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It's been crowned Car of The Year 2012 at the International Historic Motoring Awards - no wonder, as the Porsche T64 is one of the most significant cars ever made.

In May 1945, the war in Europe finally ended. Peace and a glorious summer descended on the picture-postcard-pretty Austrian lakeside town of Zell am See, accompanied by a boisterous bunch of American GIs enjoying the ‘privileges’ that victors inevitably assume at the end of a bitter war: the freedom to indulge themselves at the expense of the vanquished.

Billeted at the local gliding school, the troops discovered a tiny futuristic car, unlike anything they had seen before. The more technically minded would have noticed that the mechanicals were virtually the same as those of the German ‘Jeeps’ the GIs had been chasing across Europe, although the all-enveloping bodywork could not be further removed from that of the utilitarian, slab-sided ‘bucket cars’. Indeed, it was closer in form to the startling jet-powered Messerschmitts that had until so recently been streaking across the sky.

A jerrycan of gas soon had the little streamliner tearing up and down to the amusement and, one hopes, the amazement of the GIs. Getting in and out of the coupe' was not easy, however. And once you were in, it was extremely cramped – as well as oppressively hot. Someone then had the bright idea of cutting off the roof. The wafer-thin aluminium shell easily yielded to the metal shears, and the boys continued with their fun runs.

Checking the oil level in the now much-abused ‘racer’ doesn’t seem to have crossed the mind of any of the joyriders – but then, why should it have? This was a war booty demolition derby in a world that had become well acquainted with destruction. Its engine seized; the GIs’ toy broken, the car’s remains were abandoned on a dung heap. An ignominious end for the second of the three special-bodied VW 60K10 Rekordwagen built to contest the planned 1939 Berlin to Rome road race and propaganda extravaganza to which the war had so rudely put paid.

The vandalism and destruction of car two has become part of Porsche folklore. Yet now, a series of chance discoveries and an astonishing reconstruction have resulted in the resurrection of one of the most important models in the marque’s history; precursor to the 356 and direct ancestor of today’s 991.

A few days before the end of 1930, Ferdinand Porsche, at the age of 55 and after a distinguished career working for others, started his own design bureau in a tiny rented office in the centre of Stuttgart. His team of 12 handpicked men included his son Ferry and a talented group of engineers, almost to a man Austrian. In 1934 Porsche published his famous Expose', or manifesto, in which he outlined his idea for an affordable, mass-produced car. One could say that the Volkswagen idea was in the air, even though the will of the German manufacturers to produce one was perhaps not as strong as the desire of the ‘Volk’ to own one – or ultimately to use it on the new and rapidly expanding autobahn system. Porsche commenced his proposal by citing the success of the Volksradio, mass-produced since 1932 and bringing entertainment, and the voice of Chancellor Hitler, to the masses.

Adolf, too, wished to bring motoring to the German people, and engaged Porsche to build a car that would satisfy their joint ambitions. Porsche project number 60 was given the green light. By 1938, all of the development work on the prototype Volkswagens – to Porsche’s dismay now renamed KdF-Wagen (‘Kraft durch Freude’ – or ‘strength through joy’) was more or less finalised, and the newly completed Porsche factory in the Stuttgart suburb of Zuffenhausen was busy building the VW38, a pre-production series of 44 cars. The Auto Union and Mercedes Silver Arrows dominated grand prix racing, and German sights were now set on extending this technical superiority to sports cars. As the nation lacked an international road race with the prestige of Le Mans, the Mille Miglia or indeed ‘little’ Belgium’s Liège-Rome-Liège, Adolf Hühnlein – head of the Oberste Nationale Sportbehörde (ONS), the organising body for German motor sport – proposed an Axis-power marathon from Berlin to Rome.

It was scheduled for September 1939, and the unique aspect of this 1300km route was the inclusion of the new autobahn running south from Berlin to Munich. This would be followed by a short, twisty passage through Austria over the Brenner Pass into Italy, then another high-speed dash down Mussolini’s autostrada to Rome. Clearly this was going to be a flat-out blast in which top speed and aerodynamics would take precedence over handling.

Porsche’s earlier design proposal for a VW-based sports car – project T64 in Porsche-speak – had been repeatedly rejected. However, with the launch of the VW now imminent, and thousands of hopeful customers sticking savings stamps into their KdF coupon books, a headline-grabbing ‘sporty’ version suddenly seemed like a good idea. Porsche was commissioned to produce a team of vehicles for the race, with the proviso that the Rekordwagens had to use KdF mechanicals and bear a family resemblance to the road machine.

