Back in my car repair days I remember burrowing under the hood of a Mercedes 300 SEL. We called them by their engine size so it was known as the 6.3. If memory serves, it was the water pump that I was trying to excavate from the maze of hardware and plumbing. About three hours into the job my friend Chuck ambled up, peeked into the darkness of the engine bay and said “German cars are always over-engineered.except Speedsters.”
He was right. The Germans have always produced sturdy, interesting cars but seldom can they be considered simple.
The Speedster was the suggestion of Max Hoffman, Porsche’s first US importer. Hoffman’s New York showroom had been selling coupes and cabriolets for fairly high prices, but Max clearly saw the need for a sub-$3,000 sports car to counter the British imports that had been selling so well.
The car could be a bare-bones rag top with side curtains. After all, this is exactly what the Brits were offering and nobody seemed to mind. Porsche’s current cabriolets were fully trimmed with fabric headliners, roll-up windows and a glove box. They had never built to a price before, as up to that time they catered to a well-heeled clientele who could afford the limited numbers of cars available.
Like other Porsches of the era, chassis construction was entrusted to Reutter. To meet the price target, Speedsters were nearly void of brightwork and the windscreen was a bolt-on affair rather than integral with the bodywork like a cabriolet. Seats were downgraded to simple steel pans with firm padding, the floors were covered with rubber matting and the top bows were fabricated from steel rod with a single layer of canvas. The dash fascia was simplified to the extent that there was no provision (or room) for a radio or glove box.
The $3,000 target was achieved with a bit of skullduggery on Hoffman’s part. The official US list price was $2,995 (about the same as a Healey 100-4), but in the small print was an extra charge of $81 for the heater, tachometer and side curtains. It isn’t very likely that any cars were delivered without those items, even on the base model 55HP “Normal.” For another $400, you could get the 70HP “Super.”
Skullduggery or not, Porsche sold 4,500 Speedsters during the model’s tenure from 1954 through 1959. Each year Porsche offered the car in both Normal and Super configurations. In 1954 and part of 1955, this meant a 1,500 cc power plant. In late 1955 the new 1600 engine was standardized and the horsepower options were 60 and 75. Other mechanical changes circa 1957 included roller bearing front spindles, a new oil pump (finally not VW based) and a ZF steering box to supplant yet another VW part.
There were cosmetic changes as well. Late 1956 saw the end of the “beehive” tail lamps, in favor of the teardrop style that would serve all 356s to the end of their production history. In conjunction with the tail lamp changes was a new license plate light; these changes can be found in various combinations with a confusing array of bumper over-rider treatments. The exact point when any component change occurred can be a source of argument amongst Porschephiles. Porsche was a small company and most changes were gradual so “transition cars” are probably more common than you might imagine.
The 1954 and early 1955 cars are called “Pre-A.” With their wooden floorboards, 16″ wheels, 230 mm brakes and Rube Goldberg clutch cable, they are more collector cars than drivers.
The A models (all chassis numbers above 80200) are a different story. The brakes are a full inch larger in diameter, the gearbox is better and they handle much more predictably on their 15″ tires. The changes (mentioned before) on the 1956 and later models make them the Speedster of choice for most buyers.
With any original engine option, it is necessary to use all the RPM available to get a Speedster to perform. By today’s standards these cars are not very quick – what they are is light. The steering, pedal effort and handling are all light and direct. All of these qualities were world class when the cars were new and probably explain why Speedsters are so popular and expensive today.
Like all rear-engined cars they are sensitive to side winds and prone to oversteer. Given these shortcomings, with a sensible approach they are still easy to drive fast, but they can be diabolical if the suspension is worn out. Everything on a Speedster is rebuildable so any car ban be resurrected if you can afford it. Maintenance is the key to a good Speedster.
A well-maintained example is also reliable. Being air-cooled, they will not boil like your MGA, and the Bosch electrics are trouble-free to the point of boredom.
Drivability and reliability are what makes these little bathtubs fun. Sure you can make them faster with the help of a 912 engine, and make them really stop with 356C disc brakes. But think of it this way: these cars were a balanced package as delivered. When dinosaurs (American cars of the fifties) roamed the highways there was nothing that could touch the Speedster. Even today, if left untouched, their original charm can still be felt and enjoyed. – Michael Duffey
Speedsters are a known quantity, and like their more expensive 300SL friends, have a large and dedicated following. Today, restored Speedsters are making $50,000 as a peak price, $30,000 is the number for drivers with incorrect bits, and restoration projects still abound at the $15,000 – $25,000 range.
Since every part ever made is available for a Speedster, the key to value is the quality of the restoration and the authenticity of the parts. Check door, hood and trunk gaps carefully, and examine the quality of the (inevitable) floorpan replacement welds.
As Duffey says, later model engines and suspension pieces will make a dramatic difference in the performance of a Speedster. However, they diminish the value. If you’re determined to have a “Q-ship” bathtub, you’re probably better off buying one of the well-executed replicas that are available in the $12,000 range used.
Speedsters will always appreciate as front-line cars in the collector market. Current values are low, and good examples are an excellent buy at this time.