Brian Henniker copyright and courtesy of Gooding & Company
Porsche presented here is a recently discovered garage-find example of the most iconic 356 model — the Speedster. According to the Porsche Kardex, this rare Pre-A Speedster was completed on July 29, 1955, finished in white and bound for the U.S., where it was retailed by official U.S. distributor Hoffman Motors in New York. Remarkably, this car has resided in Southern California for over 50 years, as evidenced by its classic black plates and file of original records dating back to 1965.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1955 Porsche 356 Speedster
Years Produced:1954–55 “Pre-A” 356 Speedsters
Number Produced:1,234 Pre-As
SCM Valuation:$258,500
Tune Up Cost:$750–$1,000 with new wires and cap-and-valve adjustment
Chassis Number Location:Steel plate to left of the gas tank; stamping on body panel in trunk in front of the gas tank, tag on driver’s side front door jamb
Engine Number Location:On engine-case boss under the fan, facing rear
Club Info:Porsche 356 Registry, Porsche Club of America
Alternatives:1948–54 Jaguar XK 120, 1953–56 Austin-Healey 100, 1954–65 Alfa Romeo Giulietta
Investment Grade:B

This car, Lot 67, sold for $258,500, including buyer’s premium, at Gooding & Company’s Geared Online sale on August 7, 2020.

Introduced in 1954, the Speedster became an epochal model for the young Porsche firm. It remains so today, one of the few early Porsches desired not only by Porsche aficionados but also by general car collectors — sometimes their only 356 or even their only Porsche.

Coming to America

Born in 1904 outside Vienna, Max Hoffman was the son of a successful bicycle manufacturer. Early in life, Hoffman had success racing and selling motorcycles and automobiles. Hoffman fled Europe during World War II, emigrating to America in mid-1941. He prospered in New York City by selling metallic-coated plastic jewelry, a wartime invention of necessity. After the war, he leaned on his automotive contacts in Europe, and over time became the U.S. distributor for marques such as Alfa Romeo, BMW, Fiat, Jaguar, Lancia, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Volkswagen.

Hoffman signed his deal with Porsche at the October 1950 Paris Auto Show. He sold three Porsches in 1950, 32 in 1951, and 283 in 1952. Porsche’s U.S. sales grew to over 2,000 cars annually by the decade’s end, about half of Porsche’s production at the time. But despite his sales and development talents, Hoffman was not an “agreeable” business partner. He made most of his money by selling his distributorships back to manufacturers, sometimes with royalties on future sales. He was worth a reported $70 million when he died in 1981.

An Americanized Porsche

Hoffman believed in the marketing power of racing success, so he approached Porsche with his idea for a stripped-down, lightweight racing roadster. Ferry Porsche and his engineers translated that idea into the 1952 “America Roadster.” Body maker Heuer built just 16 of the aluminum-bodied roadsters on Porsche’s steel cabriolet chassis. The cars were racing successes with stock 1,488-cc engines simply because once denuded of their tops, windshields, bumpers and accessories, they weighed as little as 1,365 pounds. At $4,600, they were expensive — yet even so, the car was a money-loser for both Heuer and Porsche.

Hoffman persisted. At a meeting in New York in May 1952, he laid out his ideas to Ferry Porsche and body engineer Erwin Komenda for a steel-bodied sports roadster. Hoffman proposed a price under $3,000, to be achieved by making almost any loose part a “mandatory option,” including the tachometer, side curtains, top and spare tire. He promised sales of 2,000 cars in the U.S. and placed an order for the initial 200 as a measure of good faith.

By June 1954, Porsche had hand-built a prototype, serial number 12223/80001, followed by three more in August, numbers 80002, 80003 and 80004. Soon the red prototype #80002 was in Hoffman’s hands; he showed it at the September 17–18 road races at Watkins Glen. Hoffman even had an ad for it in the race program, calling it a “roadster … for competition and everyday use.” The “Speedster” name appeared for the first time in a Porsche press release the next week, attributed to Hoffman and probably borrowed from pre-war models from Packard, Auburn, Duesenberg and even Ford.

