Porsche Speedsters: California dream machines

| 15 Sep 2022
Classic & Sports Car - Porsche Speedsters: California dream machines

Less is more. It’s a simple premise, and one that over the years the car industry has increasingly ignored to sate our appetite for ever more convenience, luxury and safety.

But in the early 1950s, one inspired individual truly embraced the principle and gave what was then the fledgling Porsche brand a lasting foothold in a major market, as well as influencing a series of now rare and collectible models.

Max Hoffman was America’s European-car import supremo, handling the likes of Jaguar, Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz through his Park Avenue showroom in New York City.

Classic & Sports Car - Porsche Speedsters: California dream machines

Each Porsche represents a different approach to the Speedster concept

In 1950, Hoffman met Ferdinand Porsche at the Paris motor show and agreed to sell Porsche’s recently launched 356 model in the United States.

Porsche stated that he’d be happy if five cars a year found American buyers, to which the ambitious Hoffman remarked: “If I can’t sell five a week, I’m not interested.”

By 1952, Hoffman’s somewhat gushing claims that the 356 was ‘One of the World’s Most Exciting Cars’ had started to bear fruit, and sales numbers had begun to grow.

Classic & Sports Car - Porsche Speedsters: California dream machines

Nimble balance and exquisite steering make the Porsche 356A Speedster the driver’s favourite

Porsche’s first production car had originally been launched in Europe in 1948, its streamlined two-seater body penned by company designer Erwin Komenda.

Borrowing the basic engine design – and some of its trailing-arm front and swing-axle rear suspension architecture – from the humble Volkswagen, the 356 was built on a bespoke steel platform and initially powered by a 1.1-litre, horizontally opposed air-cooled ‘four’ mounted behind the rear axle.

However, by adding its own design of cylinder heads, cams, crankshaft and intake/exhaust manifolds, as well as dual carburettors, Porsche liberated 35bhp from the engine, 40% up on the first Beetles.

Classic & Sports Car - Porsche Speedsters: California dream machines
Classic & Sports Car - Porsche Speedsters: California dream machines

The 356A’s spartan cabin features a non-standard three-spoke steering wheel

The light and nimble package had also started to cause shockwaves among the West Coast’s weekend racers, after John von Neumann – one of Hoffman’s customers, and owner of North Hollywood’s Competition Motors – purchased a car and started to campaign it at circuits around California.

This led to Hoffman lobbying Porsche for a lightweight version of the 356, to which the manufacturer’s reluctant response was the 356 America Roadster.

But this model, with its handbuilt aluminium body, was far too rich for the impecunious weekend racers Hoffman and Neumann were targeting, adding a 20% premium to the already costly $4500 Cabriolet.

In the end, just 16 examples were sold.

Classic & Sports Car - Porsche Speedsters: California dream machines

Porsche’s 356A Speedster introduced a shorter windscreen with rounded tops, which could be removed for racing

What was needed, Hoffman believed, was a sub-$3000 Porsche, shorn of all but essential equipment to keep the price and weight to an absolute minimum.

The 356 Speedster was Porsche’s answer, and it was an instant hit with the ‘race on Sunday, commute on Monday’ fraternity – as well as Hollywood stars such as Steve McQueen and James Dean.

Costing $2995 when it was launched in 1954, the Speedster took the 356 Cabriolet’s steel body, but did without such niceties as sound-deadening, carpets and even window-winding mechanisms.

Classic & Sports Car - Porsche Speedsters: California dream machines

The handsome 911 (behind) is a caricature of the focused 356

Visually, the regular 356’s windscreen was replaced by a cut-down item (removable for racing), with a steeper rake and rounded top corners, adding even more emphasis to the Porsche’s already sleek and curvaceous shape.

And in poor weather, a rudimentary single-skin hood could be deployed, along with separate sidescreens that plugged into the door-tops via small steel posts.

