It’s hard to imagine today, but the Porsche 911 wasn’t always called the ‘911’. Having unveiled the successor to its popular 356 at the 1963 Frankfurt motor show it was billed as the Porsche 901, its internal project number.
Production of the 901 started in the autumn of 1964 but a trademark dispute with Peugeot, which claimed it owned the rights for three-digit car numbers with a ‘0’ in the middle, went in favour of the French brand.
Of those, the first 82 were Porsche 901s, making it a rare beast in the pantheon of Porsche. It should be noted those 82 cars were badged as 911s, however, the chassis number and build number identifies them as 901 examples.
How rare? Until 2014, Porsche did not have an original production 901 in its collection. That all changed, however, when a German TV production crew stumbled across two what appeared to be early Porsche 911s gathering dust and rust in a barn.
Luckily for Porsche – and for us – the program’s host and presenter Otto Schulte thought he’d check with Porsche to see if the two cars were of significance.
"We're always curious about old Porsches", said Schulte. "Of course it wasn't immediately obvious that this was such a rare model, but after brief research it was clear that the car was still very valuable, even in this condition."
A phone call to the Porsche museum revealed some startling news. While one car was an early Porsche 911, the second car, with vehicle identification number 300 57, proved far more significant.
“The penny dropped,” said Alexander Klein, Manager Classic Car Collection at the Porsche Museum when hearing the number 300 57 over the phone for the first time. Could it really be chassis #57, one of the 82 original 901s to be produced before the switch to the now ubiquitous 911?
Porsche decided to find out and sent a team to Brandenburg to inspect the barn and confirm the provenance of both vehicles. One, a gold-coloured 911 L from 1968 was in terrible condition. But, it was what they found at the back of the barn that really excited them.
There, lying under a thick coating of dust, a red, what appeared to be an early 911, sat forlornly, succumbing to age and the elements. Both front guards were missing while rust had eaten away large areas. Inside, little remained bar the instrument panel. The engine was seized, as were the brakes.
Crucially, though, the chassis number was identifiable as was the build plate, confirming this was indeed car number 300 57 which rolled off the production line in the autumn of 1964. For the Porsche museum, #57 was the Holy Grail.
Porsche wanted the car and the owner was keen to sell so Porsche undertook further examinations back at Zuffenhausen to ensure its provenance and that a fair price was paid. External Porsche experts were brought in and after extensive examination and research, they agreed the car was an original 901.
Porsche wasted no time, paying €107,000 for the red 901. The company also agreed to pay an additional €14,500 for the gold-coloured 911 L, a move that would turn out to be fortuitous once restoration began.
Porsche’s team of restorers went to work on what was now known simply as ‘Number 57’.
An inventory of #57 revealed the engine and transmission were not the original units installed in the factory. They were, however, of an identical type. So far, so good. But, many other components were rusted beyond salvation while other parts were missing completely due to corrosion.
And yet, Kuno Werner, the head of the museum workshop undertaking the painstaking restoration remained overjoyed.
“Many of the features only included in the very first models have been preserved in the car,” Werner said.
Features, like the leather boot around the gear lever, a design unique to those early Porsche 901s.
It’s important now to note how that rare 901 ended up in a barn in Brandenburg, along with the slightly newer and infinitely less rare 911 L. According to Porsche, an enthusiast bought the car from the original owner many years ago. He enjoyed driving it but when he started a family, the small sports car no longer suited his needs. Instead, he parked it in the barn. As the years passed, the car was pushed further and further towards the rear of the barn gradually falling into disrepair.
Years later, falling under the spell of ambition and enthusiasm, the owner bought a second car, the gold 911 L, with the intention of restoring both cars. He started his twin projects but, like a good many enthusiasts know from experience, intentions don’t always marry up to reality.
The project cars were never finished, and lay idle until that fateful day in 2014 when the television crew stumbled across the barn.
Luckily for Porsche now, the cars came with two pallets filled with various parts, including what appeared to be two 911 seats. The restoration team assumed they came from #57 but closer inspection revealed the back rests of the seats featured five ‘pipes’ – the name given to the vertically stitched divisions of the seats. The original 901s featured backrests with six ‘pipes’.
