Saturday, August 15, 2009

How The Porsche Carrera Got It's Name

Since the featured marque at this years Monterey Historic's is Porsche I thought it a good time to post some interesting trivia with regards to Porsche and La Carrera Panamericana. Many know the Porsche's Carrera model was named to commemorate the marque's successive triumphs in Carrera Panamericana, the Mexican Road Race held during the early 1950s but the story is far more interesting than just that.

To say Dr. Ferdinand Porsche was an amazing engineer would be a major understatement. He also produced the fantastic S series for Mercedes, before returning to Austria to engineer farm tractors for Steyr and among other things he designed the Tiger Tank and the prewar 545-hp mid-engine Auto Union Grand Prix and Land Speed Record racecars. He was a pioneer in front-wheel drive, four-wheel drive, four-wheel brakes, automatic transmissions and streamlining, and yes he created the Volkswagen.

Porsche was arrested along with other prominent Germans after the country's surrender in 1945, and was jailed by the French. After he agreed to develop a Grand Prix car for an Italian industrialist, he was freed. His spirit broken, he died in 1951, and his son, Ferry Porsche assumed his place in the emerging Porsche empire. (is it just me or do the words Ferry and empire seem as if they dont work well in the same sentence?)

At first Porsche's many attempts at building a reliable race car were anything but successful. By the end of 1952, about 2,740 cars had been built; only about six percent of them had made the crossing to the Americas primarily to the sports car-rich Northeast and to car-crazy California. The cars were welcomed by enthusiasts who found them competitive on twisty back roads when challenged by American cars with three to five times the horsepower. Owners reasoned that if a Porsche could beat a Cadillac in a race from, say, Elmira to Binghamton, it most certainly could do the same for a longer distance, like the 2,000-mile Carrera Panamericana, which roared through the mountains, deserts and jungles of Mexico.

Hershel McGriff won the first La Carrera Panamericana in 1950 in his Oldsmobile 88 and averaged 78.4 mph. The next year Piero Taruffi and Alberto Ascari won in their Ferrari 212s. By 1952, the annual event had been placed on the international racing calendar and had captured the attention of some very fast factories, including Daimler-Benz, which sent its successful new 300SL sports racers to Mexico for their final racing appearance.

This was the year Porsche made its first appearance in Mexico with two race-tuned versions of the 90-hp Super 1500 engines one of which was a coupe that included a special limited production 356 American cabriolet with aluminum body which suggested the Speedster that would soon emerge. His was also the first Porsche equipped with a synchronized gearbox however the Mercedes dominated the race.

In 1953 there was a huge rule change that would inadvertently help out Porsche's race effort. The LCP organizers created two classes for stock and sports divisions based on horsepower. Now all things considered, it seemed as if the race would be on a more level playing field.

By now Porsche, was barely five years old trying to build a reputation but had won its class at both Le Mans and the Millie Miglia in 1952 but now there were 10 Porsches (out of 15 cars in that class) entered driven by some of the greatest list of international drivers in the world. Due to a high attrition rate by the end of the second leg of the race there were only seven cars left six of which were Porsches. The only non-Porsche was a Borgward which was really dominating the race. The Borgward had such a huge lead over the Porsches that when his engine began running poorly he simply pulled over and changed his plugs unfortunately the problem persisted.

The following chain of events led to one of the biggest breaks in Porsche's racing history. Determend to be the first of the small sports racers to cross the finish line at Juarez the Borgward driver began pushing too hard and began running on three cylinders so he proceeded at reduced speed since he was comfortable in knowing he had built up more than enough time to win. Ironically when he arrived at the finish line, third behind two Porsches, he knew his accumulated time would place him nearly one and three-quarters hours ahead. This alone was such a lead that it was unrealistic that Porsche could ever overtake the lead. The maximum allowable time for the 222-mile leg had been set at three hours; he had finished seven seconds over the limit and was disqualified. Just think... had he changed the plugs just 8 seconds faster the marque at this weekends Monterey Historics may have been the Borgward Carrera. Once again Murphy's Law and racing go hand in hand.

Oddly enough the intensely prepared factory entries, with world-class drivers, turned out to be not as reliable as cars in private hands since the privateers put less stress on their machinery. Clearly, the Carrera Panamericana course was unusually grueling. Ironically it was a Guatemalan coffee grower and amateur road racer who almost gave up the race in Mexico City because of exhaustion, took top money of 30,000 pesos.

In 1954 after the less-than-perfect victory in 1953, Porsche made careful preparations for Carrera V that would ensure its cars' lasting reliability. It's interesting to point out the 1954 winning Porsche was built in Pasadena California under license from the Stuttgart automaker. As the largest crowd in Carrera history watched the finish at Juarez, in person and on television, the Ferraris crossed the finis line at 140 mph, then the homemade racer of hot rodder Ak Miller followed by the silver Porsches of Herrmann, Segura and Juhan.
Porsche had lived up to management's expectations that year in Mexico. Its reputation for reliability was beginning to be heard and it had come of age in endurance racing.

The German marque knew it had finally earned its reputation. A little more than a year later, they announced the 356A—the Carrera.

A little more Porsche trivia... Having grown up during the onslaught of both the Muscle Car Era and the days of the Hippie movement, there was one Porsche that has stood out for me after all these years. It's Janis Joplin's unforgettable 1965 Porsche which now rest at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. It boasted a wowzer psychedelic / flower-power paint job that’s a swirl of day-glo flowers, star-sign symbols, cartoon butterflys and even a ‘portrait’ of her band, Big Brother and the Holding Company. The artwork really is emblematic of the psychedelic era. It's a well know fact that Joplin didn't just store it simply because it was one of her most prized possessions so she drove it around all the time. If it was parked on a street in San Francisco somewhere, you knew she couldn't be too far away.”

Janis and her Porsche at the San Francisco Palace Of Fine Arts

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