Tuesday, May 1, 2001

356 SL

911 and Porsche Magazine

The very first Porsches were built in Gmünd Austria, mostly as coupes. Some of these original coupes that were made by the Porsche factory and raced and sold to customers to race as 356 SL’s.  

One of these cars belongs to a friend of mine, Chuck Forge. This particular car has had its top cut off and has been made into an open car. I have know this car since 1957 when I first met Chuck Forge and watched him run this car in an autocross at the Santa Clara County Fair Grounds in California.  

The history of these early 356s that Porsche built in Gmünd Austria is sketchy at best. It is almost as if Porsche would rather forget that part of their history. The Gmund cars were all hand built from aluminum and there were both Coupe and Cabriolet versions of the Gmünd built cars. Porsche built most of the coupe bodied cars although some were built by Tatra in Czechoslovakia, and others by Kastenhofer in Vienna. Some Cabriolets or open cars were built by both Beutler in Switzerland and Kastenhofer in Austria. Some wonderful examples of these cars still exist Bill Jackson in Denver and Chuck Stoddard own wonderful examples. The Chuck Stoddard car won the Porsche Club of America Manhattan award for best of show with his chassis 356/2-011 in 1984 at the Porsche Parade in Appleton Wisconsin. Stoddard's beautifully restored car was also on display at the Cincinnati, Ohio Parade 1993. 

In 1950 and 1951 Porsche recycled seven of these Gmünd cars for racing purposes. They gave these cars new chassis numbers and called them 356SLs. Their reason for doing this was that the aluminum Gmünd built cars were narrower and significantly lighter than the steel bodied cars that had been built in Stuttgart after the moved there in 1950. The 356SL coupes were specified at 1411 lbs while the steel bodied Stuttgart cars weighed 1763 lbs. The first four 356SLs were built to run the Liége-Rome-Liége Rally and then Monthléry, France for record setting and then sold off to private individuals. In 1951 before Le Mans an additional three cars were built to run at Le Mans. Actually only one car ran in the 1951 race because the other two were both involved in accidents that prevented them from racing there. The one car the did run at Le Mans won the 1100 cc class and was fifth in the Index of Performance. 

In 1952 three of these 356SLs ran in the 1952 Le Mans race. Also in 1952 Max Hoffman imported three of these cars to the United States. Over the years most of the seven cars have been extensively modified. Two have had the tops cut off, two have chopped tops, where they have cut the top off and shortened it and welded it back on, and one has been converted to a mid-engine configuration and the other two are more or less original. 

Max Hoffman sold 356/2-063 to John Von Neumann, in 1952, who also started selling Porsches through his Competition Motors in North Hollywood, California in April of 1952. Von Neumann's first race in his new 356SL was at Palm Springs in March 1952. Then in April 1952 he raced at Pebble Beach where the car was a DNF because of fading brakes. The car was still silver for those first two races, but by the time it raced again at Golden Gate Park a month later Von Neumann's car had been painted red. Before its next race Von Neumann had the car radically modified by Emil Deidt, in Southern California, who cut the top of the little Gmünd 356SL coupe and made it into a very cute little roadster. Its next race was at Torrey Pines California in July 1952 where Von Neumann was at last successful with his 356SL wining the first race in the US for the Porsche marque. Von Neumann had installed the later 1952 production brakes which were larger and ran the car without the front fender skirts. The skirts were designed by the Porsche engineers to cheat the wind on the long straights at Le Mans, but they obstructed the airflow to the front brakes on the shorter California tracks. The cars are very light so they had a favorable power to weight ration and this car as a roadster without the top and ready to run weighs 1385 lbs. 

Von Neumann ran that roadster at Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin and at the Madera, California road races in 1952 and then sold it in late 1952 to Bill Wittington. of Woodside, California Wittington painted the car a bluish-gray when he owned it and ran the car at Salt Lake City, Utah and again at the Golden Gate races in 1953. Rick Gale was the next owner of the car and Ed Phelan drove it at Golden Gate Park in 1954 and Don Dickey ran it at Riverside and the Stocton Airport Road races. Later in 1954 the car was sold to Ernie Spritzer who raced the car at Santa Rosa, California. 

While Spitzer owned the car it was maintained by Gorden Vann in his Berkeley body shop. During this period the cowl was reshaped and a new dash board was built and the car was painted yellow. 

In 1957 Chuck Forge graduated from Stanford with and electrical engineering degree and went to work for Hewlett-Packard. Once employed he was able to borrow money to buy the ex-Von Neumann roadster. Chuck said that the motor was shot when he bought the car so he bought a new VW engine and drove the car as a daily street cars as well as in autocrosses, rally and the then famous Continental Sports Car Club "Tours". 

For the first few years that Chuck Forge owned the Roadster he worked on restoring it as he drove the roadster. He rebuilt the 1500cc Super engine and repainted the car red. By then he had other interesting cars including a racing Corvair, a 1957 Porsche Carrera Coupe and an extensively modified racing Volkswagen all of which were regularly driven on the street as well. 

I can remember going on one of the Continental Sports Car Club "Tours" sometime in the early 1960s with a friend in his Porsche Speedster. Chuck was leading the tour in his roadster, now painted red again and again Porsche powered. At the end of the tour one of the participants came up to Chuck and said that he thought that we were going for a nice summer evening tour to look at the stars and the scenery, but instead he found himself entered in a Grand Prix. Those were the good old days when you could drive on the roads in the California hills like a mad man without really being a wild man, there wasn't much traffic and there weren't very many police. 

By 1981 vintage racing had become a big sport in the US, particularly at Laguna Seca where the annual Historics are held. and Chuck Forge decide to do a really good restoration of the roadster bringing it back to the condition that it was in 1952 when Von Neumann won the first race at Torrey Pines in July 1952. Forge had Kent White, "The Tin Man" do the second restoration and fix all of the damage that had been done by the previous owners. They had to make one of the fender skirts which was missing. The other skirts were original and even had German writing on the inside. Forge said that none of the fender skirt actually fit the car before The Tin Man straightened the car out because it had become so misshapen over its years of road racing. 

Chuck’s real motivation for restoring the car was the 1982 Monterey Historics where Porsche was the featured marque. Forge felt that it was only appropriate that the first Porsche to win a race in the United States attend this historic race where Porches were featured. Forge has run the car in all of the vintage races since 1982 except for a couple of years when his entries were not accepted. Steven Earl, the promoter, and Czar of the Monterey Historics decides what cars and what drivers get to run his race. Each year the entrants send in their entries and then either get a thumbs up or a thumbs down letter back without ever knowing if it is their car or their driving that have displeased him. That's the way it is and Earl has the only game in town and the entrants have learned to live with his rules. Another example of the Czars rule is the fact that he will not let any Porsche 911s run in the Historic races no matter how old or how significant their past is because 911s are still current production cars.

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