While the latter arrangement did help achieve a c150lb (68kg) weight-saving versus the 356 Cabriolet, it also became known as ‘the bathtub’ not only because of its appearance, but also for its propensity for leaking when it rained.

Classic & Sports Car - Porsche Speedsters: California dream machines

The 356A Speedster became known as ‘the bathtub’, partly due to its appearance and also its leaky single–skin hood

Since the first Speedsters were based around the pre-A generation 356, power was initially from either a 54bhp 1.5-litre air-cooled unit, or a mildly uprated version with 69bhp, known as the Super Speedster.

‘Our’ car, belonging to Mark Sumpter from Porsche specialist Paragon, is a later 356A-generation Speedster from 1956 (356B and C models did not spawn Speedsters).

Imported from California in 2015, Sumpter’s matching-numbers car would have originally produced 59bhp from its raised-capacity 1.6-litre engine, which had become standard fare for the A model.

Classic & Sports Car - Porsche Speedsters: California dream machines

Losing the hubcaps only adds to the classic Porsche 356A’s sense of purpose

However, when it was restored by Willhoit Auto Restoration in Long Beach, engine displacement was upped to 1.9 litres thanks to new barrels and pistons. Twin-plug heads were also added, along with electronic fuel injection and performance camshafts.

As a result, today the car is producing 140bhp, making it more representative of the 99bhp 1500 GS Carrera GT Speedster, which would probably have been the desired option if you were taking to the track back in the day.

We’ll discover what this shiny, jewel-like black machine is like to drive later, but first we need to jump forward more than three decades to continue the Speedster lineage, represented by the Carrera 3.2 and 964-series models that are currently dwarfing the 356.

Classic & Sports Car - Porsche Speedsters: California dream machines

The Porsche 356A Speedster’s original 1600 engine (left) has been stretched to 1.9 litres and a heady 140bhp

So, why did it take so long to bring back the Speedster name? The new-for-1963 Porsche 911 effectively replaced the 356, which soldiered on until 1965, though the Speedster variant had ceased seven years earlier.

It’s strange to think that the 911 – still on sale after nearly 60 years and 11 generations – was under threat by the 1970s, with some senior management seeing it as a dinosaur in light of technically more advanced front-engined models such as the 924 and 928.

And, had it not been for a dramatic Speedster-inspired, Carrera 3.2-based concept created by Porsche’s technical director, Helmuth Bott, and the foresight of a new CEO, Peter Schutz, the 911 might never have survived beyond the 1980s.

Classic & Sports Car - Porsche Speedsters: California dream machines

Porsche’s ‘bathtub’ 356A has a delightful purity to its design

Unveiled at the 1987 Frankfurt motor show, the 911 Speedster Clubsport concept was based on the narrow-bodied Carrera Cabriolet and, the firm claimed, was intended to: ‘Represent Porsche’s pure pleasure in driving sporty and “topless”.’

Weighing 154lb (70kg) less than the cabrio, the Speedster concept was a two-seater with a basic, single-lined roof stowed beneath a double-humped cover, with wind-up windows and even a removable ’screen.

As a statement of confidence in the 911 brand it was powerful, so no surprise that the following year the Speedster name once again entered Porsche’s lexicon.

Classic & Sports Car - Porsche Speedsters: California dream machines

After the 356A (front), more than three decades passed until the Speedster name reappeared on the 911 Carrera 3.2

Based on the standard 227bhp variant of the outgoing Carrera 3.2 model, Porsche’s second take on the Speedster was available in the UK with a choice of either a narrow or wide body, the latter mirroring the design of the 930 turbo from which it also took its more focused chassis set-up.

As with the original Speedster, there was no change to the mechanicals, the 3164cc flat-six having already been uprated when it replaced the 3-litre SC in 1984.

Delivering drive through the then relatively new five-speed G50 manual gearbox, Porsche claimed a top speed of 152mph and 0-60mph acceleration of 6 secs – almost identical to the standard Cabriolet, which was hardly surprising since it weighed in at 1210kg, just 10kg less than that model.

