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27 Apr 2023

Sixty years and counting

With its 60th anniversary due this summer, Keith Seume looks back at the debut of the 901 

The International Automobile Show held in Frankfurt each September was traditionally the launchpad for new models from all major European manufacturers. It was a huge event, with some 800,000 visitors filling no fewer than 26 individual halls in 1963. The biggest news at that year’s show was to be found on Stand 27 in Hall 1A, where they witnessed the launch of Porsche’s long-awaited replacement for the ageing 356: the 901.
There had been no ‘spy’ photos in the motoring press, but word soon spread and the Porsche stand was busy from the moment the show opened. The new Porsche was the car everyone wanted to see. Compared to its predecessor, it was low, slim and aerodynamic – and the talk of the media.
Its launch at Frankfurt had been eagerly awaited, but nobody was ready for what they saw. American magazine Car and Driver began its show preview thus: “Wipe that drool off your chin; it’s not going to be ready for almost a year and it won’t be cheap when it gets here. We’re talking about the Porsche Type 901, to be introduced after a long rumour-filled gestation period…”

Car and Driver continued: “We still don’t know all there is to know about it. The engine is an air-cooled flat six of 1991cc with two chain-driven cams, one per bank, producing about 140 SAE bhp at a rather high rpm (like 6500).”
British magazine The Motor was also salivating over the new arrival: “For the enthusiast, perhaps the most notable car at the Frankfurt show is the new Type 901 Porsche – with a six-cylinder 2-litre engine… The body follows typical Porsche lines but the wheelbase has been increased to give better passenger space.” The report ended by saying “Production of this Type 901, which is planned to give a 20mph-plus performance with much greater refinement, cannot begin ‘for some time’.”
And they were right. Porsche was in no position to take orders for the new car because the 901 was still a long way from being production-ready, despite appearances to the contrary. In fact, the sole example on show was little more than a mock-up with a non-functional engine and rear suspension of the old swing-axle layout, like that of the 356. The change to the much-improved ‘four-joint’ design wasn’t made until the new year, just a scant few months ahead of production.

Even the interior was not yet finished, with a prototype dashboard arrangement and
a pair of seats upholstered in black vinyl with fine ‘Prince of Wales’ check inserts. When a journalist from Motorsport magazine raised the awkward matter of availability, he was told that the car on show was “the only one we’ve got”.
Knowing how much interest the new model would arouse, why did Porsche choose to display the new car when there was little chance it would go into production until at least the following year? The only real answer is pride. Porsche wanted to show its rivals that it was still capable of producing a technological masterpiece and that it was not prepared to sit back and rest on its laurels.
There were concerns that the early launch of the 901 would affect sales of the existing 356C range. In an interview in March 1963, publicity chief Huschke von Hanstein is reported as saying: “We are planning to show another car at Frankfurt, but this would be a considerably bigger and more expensive car. It wouldn’t interfere with today’s models.” 

In truth, the 901 was viewed within Porsche more as an entirely new model and a successor to the exotic four-cam Carrera 2, itself far more costly than the basic 356, rather than a direct replacement for the latter. After all, the 356C was the new flagship – at least for the time being.
For the motoring press, this was big news. Reinhard Seiffert, who attended Frankfurt on behalf of the German weekly Auto Motor und Sport, noted how many of Porsche’s big guns were on hand to answer questions: “Ferdinand Alexander (Butzi) Porsche was present, as was Ferry Porsche himself. And taking care of the press was Huschke von Hanstein, while answering questions on technical matters were Helmuth Bott and Peter Falk, as well as Ferdinand Piech, who was involved in the engine development.”
As head of the press department, von Hanstein needed to arrange publicity photographs and turned to photographer Ole-Kirk Jensen. “Do something good for the show,” he said, “with plenty of mood and atmosphere. It’s important that people love the car at first sight!” Jensen wanted to take the car to some exotic location, but his boss would hear of no such thing. “I want mood and atmosphere – here in the courtyard of the factory!” said von Hanstein. In reality, ‘mood and atmosphere’ took second place to lack of budget and a desire to keep the new car away from prying eyes.

