WHEN IS A PORSCHE 911 NOT A 911? WHEN IT'S A PORSCHE 901

Three years ago, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the Porsche 911, I produced this story of the 18th Porsche 901 built for the UK publication Total 911. Here it is presented for all the Porsche fans here on DRIVETRIBE.

Richard Truesdell

Looking much as it did more than five decades ago when it was built, this Porsche 901, the 18th built, is one of the centerpieces of Don Murray's collection of postwar sports cars

As the fifties drew to a close, Porsche as a company faced a crossroads. It needed to replace the car on which the company was built, the 356. But which direction, an all-new 2+2 or a full four-seater? The answer was the 901 that would become the 911.

It was almost impossible to calculate the number or words that were written, or the photographs taken of the Porsche 911 in 2013, the year of its 50th birthday. The Porsche 911 is an automotive icon, constantly evolving with the times. Each Porsche enthusiast has his or her own favorite 911. For some it’s the first 911 they owned while for others, those of means, it’s the ability to walk into a Porsche showroom, and drive away in a brand new 911.

But if we turn the time machine backwards and set the date to September 12, 1963, the future was not as clear as history is in retrospect. It was in Frankfurt, at the 1963 Internationale Automobil-Ausstellung (IAA) that the Porsche 901 was introduced to the public. While it was very well received, especially by the press, at the time its success was not a sure thing.

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Clip from a 1993 History Channel Documentary on the Porsche 911, showing its introduction at the 1963 IAA Frankfurt Auto Show along with some Porsche-sourced film of its pre-production development program from 1963 and 1964

For starters, it was replacing a legend of its own, the 356, upon which the reputation of Porsche as a car manufacturer was built. From the earliest 356 to the almost 80,000 cars that followed, the 356 was a tough act to follow. It became the blueprint for many GTs that would follow, from a multitude of manufacturers. But as the 1950s drew to a close, it was apparent to Porsche management that an all-new car would be needed for it to remain competitive. But which direction to go?

It’s well documented that there was a faction within Porsche management, especially in the sales department, that believed that a true four-seater was the best way to insure the company’s long-term viability. Porsche embarked on a development program that four years later would result in the Porsche 901. The date? August 1959 when Ferdinand Alexander “Butzi” Porsche, working in conjunction with Dr. Ferry Porsche’s right-hand man Erwin Komenda, was assigned the task of designing the 356's replacement.

T-7/TYPE 695, THE PRECURSOR TO THE 901/911

The first manifestation of this design process was the T-7, also known as the T-695. Its exterior package clearly foreshadowed elements of what would become the 911. In fact from the A-pillar forward, it is instantly recognizable as a 911. But from the rear, its greenhouse (which looks something like the removable hardtop for the 356) bears just a passing resemblance to what would evolve into the 911. Some of this is the byproduct of its 94.8-inch wheelbase, its four-place interior, and sedan-like roof line that did provide usable rear-seat headroom. But ultimately a four-seat Porsche was a developmental dead end and that road was abandoned. (T-695 currently resides in the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart and is featured in the materials for the just announced 50th Anniversary Edition.)

From the A-pillar forward, the profile of the Type 695 prototype is unmistakably 911, but the notchback greenhouse was discarded as the car evolved into the familiar 901/911 fastback profile

But as 1961 turned into 1962 the program moved forward, with several elements of the prototype now fixed in the proposed design. First was the wheelbase, now 86.6 inches. The second was the engine, a new six-cylinder boxer that would be developed to produce 130 horsepower, sufficient to propel the car from zero to 60 in less than nine seconds. Its engine was an integral part of what the 911 would remain to this very day.

Its displacement started at two liters and the ability to grow over time was an integral part of its DNA. The new engine, a collaboration between Hans Tomala and Ferdinand Piech, featured chain-driven overhead camshafts. The thought being that pushrods would not provide the required output—130-horsepower—and refinement that Ferry Porsche felt was essential. Initially the engine used six Solex one-barrel carburetors. As the 901 inched towards production, it was clear to Porsche management that the 901 would provide performance equal to the outgoing 356 Carrera 2 model.

This cutaway drawing shows how the 901/911 was a clean-sheet-of-paper design, sharing very little with the 356 that came before it

When the Type 901 was introduced at Frankfurt in the fall of 1963, it was still a work in progress to be ready for the planned start of production in the second half of 1964. There was still a considerable amount of development work that was to come, especially for the all-new engine as well as the brakes, which at this stage were prone to excessive fade.

While its shape has evolved over the past five plus decades, every 911 that has followed shares the DNA of the original 901

The car featured here belongs to California businessman Don Murray. Like many other Southern California enthusiasts, Don is a regular participant at Cars and Coffee, the informal yet legendary car show that was held every Saturday morning in the parking lot of Ford’s Advanced Design Center and Ford’s Western Region Office in Irvine, California founded by John Clinard and Freeman Thomas. After, many of attendees head over to Knollwood, a diner two exits up Interstate 5, for breakfast and spirited, petrol-infused conversation. (Since the time this feature was originally produced, Cars and Coffee was forced from its home at the Ford facility on December 21, 2014 and has moved to a new home in nearby Aliso Viejo.)