Classic & Sports Car - Porsche Speedsters: California dream machines

The wider ‘Turbolook’ body style is by far the most common on the Porsche 911 Carrera 3.2 Speedster, but there were also 171 narrow-body cars

If you were being cynical, you could argue that, despite preserving the back-to-basics essence of the original – manual windows, rudimentary rain cover (customers had to sign a disclaimer acknowledging that the car was not weatherproof!), a lowered ’screen raked by an extra 5º et al – this latter-day Speedster was never intended as a track-day warrior, and more of a low-volume collectors’ model.

That view was supported by its price when new: £52,850, when the regular Carrera Cabriolet started at £41,710.

However, its value today suggests that it would not have been a poor investment in 1989.

Classic & Sports Car - Porsche Speedsters: California dream machines
Classic & Sports Car - Porsche Speedsters: California dream machines

The Porsche 911’s more luxurious interior was a departure from the original Speedster formula – it also marked the introduction of the double-humped hood cover

Unsurprisingly, wide-body cars such as this accounted for 1942 of the 2103 Speedsters sold, though the less dramatic narrow-body cars now command a premium due to their scarcity.

For our final 964 Speedster, you need to flip those numbers. Produced between 1992 and ’93, just 15 cars were sold with the ‘Turbolook’ body and 930 with the narrow or ‘lean’ shape you see here.

Purchased by current owner Bill Robinson 20 years ago, this ex-Texas car betrays its US roots with deeper bumpers, a high-level brake light, a steering-wheel airbag, and options such as electric windows and air-conditioning.

Classic & Sports Car - Porsche Speedsters: California dream machines

The Porsche 911’s 3.2-litre flat-six is torquey, tuneful and flexible

It’s also believed that only one right-hand-drive 964 Speedster was equipped with this car’s four-speed Tiptronic gearbox.

Other than that, all the Speedster cues are in place – including a ’screen carried over from the previous generation – with the addition of an easier-to-operate hood mechanism and rather lovely RS-spec bucket seats as standard, complete with body-coloured frames.

Other than that, as with all 964s, this Speedster benefits from the larger, 3600cc flat-six and a small power increase to 247bhp, though an extra 287lb (130kg) of weight would have no doubt negated much of that advantage.

Classic & Sports Car - Porsche Speedsters: California dream machines

The 911 Carrera 3.2 Speedster’s steering is communicative and accurate, but surprisingly heavy, too

Our introduction to Speedster motoring starts with the 911 Carrera 3.2, however, and for once in my life being of below-average height (at 5ft 7in) puts me at an advantage, with my head just shy of the shortened windscreen’s top edge.

This being a traditional 911, it’s easy to pick fault with the ergonomics: the long-travel, floor-mounted pedals are sharply offset to the left, and the haphazard layout of the dashboard controls will keep a new driver fumbling around for a while on first acquaintance.

You may also have to peer under the upper rim of the chunky but handsome three-spoke wheel to check when you’re hitting three-figure speeds. But niggles aside, the 911’s vibrant, red-trimmed interior is an attractive and comfortable place to be.

Classic & Sports Car - Porsche Speedsters: California dream machines

After the 911 Carrera 3.2 (behind), the 964 911 continued Porsche’s Speedster lineage

Until you venture off smooth A-roads, that is, when the compromises wrought by the fairly unyielding, turbo-spec torsion-bar suspension become more pronounced, while also causing awkward shimmies through the roofless body.

The unassisted steering, while endlessly communicative and accurate, is heavy, when your expectation of a rear-engined car is that it’s going to be lighter.

The familiar overhead-cam, 3.2-litre flat-six engine is a delight, though, its aerated exhaust note bouncing off walls as we pick up speed across the Sussex Weald. And the G50 gearbox is a joy to use: rather long of throw, but with the short lever moving around its gate with a well-oiled precision.