 Von Hanstein suggested Jensen use one of the secretaries instead of a professional model (another of his money-saving ideas) and that task fell to Thora Hornung, who had already featured in publicity photos of the 356. The one available 901 was painted white so, to brighten up the image, the sales department arranged for a number of 356s to form a brightly coloured backdrop. Following this episode, von Hanstein had the show car painted pale yellow.
After the debut at Frankfurt, the 901 was next exhibited at the Paris Salon de l’Automobile in October 1963, followed soon after by its first appearance in the UK at the Earls Court Motor Show in London. As was the case at Frankfurt, the new prototype was roped off; a move that was probably as much about stopping people looking too closely at the fit and finish of a prototype as it was about protecting the paintwork. Sharing stand space with the new model were four 356Cs, including a Carrera 2 coupé. There would be no further public showings until March the following year, when the 901 was put on display at Geneva alongside a pair of 356s and a 904 GTS.
Reinhard Seiffert was among the first people outside the factory to take a proper look at a pre-production version of the new car and he reported on his findings in Auto Motor und Sport on 18 April 1964. He made comparisons to the contemporary Mercedes 230SL and came to the conclusion that “Without question, the new sports car from Zuffenhausen, which will be produced from the end of August, is one of the most interesting cars in the world. It is intended primarily as a tourer, not as a full GT sports car.

“Porsche has consistently separated these two tasks and the Type 904, as the sporting model, will certainly benefit from the same six-cylinder motor at a later date. However, whatever its intended role, the 901 has a functional character which will satisfy the most demanding buyer. In this one area, it clearly differs from the 230SL and even more so from four-seater sports cars, like the Fiat 2300 or the Alfa Romeo 2600 Sprint, both of which
fall in the same price range.
“In both price and performance, the 901 outperforms the Carrera 2 which it replaces, and sits clearly above the other four-cylinder models. But we do expect [the 901] to sell in higher quantities than the Carrera, and also that many Porsche buyers will not be put off by the higher price they will need to pay for this beautiful car. Presumably, [Porsche] have got their sums right…”
The new Porsche made its first public appearances badged as a ‘901’ until French manufacturer Peugeot had other ideas. As it had been building cars since the 1930s that were known by three-digit numbers, each with a ‘zero’ in the middle, Peugeot claimed this as a form of trademark. Seeing the new Porsche on show in Paris bearing the 901 identity led Peugeot to make a formal objection to the German manufacturer, which conceded the point – the French market was an important one.
When the motoring press finally got to drive the new 911, as it was called by then, there was almost universal praise for its performance and especially acceleration from rest when compared to the old 356s. Reinhard Seiffert waxed lyrical: “Such accelerative pleasures are offered by only a few cars, most of them much more expensive, with large-displacement engines!” he exclaimed.


But some members of the press were less impressed by the fit and finish of the 911, which is hardly surprising considering these were pre-production models loaned to the press (a common problem for many manufacturers, who are anxious to get publicity as early as possible). They found fault with the heating system, complaining of oily smells, the fact you needed three separate keys to open the door, turn on the ignition and open the glove box, and the awkward nature of the front bonnet release. They also complained of various rattles and excessive engine noise.
Auto Motor und Sport concluded its report with the words: “Hopes for the future of the Porsche company are invested in the 911. But it is probably just the point of departure for a range of possible variants, a new beginning towards which much creative effort will still be directed by Zuffenhausen.”
But not all journalists were enthusiastic. That doyen of motoring writers, Denis Jenkinson, was a keen Porsche owner, driver and racer. His trusty 356 covered many thousands of miles across Europe as he attended numerous Grand Prix events for Motorsport magazine. DSJ, as he was widely known, was offered a test drive early in 1964 and came away somewhat unimpressed: “Although this entirely new Porsche design had a lot of good points and was very interesting, I did not take to it. Compared to the 356 series cars, it seemed huge, and while the flat-six engine was quite pleasant, it was pretty noisy without the excitement of the noisy 2-litre Carrera engine… My feeling is that Porsche had taken two steps forward and three steps backwards.” 
DSJ went on to replace his 356 with a Jaguar E-Type. Fortunately, he was pretty much alone in his feelings towards the 911 and now, 60 years later, I think we can safely say his thoughts were exceptions that have gone on to prove a rule: the 911 is, and always will be,
a very special car.

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