The data plate and the serial number showing that this is indeed, number 18 in the series of 901s built before the changeover to the 911 designation

After breakfast Don often invites fellow petrol heads over to his man cave where he houses his collection of significant 911s (including a 1970 911S with just 760 miles on its odometer), other historic Porsches (a 1955 550 RS Spyder, a 1959 quad-cam Speedster factory race car—the last one built—and a 1964 904 Carrera GTS among his other historic Porsches), and a wonderfully eclectic group of postwar classics and exotics (a Ferrari 166 Inter Berlinetta, a 1951 Ferrari 340 race car, a 1953 Cunningham C-3 Coupe, a 1962 Alfa Romeo SZ Zagato coupe, and a 1964 Ferrari 400 Super America once owned by US Vice President Nelson A. Rockefeller). With the exception of cars like the über low-mileage 760-mile 1970 911S, almost all of the cars are driven on a regular basis, and it’s not unusual that Don will throw trusted friends the keys. (I’ve had the pleasure of “exercising” his 1953 Jaguar XK-120 FHC, his 7-liter Iso Grifo coupe and a very unique 1966 Riley Mini Elf Monte Carlo rallye car.)

THE KNOWN OWNERSHIP CHAIN

When you acquire a car of historical significance, such as 901/300 018, there is often a paper trail and this car is no exception. While researching the provenance of Don’s car, he was able to provide a series of letters that share some light on its history from a time that an old 911 was just that, an old 911.

Sometime around 1983 Ron Barnes of Pensacola, Florida, bought the remains—he called the car a basket case—of 000 018. Believe it or not, it was his original intent to flare the wheel wells, put fat tires on it, and possibly to cut the top and to turn it into a convertible. Thankfully he decided to rebuild the engine first and that was when he discovered the significance of the serial numbers. The body was 300 018 and the engine was 900127. His basket case was, as we say now, a numbers-matching car. (This was verified by the second of three letters, a letter from Barnes to Olaf Lang at the Porsche factory, dated 7 December, 1995, requesting information on the car).

When documenting the provenance of a car as rare as this 901 the devil is in the details, or in this case, the paperwork

The same letter explained that after rebuilding the engine, he drove the car for a period of time, parking it in 1989 after a minor traffic accident, after which its condition deteriorated. This was preceded by an exchange of letters between Barnes and Dale Miller of the Collier Automotive Museum in Florida dated 19 December, 1991. While it didn’t shed much light on the early ownership chain of 000 018, Miller states that he wasn’t surprised that 000 018 ended up in Florida and at the time stated that it was a “pre-production” 901/911). Florida is home to many military installations. Miller felt that it was logical that one of the car’s early owners was in the US military and that he probably drove the car while stationed in Europe and that he imported it into the US at the conclusion of his tour. (In these less politically-correct times there wasn’t much thought that any of the car’s original owners was a woman.)

Miller mentioned that the early cars didn’t come off the line sequentially so there was little way to confirm that Don’s car was the 18th built but that was the original intent. (Remember this was 1991 and we knew and had documented far less about the 1964-built cars than now.) And finally there’s a letter dated 9 January, 1996, from the Porsche factory in Stuttgart to Barnes dealing with the car’s Vehicle Identification Number. It verifies that engine number 900127 is the correct block for the car and that the car was built in November, 1964. Other items of interest include verification of the car’s color and trim (signal red exterior, interior in black/shepherd leatherette) and that the car was delivered to its first owner in Germany (unknown) with just three options, an antenna, loudspeaker, and radio shielding. (It appears that the car was never given a factory-, port-, or dealer-installed radio as the car retains what we would now call a radio-delete trim panel.)

Correspondence between then-owner Ron Barnes and Dale Miller at the Collier Automotive Museum, dated 19 December, 1991

While other details remain unknown, Don confirmed that he did purchase 000 018 from fellow Porsche enthusiasts Eade Hopkinson and Skip Shirley in February 2007 (after they purchased the car on eBay) and that the car was basically in the condition shown on the “Vintage Porsche” website (atico.nl/camelot/register.html) based in the Netherlands. (Eade at one time owned a 1964 911, 000 221, that was sold by RM at Amelia Island in 2011.)

When asked what motivated the purchase of 000 018, Don had this to say. “The car appealed to me because of its historical significance, being one of the earliest surviving 901s and what it means to Porsche. I like unique cars with history and this fit that requirement. My good friend Freeman Thomas (currently design director, North American Strategic Design at Ford. He began his design career after his graduation in 1983 from Art Center College and Design in Pasadena, California with 7 inspiring years at Porsche followed by Audi and Volkswagen—where with J Mays was responsible for the design of the Audi TT and Volkswagen Concept One that became the New Beetle) was with me when I first viewed the car and had similar feelings about the car.”

TRANS-ATLANTIC RESTORATION

While there are many fine restoration shops in the US well-equipped to undertake a restoration of this magnitude and importance, when it came time to select the person who would restore his acquisition, Don had no doubt to whom he would turn: Alois Ruf.

