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Porsche gets ready for a huge birthday Porsche bach

Updated: Aug 18, 2022

Complements of AutoTrader

By Stuart Johnston

In a few weeks’ time, Porsche will be celebrating its 70th anniversary around the world, and South Africa will be making a significant blip on the global Porsche landscape on June 9, 2018. Kyalami is going to be the scene of a major celebration with over 1 500 Porsches and their fanatical owners expected to make the birthday bash memorable.

It helps, of course, that Porsche South Africa doesn’t have to hire this international-level race track, as the company here happens to own the race track as well!

Ferdinand Porsche built a hybrid in 1901!

The Porsche story is an amazing one, and although the Porsche car company only came into being as a manufacturer in 1948, when the first Type 356 was built, Ferdinand Porsche had been designing cars for half a century at that point. One of his first cars, the Lohner Porsche, was actually an electric-petrol hybrid, built in 1901!

The father of The People’s Car

Professor Porsche is well known as being the designer of the Volkswagen Beetle, having been commissioned in the mid-1930s by Adolf Hitler to conceive a “people’s car” that would put the common German man and woman on wheels.

The first Beetle was launched in 1939 as the KdF Wagen (Strength through Joy Car), but just a handful were built before Germany declared war on Poland and the world was never the same. A number of VW floor pans and air-cooled engines were used in WWII with all-wheel-drive systems , the device known as the Kubelwagen. And a few sedans with the familiar bug-like shape (Beetle was a term yet to be coined) were used as army staff cars.

VW resurrected by the British!

After WWII, the Volkswagen factory was resurrected by an English Major, Ivan Hirst, who had the district of Wolfsburg under his command immediately post war. With the region suffering from chronic food and employment shortages, Hirst decided to build Volkswagens to sell to the moneyed American troops occupying nearby areas, and thus generate employment and income for the area.

The result was that the Volkswagen Beetle became the world’s most-produced car, with close to 22-million built between 1939 and 2003.

Getting back to the Porsche clan

Getting back to Porsche, post-war times were not easy for the family either. The ageing and frail Ferdinand Porsche had been imprisoned in France for his part in designing military vehicles for Nazi Germany, while Ferdinand’s son Ferry battled to resuscitate the family automotive business. It was decided to build a sports car based on Volkswagen Beetle mechanicals, and the first car was built in Gmund, Austria in 1948.

That first car was actually an open mid-engined two-seater with a tubular chassis (for lightness) and a modified twin-carb Beetle motor. But for production, the series-built 356 that immediately followed featured a closed coupe-style body and a steel floor pan similar to that of the Beetle.

Early race successes

As business picked up, the cars became ever more sophisticated, demand outstripped supply and the factory was relocated in Stuttgart, in what was then known as West Germany. From the outset, Porsche decided on a motorsport programme to prove its products, and by the early 1950s, Porsche 356s were already scoring class wins in the Le Mans 24 Hours.

And movie stars loved Porsches!

Porsche’s cache in America was also furthered when well-known luminaries such as James Dean and Steve McQueen opted for Porsche racers. Of course, James Dean tragically died in a Porsche RS 500 Spyder, which made world-wide headlines. By this stage, the little four-cam Porsches were the weapon of choice for many Americans competing in their national sports car racing series.

Porsches raced well in South Africa too

The little cars from Stuttgart carved a huge reputation for themselves and in South Africa Porsches were raced with great success at the old Grand Central race track in Midrand that pre-dated Kyalami, and then at Kyalami itself. Sarel van der Merwe senior (the father of our multiple SA rally and racing champion) raced one, and other famous drivers to race Porsches here with huge success include Ian Fraser-Jones, Dawie Gouws and John Love. Sarel van der Merwe (Jr) would eventually race for the Pirsche factory team at le Mans in 1988, and was leading the race before the Porsche 962 engine blew!

Porsche’s were extremely expensive here until the 21st century

Lindsay Saker, the Volkswagen dealers, were the South African agents in the 1950s and 1960s and a good number of Porsche 356s, and then 911s, were imported as road cars. In fact, some special 356s were actually fitted with bodies made in South Africa! But it must be borne in mind that import duties were stiff for imported cars in this country, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s, when duties could amount to a total of 115 per cent of the actual price of the car.

In those days, because of the very high prices for an imported Porsche, Lindsay Saker was lucky to sell 40 cars here in a year normally a lot less. Nowadays, under Toby Venter’s ownership, relaxed import tariffs and increased model proliferation, Porsche monthly sales easily exceed 100 cars a month, and a few years ago (with a stronger rand) Porsche was selling 200 cars a month in South Africa!

One of the world’s first major overall Porsche race wins was at Kyalami

Quality of workmanship has always been a hallmark of the Porsche success story, as well as fine design and engineering. Reliability has been a key note for Porsche for the past 70 years, and this is illustrated by the number of Le Mans outright victories over the years.

In fact, Kyalami was the scene of one of the first major Porsche outright victories worldwide, when David Piper and Richard Attwood won the 1969 Rand Daily Mail Nine Hour at Kyalami in a Porsche 917, against fierce competition from Ferrari, Ford and Lola. The following year, 1970, a Porsche 917 won its first 24 Hours of Le Mans outright victory, and since that time it has notched up a total of 19 overall wins, more than any other marque.

The next best is Audi with 13, followed by Ferrari with nine, Jaguar with seven and Bentley with six.

Today Porsche production tops the 230 000 annual mark

Today Porsches are a world apart from the first mid-engined 356 constructed in Gmund. Take a drive around your suburb and you are likely to see moms with kids in Cayennes, businessmen being chauffeured to important meetings in four-door Panameras, and, yes, depending on where you live, you’ll probably see your fair share of mad-keen enthusiasts revelling in sporty 911s, 718 Boxters and Caymans.

Prices today range from R870 000 for a basic 718 Cayman to over R4,4-milion for a 911 GT2 RS. And there seems to be no sign that demand is dropping off, as world-wide production levels top the 230 000 a year mark! A far cry from the humble little Beetle-based car, the first 356, that broke cover from a woodshed masquerading as a car workshop, in June 1948.


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