A funny thing happened on the way to drive the Porsche Speedster. That thing is a 1953 Porsche 356 America Roadster, the 17th of 17 ever built, a distant predecessor of the 2019 Speedster. We’ll get to the Lilliputian Porker in a moment, but first I should put my cards on the table regarding the newest chopped-windshield speed machine from the folks at Zuffenhausen by way of Weissach. What’s the best car on sale today? If you ask me, it’s the 991.2 Porsche GT3 with a manual transmission. Hurry if you want one, as they’re just about all gone. The Speedster, then, is that same world-beating driver’s car with the roof lopped off and another 20 horsepower from a reworked engine. Still a manual, too. Therefore, because I’ll be able to hear the glorious, naturally aspirated, 4.0-liter flat-six with its joy-inducing 9,000 rpm redline even better, all the while still shifting my own gears, the Speedster would be, should be my new favorite car. Yes, sure, Porsche trucked out a bunch of museum cars (917, 918, 959!) for us to horse around with, but surely a 70-hp anachronism from Nixon’s first term as vice president would be nothing more than an amuse-bouche before the entrée; a short film to get through before the film starts. An undercard before the main … you see where this is going, yes?
What a fantastic thing! I’ve driven stripped-down, purpose-built sports cars before, but never one like the America Roadster. The story is that after World War II, people were hungry to go racing. This was especially true in the United States, where the economy was booming. Early Porsches were small and light and easily modifiable, and people were taking them racing. Much better, though, (for Porsche) to build a car at the factory that customers could then race, no? That’s what legendary importer Max Hoffman told/sold Porsche, at any rate. Who better to drive such a car than John “Johnny” Von Neumann. Hoffman knew Von Neumann, as both were Austrians who fled the Nazis and wound up in New York. Most people know Von Neumann from the pile of money he made as a Ferrari and Porsche importer, but he had a pretty decent racing career before going on to support such legends as Phil Hill, Ken Miles, and Jack McAfee. He was also one of the first members of the CIA and married a Ziegfeld Follies dancer. More important for our purposes is that Von Neumann also founded the California Sports Car Club after moving to—you guessed it—California. As such, he and those like him needed cars to race.
Enter the America Roadster. A total of 17 were built, 16 of which featured lightweight aluminum bodies. Total weight of this particular example (number 17 of 17) with gas in the tank is under 1,350 pounds. That’s about 100 pounds heavier than a Lotus 7, a car so light it might actually be a motorcycle (not really). The air-cooled, 1.5-liter flat-four produces 70 horsepower, which may not sound like much until you realize that in 1953 the regular 356 kicked out just 40 ponies. Not to be confused with the 356 Speedster—that came later and cost two-thirds the price—America Roadsters weren’t a commercial success. But boy oh boy did they have the formula correct.
You’re familiar with decontented Porsches costing more? Well, the America Roadster is where that concept began. The white car I drove has headlights and a switch on the dash to turn said headlights on—and that’s it! The only other control is a keyhole and a starter button. Originally, this particular Von Neumann car was spec’d without turn signals. That’s nuts. The Porsche Museum went ahead and installed indicator bulbs below the headlights (little red lights) so that the car could legally be driven on public roads—but again, nuts. There are also no door handles, no wipers, no roof of any kind—literally no nothing. OK, at some point someone installed lap belts, but I didn’t find them until after my drive when I looked under the seat for my phone. Small side note: This particular car might be the very first 356 to ever sport twin grilles on the engine lid. Yours truly may (or may not) have made that discovery.
Did I mention I drove it? What a hoot! “Pure,” I guess, is the world I’m looking for, but I always cringe at that one. Exhilarating is a better descriptor. As are uninhibited, raw, and fantastic. The skinny Avon race tires offered more grip than I’d assumed possible, and the more I kept driving the America Roadster, the more charming and fun it got. You know how us auto scribe types are always complaining about thick A-pillars you can’t see around? Well, not only does this 356 have little more than quarter-height, vestigial A-pillars, I could put my head over the windshield in order to look around corners! Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful! I fell in love—I’m only human. I got confident, too. By the end of my day on a private, one-lane wine-country road I was flinging and zinging the little thing around with a certain amount of recklessness. Hey—the brilliant little car made me do it. That’s when they informed me that car 17 is valued at $4 million. Talk about a big gulp.
As I thought more and more about the America Roadster after my all too brief stint staring at it (the thing is gorgeous) and my time behind the wheel, I realized something. This car is why Porsche matters. This car is what it’s all about. This is what little Porsche—especially back in 1953—brought to the table. This is what the brand was capable of. Its future potential. All these supercars from Weissach, those GT2 RSs trading hands for $150K over sticker, 30,000 people paying $65 a ticket for Luftgekühlt to look at parked Porsches—all of that comes back to these 17 original factory hot rods.
I’d even argue that it might all come back to this particular car, number 17, the one ordered without turn signals, door handles, a wing mirror, or even a trunk handle. This phenomenon that us gearheads are collectively enamored with, this runaway German success story—I, for one, am a little closer to understanding where it all began. Car 17 is a museum piece, and perhaps another 100 people will be lucky enough to drive the thing before I’m dead. I thought I was just going to work that day, but I’ve unwittingly become an ambassador for one of the most amazing machines I’ve ever driven. Built in the aftermath of the most destructive war in human history, with huge assists from two men literally chased from their home by the Nazis—I don’t know, the car gives me hope for humanity. Maybe I’m getting carried away, but I really loved driving the damn thing.
Oh, and I drove the new Speedster, too. Yeah, great car, pretty much what I thought and said in the opening paragraph. A 991.2 GT3 sans roof. You got $360,000 laying around? You should buy one. Our tech guru Frank Markus wrote a solid First Drive review of one—read it. The newest Speedster is totally great, got it. But that America Roadster, man, that car is just something else. Something past, something truly analog, honest, yet magical. Something built with an unflinching singularity of function, and something gone.
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