Classic & Sports Car - Porsche Speedsters: California dream machines

The Porsche 911 (964) Speedster borrows styling cues from the potent 964 RS

You expect the 964 Speedster to be simply a more finely honed version of what you’ve just experienced in the Carrera 3.2, but it couldn’t be more different.

The 964 marked the single biggest departure from classic 911 form to that point, with a move to coil springing all round.

Purists may bemoan it as the beginning of the end, but here and now – setting aside the rather lacklustre nature of this car’s Tiptronic ’box – the 964 outperforms the 3.2 in most respects.

Classic & Sports Car - Porsche Speedsters: California dream machines

Bill Robinson’s US-supplied 964 Speedster has RS-spec bucket seats

Its steering through the rather bland-looking wheel is lighter, yet just as rewarding when the pace increases, and the ride, while being generally more pliant, combines with superior high-speed body control and a less fidgety structure.

The car I’d imagined to be a boulevardier is actually far more engaging to drive than expected, and with its chopped ’screen and Batmobile-style rear deck is quite something to behold.

Of course, this is British summertime, so the day wouldn’t be complete without precipitation. All three ‘rain covers’ are hastily erected, and while each has elements of which Heath Robinson would be proud, they’re manually in place (no electrics here) with all tonneaus – fabric on the 356, and large plastic covers on the 911 and 964 – secured in less than 2 mins.

Classic & Sports Car - Porsche Speedsters: California dream machines

Like the earlier cars, Porsche’s 964 is a strict two-seater

But honestly, if hood-up practicality concerns you, best opt for the Cabriolet versions.

The essence of Speedster motoring was always about driving purity, not ease of use, and nothing comes closer to achieving that than the 356.

Sit behind this car’s exquisite, non-standard three-spoke wheel and you’re faced with… well, not very much: three chrome-rimmed dials for revs, speed and various systems.

Rubber matting extends across the floor, with a foot-operated dip-switch and a couple of pull-out knobs for lights.

Classic & Sports Car - Porsche Speedsters: California dream machines

Porsche’s 964 Speedster has an enlarged 3600cc engine, mated to a rare four-speed Tiptronic auto

Each door is unfeasibly light and – like those on its modern brethren – the top edges neatly follow the line of the upper dashboard, wrapping around you in a continuous arc. Spartan it might be, but there’s an underlying quality about all the controls.

As Sumpter admits, this car drives far better than it would have done nearly 70 years ago, and that’s borne out as soon as we take to the road.

It’s the loudest of the trio by some margin, and the hard-edged, air-cooled bark from its exhaust is addictive as you change up at 5000rpm – still 1500rpm shy of the redline – through the notchy, rather wooden-feeling gearshift.

Classic & Sports Car - Porsche Speedsters: California dream machines

The essence of Porsche’s original, classic 356A Speedster (front) is present in the 911 Carrera 3.2

Grip from its modern radials is probably a bit too tenacious for the available performance, especially on a car weighing just 1750lb.

But the deliciously light, direct and uncorrupted steering is a thrill, as are the well-judged damping and overall structural tightness.

In short, it gives you more confidence than is probably prudent in a car worth £400k-plus. And that’s why the 356 Speedster is the only real keeper of our guiding ‘less is more’ mantra.

Great cars though the 911 and 964 are, they feel more like tribute acts in comparison.

Images: Luc Lacey

Thanks to: Porsche Club GB and Paragon

Classic & Sports Car - Porsche Speedsters: California dream machines

All three Speedster models share a thoroughbred DNA and the special driving sensations of a rear-engined Porsche

911 speedster: the modern generation

It was another 17 years before the Speedster name resurfaced after the 964 model, this time based on the 997.2-series 911.

Produced in 2010 by Porsche’s Exclusive department, the 997 Speedster had the requisite 77mm chopped from the height of its windscreen, with the rake unchanged.

However, this was by no means a stripped-out racer for the track, and pound-for-pound it was almost the same weight as a Carrera 2S Cabriolet.