“I have a long-standing relationship with Alois and had seen two 901s that he restored, including his blue 901,” says Don. “I believe he knows more about these early cars then anyone else. He says each of the earliest cars have different details reflecting the hand-built nature. Knowing that 300 018 was original and unmolested, Alois said my 901 had engine parts he had never seen before. The car was shipped to Ruf in September, 2008. The car’s restoration was completed almost four years later in June 2012.”

“I had the opportunity to be in Germany just as the restoration was finished,” relates Don. “Along with Alois driving his own 901, we drove our 901s on these beautiful back roads near the Ruf headquarters. It felt so right as this is where the car came from and the type of roads it was meant for. It was a moving experience.”

Photo taken in Germany, just after the restoration of #018 was completed by Alois Ruf (Photo courtesy of Alois Ruf/Dominik Maier)

When asked what were the most challenging aspects of the restoration, Don shared that it was finding the needed rare parts for the car. In this quest he was aided by both Freeman Thomas and Bob Smith here in California. Together they were able to find rare things like early tool kit, an original 901 steering wheel with alloy spokes, an original owner’s manual, and much of the unique 901 literature which was used as-is for a period of time in late 1964 and early 1965. Porsche used these materials after the name change from 901 to 911 at the “request” of Peugeot.

From the other side of the Atlantic, Alois Ruf was able to answer some questions about the restoration. “Don's 901 is the fourth that I have restored. At the age of 16 I personally took a crashed 901 apart for recycling purposes. I still have every detail of this car registered in my memory.”

One of the reasons why Don went forward with the purchase of 000 018 was that it was one of the earliest 901s with its original engine and transmission but Alois had this to say. “Don's 901 needed EVERYTHING, but yes, it was very original. The biggest challenge of the restoration was to repair and fabricate the correct panels. Much of the challenge of restoring a 901 comes from the getting all the little details correct as there are so many unique elements not found on later 911s.”

CHARTING THE CHANGES

When photographing and documenting the car with Freeman Thomas after its return to Southern California following Amelia Island, he walked us around 000 018, pointing out the differences between Don’s 901 and early 911s. “Starting at the front you’ll note that the horn grilles have no screws showing,” says Freeman. “When you open the hood you’ll see a few more differences, like the way the chassis number is stamped horizontally just below the aluminum serial number plate. And you’ll see that Don has a mint, complete tool kit, all the 901 manuals, and the large, fold-out 901 brochure.”

The ultra-rare, mint-condition early 901/911 tool kit, one of the details that sets this restoration apart from so many others

“Many people who know early 911s know about the shape of fuel filler flap,” says Freeman opening the driver’s side door. “But look under the dash and you’ll see a release for the fuel filler flap that’s different from the early 911s that followed.”

The release for the fuel-filler door is different than on the 911s that followed

“At the rear, when you open up the deck lid you will see that the latch panel that runs across the engine compartment is smooth with no detents and it lacks the decals found on later cars,” says Freeman. “And you’ll see that Don’s car has the proper decal on the air cleaner.”

In a restoration of this caliber it all comes down to the details like this proper decal on the air cleaner

Freeman notes that there are dozens of running changes that distinguish the 901 from the early 911s that followed. The Early 911 Registry in the US has documented many of the differences and continues to learn more from the 901s that have survived the last half century.

The stat of the evolution of the famed Porsche air-cooled flat six, in the early 901/911s displacing 2 liters with room to grow over time. This photo shows the smooth panel lacking the decals found on the later 911s

After we finished shooting, Freeman discussed some issues that arose when the car was judged at Amelia Island. It seems that the judges docked Don some points for the seats not having the correct number of pleats. “This was crazy as all the judges had to do was look at Don’s 901 owner’s manual to see that the number of pleats was correct.” It’s Freeman’s position that Don’s 901, having been so original to start with, is among the most “correct” of the surviving 901s, a sentiment shared by Alois Ruf

Yes, that's the correct number of pleats for the front bucket seats as verified by the original owner's manual and the short-run 901 sales brochure

In the course of our discussions on the car, the cost of the restoration never came up other than when Don joked about the price tag from Alois being in euros rather than dollars. Getting to know Don as well as we have over the years, it’s just not something that he’s comfortable discussing. What he is comfortable doing is sharing his automotive passions with like-minded enthusiasts.

Right after the 901 returned from Amelia Island, Don took out the 901 for a series of car-to-car shots. Hanging out the window or through the sunroof of his brother Joe's 911 (a cinematographer and director who has who has filmed several commercials for automobile manufacturers around the world), and through the viewfinder, one could see the smile on Don’s face. While we were just driving the 901 through an industrial area in Irvine, California, Don said he could have just as well been back in Germany on the Autobahn with Alois. That’s an experience that you can’t put a price tag on.

You would be smiling too if this Porsche 901 was part of your collection

Bravo Don, for sharing your love of the Porsche marque with the rest of your car enthusiast friends in Southern California and with Porsche enthusiasts around the world.

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