Despite his rebuffs, Porsche had kept his team working on a sports car design in their spare time, although where that ‘spare time’ came from in such a busy team is anyone’s guess. Several ideas were already on the drawing boards – including the T114, a mid-engined, water-cooled, V10-powered car on what was essentially a stretched VW chassis – and a model of the streamlined body had been made and wind-tunnel tested. The various design solutions were amalgamated and retrofitted into the earlier T64 project. Confusingly, because the car had to be perceived as a Volkswagen, it was also designated as a Type 60K10: ‘60’ was the Volkswagen project number, ‘K’ stood for Karroserie (bodywork), and ‘10’ for the tenth variant. But to Porsche insiders, it was always T64.

Three chassis and matching engines, numbered 38/41, -42 and -43, were set aside for the streamliners, with a fourth engine – 38/46 – as a spare. The first T64 was finished on 19 August 1939, only two weeks before Hitler, instead of sending his sportsmen speeding south to Italy, sent his soldiers racing east into Poland.

With the Berlin to Rome race cancelled and the Führer now committed to the war effort, the factory still managed to complete the other two Rekordwagens, the second in December 1939 and the final model in June 1940. Car number one was presented to Bodo Lafferentz, an important board member of the newly formed Volkswagenwerk. It’s not recorded whether Lafferentz left the road backwards, as so many over-enthusiastic early Porsche 356 owners would do, but the wrecked T64 was soon returned. The chassis of this variant, 38/41, eventually became the platform of car number three. Models two and three were used throughout the war by the Professor and Ferry, as transport and experimental development machines.

As the bombing of Germany intensified, Porsche relocated to the remote village of Gmünd in Austria. Here, the fledgling company would conceive and build the 356, before returning to Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen in 1950. In the meantime, as has already been related, T64 number two survived the war but not the peace, leaving only car number three. This remained in use by Ferry until 1949 when, badged as a Porsche, it was sold to the Austrian racing driver Otto Mathe'.

We have to fast-forward half a century before we pick up the remarkable story of the second of the Berlin to Rome cars. When Mathe' died in 1995, his collection of early Porsches and homebuilt specials was split up. The T64 and one of his two Gmünd-made 356s found new owners, with much of the remainder eventually ending up in the hands of Thomas König and Oliver ‘Olli’ Schmidt, dedicated collectors of early Porsches and rare post-war VW-based racing cars. Thomas and Olli house their collection in their magnificent Prototyp Automuseum in Hamburg’s rejuvenated docklands area, with a whole section dedicated to Mathe' and his racing exploits. In addition to several of Mathe'’s cars, Thomas and Olli found themselves in possession of two containers full of mechanical detritus accumulated over a long life of playing with racing machines.

The history-changing moment came when research in the Porsche and Volkswagen archives confirmed, from engine and chassis numbers, that what the pair were gradually unearthing and piecing together from the Mathe' hoard was not just, as first thought, a rare 1938 Porsche-built VW chassis and engine, but the remains of the second and long-presumed-lost T64. It appears that when Porsche sold Mathe' car number three, it included the valuable ‘spares’ salvaged from the wreck of car number two.

Spotting T64 items now became an intriguing treasure hunt. The steering wheel was found on one of Mathe'’s single-seaters, and the doorhandles unexpectedly turned up at the bottom of a box containing alloy castings from his ski-binding business.

Finding themselves in possession of such an important part of Porsche history, the only way forward for Thomas and Olli was to recreate the complete car. The task was entrusted to the respected German restoration company Nostalgicar, which borrowed the Mathe' example and arranged for it to be laser-scanned to determine accurate dimensions before making a wooden buck over which to form the light-alloy body. Unlike the chassis of the VW, where the steel floor is welded to the spine, the T64’s floor is integral with the body. The monocoque shell is constructed like an aircraft fuselage, with a latticework of perforated alloy beams supporting and separating a flat interior floor, and several inches below that an equally flat and aerodynamically smooth exterior floor.

From a pile of parts to finished car took ten years, with three of those devoted to building the body. Watching the T64 being rolled into the sunlight provokes a dizzying sensation of time spinning backwards. The flawless black nitrocellulose paint (the spraying of which required special permission) gleams like shiny liquorice, while the Bosch headlamp black-out covers and the Stuttgart ‘trade plates’ (which bear a suitably antiqued ‘V’ stamp permitting the purchase of rationed wartime petrol) contribute to the feeling that we’ve been catapulted back to 1941, when the car was photographed on Porsche’s factory forecourt.