But, an inspection of the gold 911 L revealed that its seats had six-pipe stitching. The owner had at some point, swapped those seats from the 901 into the newer Porsche.
The three-year-long restoration project began in earnest. The team started by disassembling the entire car, taking care to keep every available part. Even if a part would prove beyond repair, it might serve a valuable function as reference. The team adopted the ‘repair before replace’ mantra, in order to keep the 901 as original as possible.
The entire body was placed into a chemical bath to remove paint and rust, a process much gentler than blasting, allowing the team see the bare metal surface exactly as it was when the car was manufactured. “You can see exactly where any modifications have been made”, explained Werner.
Werner expected less than half of the body to be salvageable but once the paint and rust had been removed, he was overjoyed to find that more than half of the sheet metal was useable on the project.
A donor vehicle – a 1965-built 911 – was found to provide some of the missing body parts and work on the now bare metal shell continued for 12 months.
Slowly, and piece by piece, the team of restorers welded and cut, ground and shaped the shell of #57. Then, while still a bare shell, the car was assembled including glazing, headlights, bumpers, door handles, trims and the antenna. The process, known as ‘precision grinding’ allowed the team to ensure body clearances matched as well as tolerances and panel gaps. Any discrepancies or deviations were reworked or adjusted.
One area the team of restorers opted for modernity over authenticity came when it was time to paint #57. Using modern coating processes would provide better protection against corrosion. Similarly, restorers opted to use environmentally-friendly water-based paint when replicating the original’s Signal Red 6407, instead of older solvent-based paint.
The restoration and rebuild of the six-cylinder engine also proved challenging. While the cylinder heads could be removed, the pistons were seized fast inside their chambers. Porsche’s engineers used a combination of heat, rust remover and, according to Porsche, the most precious commodities of restorers everywhere, “time and patience” to remove the crankshaft.
The crank mechanism was rebuilt using a mix of original and new genuine Porsche parts, sourced from Porsche Classic, while the cylinder heads themselves proved salvageable. The right-hand camshaft was restored from the original while the left-hand camshaft was beyond repair and replaced by new-old stock.
In all, it took over 120 working hours to restore the engine to its former glory and in the spring of 2017, it was fired up for the first time on a test stand.
While Porsche Classic was breathing new life into the 2.0-litre flat-six, the interior was undergoing its own painstaking restoration. Two areas in particular stood out.
One, was the headlining. Those early model 901s featured a pattern of holes in the headlining, a motif that was replaced in subsequent models by a diamond-shaped pattern.
While the headlining was not salvageable, the team of restorers had kept and preserved a piece of the original for reference. A search of the company’s inventory revealed the original tool that made the pin-holed pattern had survived. The spiked roller was used to recreate the original’s pattern on the headlining, maintaining the car’s authenticity.
The second part of the interior proving problematic was the ashtray. It was, according to Porsche, one of “the trickiest tasks for the budding body engineers” undertaking some of the restoration work.
The rear third of the slide-in ashtray had rusted away while the chrome-plated support with a larger rectangular hole for a cigar was missing completely. With no new-old stock available, the team set about recreating the ashtray and cigar holder from scratch. Porsche’s modellers created a wooden mould, which the restorers then used to painstakingly recreate a bespoke ashtray, using a combination of new materials and fragments of the original.
Final assembly was completed in the autumn of 2016, with the interior and fittings added to the rolling chassis. Happily, the original glazing was intact and used in the restoration but the cabling harness was beyond repair, the restorers forced to adapt a harness from a later F series 911.
With the rolling chassis completed, it was time to marry the engine with the body, the final step in restoring #57 to its original glory. The project, completed in the summer of 2017, had taken around three years of painstaking and patient workmanship.
With the drivetrain now installed, ‘Number 57’ was complete and headed to its spiritual home, the Porsche Museum where it remains on display, a proud addition to the history of the Porsche 911 as the oldest production 911 in the company’s collection. It’s a rare thing of beauty.
As for the fate of the gold 911 L? It’s been kept by Porsche in its ‘as found’ condition.
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