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'First' Porsche heads to auction with record price expected
[NEW YORK] The road race was going to speed along Germany's new Autobahn, into the Austrian Alps and on to Rome, through the new heart of fascist Europe.
To maximise the propaganda value of the affair — in part marking the Nazis' 1938 alliance with Italy and the absorption of Austria — the German entry in the 1,500-kilometre race would be based on the KdF-Wagen, Hitler's new people's car.
With its Nazi origins largely forgotten, that car became famous after the war as the cuddly Volkswagen Beetle. The Beetle and the Berlin-to-Rome racer — known as the Type 64 — shared the same prolific designer, Ferdinand Porsche.
The 1939 race that the car was designed for was never held. The start of World War II got in the way.
Of the three Porsche-designed Type 64s planned for construction in the late 1930s, just one car remains. Although technically a Volkswagen and not a Porsche, it eventually became the first car to bear the Porsche name.
This car, which some view as the absolute origin of the Porsche sports car story, will be sold at auction in Monterey, California, on Saturday. It is likely to sell for millions.
Viewed strictly as a car, the Type 64, while advanced for its time, is hardly impressive by today's standards.
It is tiny, and with a body made from thin sheets of hand-formed, aircraft-grade aluminum, it exudes fragility. It doesn't make up for its lack of robustness with any significant power. The car's modified, air-cooled Volkswagen four-cylinder engine is estimated to make 40 horsepower, and its top speed is around 90 mph.
The Type 64 stands in stark contrast to the impressive-to-this-day 1970 Porsche 917K race car (200-plus mph, 520 horsepower), which holds the record as the most valuable Porsche sold at auction. That model was auctioned for US$14 million in 2017 by Gooding & Co, based in Santa Monica, California.
Clearly the lion's share of the Type 64's value lies somewhere other than in performance or imposing presence.
Andy Prill, a Porsche historian and restorer, points to the Type 64's rarefied status. "In over 130 years of automotive history," Mr Prill said, "how many opportunities have there been to acquire the very first car of a storied marque?"
He added: "The value of the car as an historic object is almost unfathomable. In the end, it will be worth what someone is willing to pay for it."
Before the car's consignment to RM Sotheby's, Mr Prill examined the car for authenticity.
"It's quite well preserved, and while conservation efforts have been undertaken over the years, it's still a very original car, never having been comprehensively restored," he said. "Every layer of paint is still present on the car down to the original prewar paint."
Incredibly, Mr Prill's examination included a test drive. "It's loud, and a bit crude, as you would expect," he said, "but its handling is quite good, and with pronounced lightness, the car moves off nicely when you release the clutch."
The Type 64's streamlining, courtesy of designer Erwin Komenda — who would, a decade later, design the 356, the first production Porsche — was quite effective, allowing the car to maintain impressive speeds of well more than 80 mph on the Autobahn.
It has been frequently reported that there were originally three Type 64s. Mr Prill isn't so sure. "We know from period photos that there were at least two, although no two cars were actually ever photographed together," he said.
There is no known photo of the third car, which, according to Mr Prill, was most likely never completed or put on the road.
The whereabouts of the so-called third car, or its pieces, remain unknown. The other completed car fell into the hands of American occupation troops in 1945; they commandeered it for joy rides.
The American soldiers chopped off the car's sleek roof, and eventually the engine succumbed to abuse, rendering the car useless.
The GIs tossed it ignominiously onto a scrap heap. The lone surviving car resurfaced soon after the war, still in the hands of the Porsche family.
According to the auction company, Ferdinand Porsche's son, Ferry, applied the Porsche name to the nose of the car in 1947. Soon thereafter, the car was sold to Otto Mathé, an Austrian racer. He owned it for many years.
Several replicas have been built, and they have been mistaken for one of the originals.
Alexander Weaver, a car specialist for RM Sotheby's in Los Angeles, echoed Mr Prill's sentiments as to the difficulty of placing a value on the car. Nevertheless, the auction house expects the car to sell for at least US$20 million.
Johan Dillen, a racer and writer, got a test drive recently, too. He agreed with Mr Prill's assessment that the car was clearly a thoroughbred in its manners, but said that with its total lack of soundproofing or a muffler, the Type 64 made an unusually painful racket when in motion.
In contrast, the hotel ballroom in Monterey where the car will be auctioned, is likely to be near silent as the bidding gets underway, the hush broken only if the car sells for what is expected to be a record-breaking price for a Porsche.