Porsche built only one Cabriolet prototype of its fabled 901 and it survives – without a roof. Robert Coucher searches out the sunshine
You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!’ said Michael Caine, playing Charlie Croker in The Italian Job. In the case of this Porsche 901, he could have added: ‘You weren’t supposed to cut the bloody roof off!’ Well, the Porsche engineers at the Zuffenhausen works did just that to this 1964 pre-production Porsche 901 Cabriolet, which wears the fabled prototype chassis number 13 360.
The first car to bear the Porsche name was the ‘Type 356’ seen in 1948, based on Volkswagen drivetrain components. The two-seater sports car was mid-engined, made of hand-beaten aluminium and was… open. The philosophy of an open-topped 356A, 356 Speedster, B and C Cabriolet and Roadster model continued throughout the 356’s long production run.
Porsche launched the sleeker and much more modern 130bhp six-cylinder 901 at the Frankfurt motor show in September 1963. Only 82 Porsche 901s were manufactured before Porsche had to change the nomenclature to ‘911’, as Peugeot claimed the rights to the zero in the middle of its three-digit model numbers, the 404 being the Peugeot of the time. With some 2,885,374 Peugeot 404s produced in total over 30 years, rather more than Porsche’s production, Peugeot was in with a good shout when it went legal. Porsche 901s are rare and very sought after today by collectors, as only 30 are believed to exist.
Of course, the first 901 was a coupé and the initial production 901 was chassis number 300 007, which rolled off the line a year later on 14 September 1964. In the meantime Porsche engineers had been busy with development and testing. The engineers produced 13 mules or prototypes, seven in 1963 and six in 1964, and these are regarded as being über-rare by Porschephiles. The chassis numbers of these cars are prefixed by ‘13’ and all were destroyed with the exception of a coupé, number 13 327 (the seventh and last prototype built in 1963 – now fully restored) and this largely original Cabriolet, chassis number 13 360, built in June 1964. Thus it is the second oldest 901 in history – and the only 901 Cabriolet prototype.
Talking of history, it’s significant that the first 901 was launched as a coupé and not an open-topped car as with the first 356. This is due to the rapid decline in sales of the previous 356 Convertible in the 1960s, which by 1964 had fallen to only 16.9% of overall sales. And Porsche had to concentrate on getting its production costs tightened for the launch of the expensive 901, so a cabriolet version was not envisaged.
Yet Porsche’s marketing types were keen on an open car, particularly for the American market, where a sales boom in convertibles was suddenly reported. Ferry Porsche’s nephew Harald Wagner, head of sales in Germany, kept up the fight for a soft-top.
Coachbuilder Karmann was tasked with producing a prototype, this very car, chassis number 13 360, which was delivered from the Zuffenhausen factory without a roof and the monocoque chassis significantly braced and strengthened. The result was not met with much glee by many of the Porsche engineers. Said Wolfgang Eyb, the head of 901 body structure: ‘If a car will be configured as open and fixed-head versions, you build only the open version and then the closed version is based on it. Since the basic structure of the 901 was provided only for the coupé, we then should have done it the other way around – which was impossible…’
Then came the answer: Targa. ‘Targa’ is a name that conjures Porsche’s racing successes at the tough Targa Florio road circuit, and is a seemingly lateral moniker when attached to a roadgoing open-topped car. But at a Porsche sales conference a dealer from Cologne named Walter Franz threw ‘Targa’ into the ‘blue-sky-thinking’ hat, and then marketing-savvy Harald Wagner discovered that Targa means ‘shield’ in Italian, alluding to roll-over protection and stiffness. Instantly, an international synonym for responsible and safe open-topped motoring was born and is still very much apposite today.
Don’t forget that, at the time, the consumer safety advocate Ralph Nader (who published his book Unsafe At Any Speed in 1964) was on his high horse, especially concerning the Chevrolet Corvair with its swing axles and 911-like rear-mounted engine, notwithstanding that most owners were too tardy to pump up the tyres to the correct pressure, causing the handling to become rather ‘twitchy’. Yet Nader never actually wrote about any lack of convertible security, even though the US Department of Transport was supposedly grumbling about it. Mercedes-Benz had no qualms about launching its American-oriented 230SL Pagoda soft-top at the same time as the 901.
The reality was that the Cabriolet concept was not going to work with a cut-up 901 coupé bodyshell, but the Targa concept – stiffened by a rollcage and with added comfort, practicality and better looks, as well as a nod towards safety – would. The popular Targas went on to make up 40% of 911 sales, so the marketing (as well as the engineering) men at Zuffenhausen were correct in their initial assumption.
Meanwhile, 13 360 was purchased from Porsche by prominent racer and collector Manfred Freisenger around 1967, and then languished in his storage facility until it was discovered by aficionado Myron Vernis of Ohio in 2001. He swapped it for a 356B Carerra GS, fitted with a pushrod engine, which was valued at the time at $100,000. Many thought he was a bit meshuga.
Fortunately, Vernis realised that this Porsche was an important artefact and kept it original, only going through the engine to make it run properly and leaving the bodywork alone. His preservation of the car was rewarded with an invitation to attend the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 2013, for the 50 years of Porsche 911 celebration.
Then the 901 was bought by leading plastic surgeon Mr Alex Karidis in 2014 and shipped over to his Central London garage. Alex again resisted the temptation to restore the 901 and it remains honest, warts and all. We exhume the little Porsche from his subterranean garage (full of all sorts of other exciting machinery) and take it out into the London sunshine.
At first glance, and being brutally honest, the 901 appears a little odd. The total lack of any sort of roof, let alone a folding cabriolet top (it’s no longer with the car), confers a decapitated look, which was resolved with the better-finished and tightly engineered Targa configuration, now aped once more by the latest 991 Targa. Porsche only got around to introducing a production 911 Cabriolet in 1981, thanks to better-grade high-tensile steel, a full monocoque redesign and a 180bhp engine that could handle the extra structural weight.
Yet there’s much that’s positive about the prototype. On the road 13 360 feels tiny and delicate. Look around within the cabin and you’ll notice that the trim is cheap vinyl and prototype-tatty, but the door fits are impressively tight and they close with a nice clack, so the bodyshell is evidently in good shape. The side windows are Perspex and, under the front bonnet, the spare tyre has Fallversuch chalked onto it, which means the equivalent of ‘research’ in German.
The seats have houndstooth centre panels (unlikely to be original but of the period) and are bouncy and unsupportive. The 2.0-litre engine fires obstreperously, thanks to the period-correct but always lousy Solex carbs (Porsche replaced them with superior Webers and even better mechanical fuel-injection, PDQ) but the clutch is light, even if the gear linkage is less than direct.
So, let’s take this prototype for a blast and max it to its 6000rpm redline! Obviously not. While the Cabriolet feels much like any other early 911 on the move, at normal speed (turns out its structural rigidity was not much more deficient than the 356 Cabriolet’s) it is light and dextrous and does not shimmy or shake as you might expect. The ride is pliant, the brakes are sharp and the steering is direct, while the view is hugely panoramic.
This car is not about extreme road-testing: it’s a one-off 901 Cabriolet prototype. In fact it is the only 901 Cabriolet and as such should be preserved – just as Alex is intent upon doing. You don’t get a soft-top with this 911 but, as previous collector Myron Vernis commented: ‘If you had the only open Porsche 901 in the world, would you ever drive it closed?’
Amen to that.
Words: Robert Coucher // Photography: Paul Harmer