction and rubber compounds these new-old tires provide superior levels of handling and grip compared to the Dunlop SP57 rubber commonly used back in the 1960s.

When it comes to restoration costs and the time involved, every car is different. “We always count on the worst-case scenario when we accept a car as you simply do not know what you will find until you take the whole car apart,” says Ruf. “Some are more tinkered with than others, which means reversing someone else’s butchery before the restoration can begin. Ultimately, if the car is in a bad state, the restoration can take 2,500 to 3,000 man-hours, which makes it a costly business.”

Photo: The Earlier Early 911 7
An excellent example of this is 901 #37, which arrived at Ruf’s shop as a Carrera RS 2.7 look-alike fitted with all kinds of nasty plastic body panels. But this was no surprise since at one time these very early cars had little intrinsic value and could have been bought for $5,000–$10,000 as the donor car for a ‘project.’ That usually meant some young guy would buy a ratty, unloved example and spend another $10,000 or so turning it into a 911 Turbo or RS 2.7 clone.

As you can imagine, finding original parts for the 901 is not easy, or cheap.

“Luckily we have a cache of parts from early cars so we can help owners with restorations,” says Ruf. “The 901 is really coming into its own now, and has become more prominent and sought after. This is a trend I would like to think that we helped start. This model was somewhat below the radar before we restored #37 and placed the earliest 911 series in front of a broader audience.”

In the Driver’s Seat

It was a glorious October morning when I got behind the wheel of #78 at Ruf’s HQ in Pfaffenhausen, Germany. Before that the earliest short wheelbase 911 I had driven was a 1965 car that had been turned into a racer in 1990, the year the type became eligible for the German “Oldtimer Racing” series. The famous Geneva Show car was to be my very first outing in a bog standard 1964 901.

I knew from my experience with other early carburetor fed 911s that the trick to get a clean start is to switch on the ignition, prime the carbs with a couple of stabs on the throttle, and then depress the right pedal halfway while turning the key. When the engine catches, you do a light tap dance on the throttle to keep things alive, and then just maintain a light throttle until the idle stabilizes.

Photo: The Earlier Early 911 8
Once underway you realize that the smaller size and lower weight of this early car means that 130 hp is quite adequate for the handling and brakes. The clutch is moderately light and the gearshift a bit woolly by the standards of later 911s. Once warmed up the engine pulls enthusiastically, delivering quite lively performance. This is not a fast car by modern standards, but its lightness and balance are what makes it such a delight to drive.

Enjoying a classic 911 on fast open roads is not about squeezing every last ounce of speed from the machine. Instead, you want to savor the light and communicative steering engendered by the tall tires and low curb weight and enjoy the crisp response of the carbureted engine. Meanwhile, the soundtrack from behind your head delivers a unique aural symphony that communicates the dialogue of the collective mechanical components. It is authentic and unadulterated compared to the muted and synthesized sounds from today’s cars.

Driving the 1964 Porsche 901 is a visceral and 100 percent analog experience with no ABS, no PSM, or any modern alphabet electronic safety net, so anything adverse that happens is down to you and lady luck. The additional fact that there are no seatbelts further concentrates the mind, encouraging you to give undivided attention to your driving.

Apart from being a pure and engaging driving experience from over half a century ago, the 901 is also a good investment when you consider that just 82 cars were made from the 232 pre-production 911s. Compared to the 1,590 examples of the 911 Carrera RS 2.7 that left the factory in 1973, the 901 is a rare gem. If I had to sum up the 901’s place in motoring history, I would say that it was literally ground zero for the world’s greatest sports car legend.

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  • Market Update: Boxster & Cayman
  • 914-6 GT Safety Car
  • 2019 Cayenne Drive
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  • Porsche Brake Hydraulics
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