Heavy-breathing session over and returning to the present, a couple of squirts of neat fuel down the throats of the twin carbs, a stab at the starter, and the little 985cc engine bursts into raucous life. Contorting into the tiny rounded cockpit of the T64, I’d felt like a chick trying to squeeze back into its shell. Once inside, the snug fit, steeply rounded contours of the cabin and close proximity of the outer shell reinforce the egg-like feeling. Everything is close to you: the wheel, dash, roof, screen... even the door linings follow the contour of the car’s outer skin to provide a little extra elbow room. The narrow seats are surprisingly well upholstered – in fact, too well, as Thomas has had to remove the stuffing from the driving chair to fit his legs under the steering wheel.

This is a car that encourages you to consider your hygiene habits (and those of your co-driver) carefully: so narrow is the cockpit that the seats are staggered to get the passenger’s shoulder line behind the driver’s. The long, top-gear-only autobahn section of the Berlin to Rome race would have passed in relative comfort, but traversing the Austrian Alps would surely have resulted in a lot of rib-bruising contact with the passenger, steering twiddling being very much an elbows-out affair as the almost vertical wheel sits only a few inches from the driver’s chest. Gearlever and passenger’s thigh are also very intimately acquainted. The ‘one-armed’ Otto Mathe'
(he actually retained both limbs but had lost the use of his left one in a motorcycle accident) held the wheel when changing ratio by pressing forward with his chest; not as difficult to accomplish as it initially sounds.

Anyone who is familiar with an early Porsche 356 will immediately feel an affinity with the T64 and its stark simplicity. The noise level is high, with the air-cooled engine buzzing away to the rear, sounding like a light aircraft and sending a perceptible tingle through the alloy body. The glazing is close to your head, so forward and side vision is good despite the high dash and doors, although judging tight gaps is a little taxing due to the extreme curvature of the bodywork. A familiar vertical gearlever sits on the central backbone but much closer to hand than in the 356. Your own proximity to the steering wheel, however, has a very vintage feel that’s at odds with the modern-looking exterior. The pedals are, by contrast, a straight-leg stretch away across the high, flat floor.

The unadorned metal dash contains only a single centrally mounted instrument: a VW-badged speedometer, graduated to 160km/h – that’s 40km/h more than standard. Meanwhile, the absence of a tachometer is slightly disconcerting, as the tiny engine revs freely and noisily: it is difficult to gauge when you might be approaching bursting point! Maximum power is produced at 3500rpm and I can only assume that, as with the car’s more pedestrian VW sibling, the motor’s restricted breathing capacity acts as a crude rev-limiter.

The barely silenced engine emits a 100-horsepower bark, but its actual bite is a more humble 32bhp. Still, that’s 9.5bhp more than standard, achieved by raising the compression ratio (only 5.8:1 in the KdF engine) and improving the breathing by fitting larger valves and twin carbs. I hadn’t been expecting to rocket off the line, yet acceleration is surprisingly brisk. It feels on a par with my own 1952 Porsche 356 which, despite having twice as much power, is handicapped by a much heavier steel body. The T64 weighs only 585kg – roughly the weight of a 550 Spyder and 162kg lighter than a 356. The cable-operated brakes seem more than up to their task, but then, I’m not ‘pressing on’; one of the Mathe'
car’s earliest post-war mods was an upgrade to hydraulic brakes.

Gearchanges in the non-synchro VW box are, of necessity, slow and require double-declutching up and down the four ratios to avoid grating noises. Despite two spare wheels stored under the steeply sloping bonnet, the weight distribution is 40:60 front to rear, and the steering has the lightness and feel so beloved of drivers of early Porsches. The ride, however, is firm bordering on harsh, and a brief stretch of vision-blurring cobblestones feels as if it might loosen a few fillings.

With the car sitting on perilously narrow 16in rims and tyres, and the handling limitations feeling only too familiar after those of my own 356, I am not inclined to explore the ultimate cornering ability of the T64. As a lifelong Porscheholic and the first outsider to drive the car, I am content to fulfil a personal dream. I am simply enjoying being behind the wheel of this extraordinary autobahn cruiser, and indulging myself in the sounds and sensations of the oldest of all Porsches.

Thanks to the Prototyp Automuseum, Hamburg,


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