Build your own: the Porsche fans who turned dreams into reality
Turning dreams into reality in eastern Germany, part by smuggled part
While the Iron Curtain divided post-war Germany, Porsche GmbH remained a unifying force. For shoemaker Hans Miersch, living and working in the Communist east near Dresden in the early 1950s, the sight of a 356 in a West German magazine sowed a seed that would see him defy the innumerable limitations of the Eastern Bloc with the limitlessness of his grit and imagination.
At the time, travel between East and West was still possible, with the Berlin wall not built until 1961, but the German Democratic Republic imposed tough restrictions on trade with the capitalist Federal Republic of Germany and Miersch was forbidden from importing a Porsche. His own car at the time was a home-built creation using the chassis of a Kübelwagen, the rear-wheel-drive, open-top ‘Type 82’ designed for the military by Ferdinand Porsche. Scrapped Type 82s were relatively commonplace in the east, having been abandoned in large numbers on the banks of the Elbe by fleeing German soldiers in 1945. And by 1953, twin engineering students Falk and Knut Reimann had already set about building their own version of a Porsche 356 on a Type 82 chassis and word was getting around.
Even after the fall of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), Hans Miersch retained his old licence plate number – so attached was he to his automotive companion.
Miersch caught wind of the inspiring project and duly procured a Kübelwagen chassis of his own. But that was the easy bit. Sheet metal of suitable quality for the bodywork simply could not be found in East Germany, and the determined and resourceful Miersch was forced to look further afield, eventually finding around thirty square meters via his business contacts in Czechoslovakia. “It was almost worth more than gold,” he remembered. One millimetre thick, it was almost as heavy too, the hood alone weighing almost 20 kg. And since a Kübelwagen chassis was around 300 mm longer and considerably wider than a 356, the Miersch 356 became a spacious and weighty four-seater. The same local coachbuilder who created the Reimann brothers’ car built a bespoke body for Miersch for 3,150 West German Marks.
Next up, it was time to track down suitable parts for the chassis and drivetrain. A 356 A brake system was procured from the West Berlin dealer Eduard Winter through the personal mediation of Ferry Porsche himself. Miersch smuggled the precious goods from West to East “in a very large briefcase,” sweating bullets all the way; smuggling was punishable by long prison sentences in the GDR. “Several times a day” he had to cross the border under the suspicious gaze of East German soldiers. “The brake drums in particular were incredibly heavy.”
Brothers Falk and Knut Reimann came up with the design for the GDR Porsche and, like Miersch, they were actively supported by company boss Ferry Porsche.
But little by little, the car began to take shape. After seven months, in November 1954, it was ready for the road. Initially, the Miersch was powered by a weak 30 hp boxer engine, which struggled to match a mighty 1,600 kg kerb weight. For context, the original 356 prototype weighed around half as much and had twice the power. It would be another 12 years before Miersch was able to install a 75 hp 1600cc Porsche engine that he was allowed to import dismantled, ostensibly as a gift of spare parts from a West German relative.
As far as anyone knows, the Reimann car and Miersch’s own are the only two of around a dozen ‘GDR Porsches’ built during the early days of the Cold War. When Miersch’s shoemaking operation was appropriated by the state in the early 1970s he managed to keep the car only by claiming that an old war wound meant it was “a personalised, self-built vehicle designed specifically for me as a disabled person”. Miersch claimed it was worth just 1,800 East German marks.
When the GDR crumbled in 1990, Miersch remained faithful to his beloved car, preserving and improving it as he went, eventually fitting a 90-hp engine to achieve something approaching reasonable performance. But in 1994, the ageing former shoemaker finally sold his project on to another local enthusiast who has made improvements of his own, retrimming the cabin in a more luxurious cognac leather and swapping out the pre-war Horch speedometer for an original Porsche part. Slowly but surely, Miersch’s dream edges closer to reality.