The first Speedsters

The first Speedsters were spartan, hand-made on modified cabriolet substructures, with shell seats, side curtains and lightweight shell tops. The low top and “chopped” windshield gave the car an arresting side profile.

Road & Track published a positive road test in its May 1955 issue, calling it “a most desirable machine” and a good value at $2,995. The buying rush was on. In September, Porsche introduced the revamped 356A with new bodies, suspensions and 1,582-cc engines that offered more horsepower and torque. Speedsters adopted the new engines in October, with other enhancements coming in January 1956.

The changeover to teardrop-shaped taillights, replacing the beehive taillights, and a shine-up license plate light, replacing the shine-down unit, was credited to chassis #83201, built in March 1957. The T2 356A, with cosmetic and mechanical upgrades, was introduced in September 1957.

Porsche also built 151 Carrera Speedsters with 4-cam racing engines, 15 as pre-As and 136 As. Most had the 1,498-cc, 110-horsepower Type 547/1 engines, followed later by the uprated 1,587-cc Type 692 engines. The 1957–59 stripped “GT” Carrera Speedsters, especially the aluminum-panel cars of 1958–59, were the ultimate racing 356s. They sit at the top of the 356 food chain and are hugely collectible now, commanding $2,000,000-plus.

Decline and modern rebirth

Only five years after introduction, the Speedster was outdated. Unlike some competitors, Speedsters were good street cars only in dry, warm climates due to their limited protection from the elements. Other cars such as the Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spyder had roll-up windows, a taller top with better vision, better heat and more-comfortable seats.

This problem, along with waning interest in amateur weekend racing, limited demand. To compete, dealers wanted a comparable Porsche model, which quickly led to the 1959 Drauz-built 356 Convertible D and then three years of similarly equipped Roadsters.

Although the Speedster died, interest rekindled a few decades later. In the 1960s and 1970s, old Speedsters sold for less than $2,000, as buyers preferred the comfortable, weather-tight, padded-top cabriolets or shell-top roadsters. That changed in the 1990s, and then turned into a boom in the past decade. In 2015–17, excellent pushrod-engine Speedsters were topping $500,000. While the cars have softened in the past several years, they are still extremely desirable.

Porsche built 4,145 Speedsters, of which 1,234 were Pre-As. While the first 200 model-year 1954s have collector appeal, all pre-As are for polite street driving. Enthusiasts prefer the better-driving 356As. As usual, the devil is in the details: originality (especially build card matching-number engines), engine horsepower (Normal or Super), paint color, options, who restored it, and who rebuilt the engine and gearbox. This is a “specific example” market, with prices varying by hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Our auction example

On the positive side, this Speedster was a lifelong California car, so perhaps it has been spared a visit from the tin worm. The car had three owners, all known, and came with paperwork. It had some restorable original trim.

On the negative side, it had a 1964 356 SC engine, an unknown gearbox, later 15-inch wheels (pre-As had 16s from the factory), a badly failing repaint, and what looked like plastic filler puddled in a door jamb. The interior had been redone in non-original materials and colors. There were failing rubber seals, odd louvers had been punched into the rear lid, and a roll bar was added. A repro bag 1960–61 partial toolkit was included. The car had been stored for over 20 years, so it needed a thorough mechanical rebuild.

The final price of $258,500 after buyer’s premium was, indeed, all the money. For an additional $75,000 or more, this car could be a decent driver. For $250,000-plus, it could be beautifully restored. But when completed, the buyer probably would be underwater, and in a less-desirable Speedster. As is frequently preached on these pages, buy an excellent example of a highly desirable model, save years of work, angst and financial bleeding, and enjoy your car from day one. ♦

(Introductory description courtesy of Gooding & Company.)

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