Classic & Sports Car - Porsche Speedsters: California dream machines

Porsche reintroduced the Speedster name for the 997.2-series 911

It did, however, sport the ‘Power Kit’ 3.8-litre flat-six, producing 408bhp, and the PDK dual-clutch transmission, meaning 0-60mph in 4.4 secs and a 189mph maximum speed.

Just 356 (get it?) were built, with 14 reaching the UK at £144,100 each.

The most recent 991.2-based Speedster, though, made a welcome return to the model’s 1950s roots.

Classic & Sports Car - Porsche Speedsters: California dream machines

Porsche’s 991.2-based 911 Speedster marked a return to form

Developed by Porsche’s famous GT division, the 2019 special’s rear body-in-white was from the Carrera 4S Cabriolet, grafted to the front end of a GT3, complete with the carbonfibre wings and bonnet from the 911R.

Power came from Porsche’s epic, atmospheric 4-litre flat-six (redline: 9000rpm), delivering 503bhp to the rear wheels, only through a six-speed manual gearbox.

The price? £211,599.


Classic & Sports Car - Porsche Speedsters: California dream machines

Porsche 356A Speedster

  • Sold/number built 1955-’58/3676
  • Construction steel platform with unitary steel body
  • Engine all-alloy, ohv 1582cc flat-four, with twin downdraught Solex/Zenith carburettors
  • Max power 59bhp @ 4500rpm
  • Max torque 81lb ft @ 2800rpm
  • Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
  • Suspension independent, at front by trailing arms rear swing axles; transverse torsion bars, telescopic dampers f/r
  • Steering rack and pinion
  • Brakes drums
  • Length 12ft 11½in (3950mm)
  • Width 5ft 5¾in (1669mm)
  • Height 4ft 3¾in (1320mm)
  • Wheelbase 6ft 10¾in (2101mm)
  • Weight 1750lb (794kg)
  • 0-62mph 13.9 secs
  • Top speed 99mph
  • Mpg 37
  • Price new $2995 (pre-A 356 Speedster)
  • Price now £3-400,000*


Porsche 911 Carrera 3.2 Speedster

  • Sold/number built 1988-’89/2103
  • Construction steel unitary
  • Engine all-alloy, sohc-per-bank 3164cc flat-six, Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection
  • Max power 227bhp @ 5900rpm
  • Max torque 209lb ft @ 4800rpm
  • Transmission five-speed manual, RWD
  • Suspension independent, at front by MacPherson struts rear semi-trailing arms; torsion bars, telecopic dampers, anti-roll bar f/r
  • Steering rack and pinion
  • Brakes ventilated discs, with servo
  • Length 14ft 1in (4291mm)
  • Width 5ft 10in (1775mm)
  • Height 4ft 2½in (1280mm)
  • Wheelbase 7ft 5½in (2273mm)
  • Weight 2667lb (1210kg)
  • 0-62mph 6 secs
  • Top speed 152mph
  • Mpg 25.9
  • Price new £52,850
  • Price now £150-200,000*


Porsche 911 (964) Speedster

  • Sold/number built 1992-’93/945
  • Construction steel unitary
  • Engine all-alloy, sohc-per-bank 3600cc flat-six, Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection
  • Max power 247bhp @ 6100rpm
  • Max torque 228lb ft @ 4800rpm
  • Transmission five-speed manual or four-speed Tiptronic automatic, RWD
  • Suspension independent, by MacPherson struts, coil springs, telecopic dampers, anti-roll bar f/r
  • Steering rack and pinion
  • Brakes ventilated discs, with servo and ABS
  • Length 14ft 3in (4275mm)
  • Width 5ft 9¾in (1775mm)
  • Height 4ft 2½in (1280mm)
  • Wheelbase 7ft 5½in (2272mm)
  • Weight 3000lb (1360kg)
  • 0-62mph 5.7 secs
  • Top speed 162mph
  • Mpg 24.6
  • Price new DM131,500 (1992)
  • Price now £175-200,000*


*Prices correct at date of original publication


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