Porsche won its first Le Mans in 1951. Sure, it was a class win in the 1,100cc class, but it was the start of something big.
Porsche would go on to take the overall win at Le Mans 18 times, with many more class victories as the years went on, truly one of the greatest dynasties in motorsports history. But it all started with little car No. 46, a Gmund Porsche with ungainly wheel spats, three windshield wipers and about 46 hp. It wasn’t a particularly attractive car, at least not compared to the powerfully beautiful 550s, 911s, 906s, 910s, 908s, 917s, 956s and 962s that would come later. But it was the first, and therefore it's historically significant.
The question for many years was, where did it go?
“The history had been unknown as to which car was the winning car at Le Mans,” said Porsche restoration specialist Rod Emory. “And so after the cars came to the States … this particular car ... I’ll just start from the beginning.”
Yes, back in 1948-49, Porsche was building the earliest of 356s, called Gmund Porsches after the town in Austria where they were being hammered together. They might have made 50 of those cars and things were looking good for the tiny sports-car maker. They had just moved the operation back to Stuttgart when …
“… in 1950 Porsche was at the Paris auto show and they were asked by the organizers of the 24 hours of Le Mans to show up at the 1951 race with an entry in the 1,100cc class,” said Emory, who, 66 years later, would find himself centrally involved in that venture.
Engineers took four of the Gmund SL bodies left over from the Austrian werks and started testing them to see what parts and tweaks might work as a race car. They put louvered quarter windows in the cars, fender skirts on the fenders and flat bottoms underneath to increase the aerodynamic efficiency they added a special 1,100cc engine and lightened them up as much as possible, installing special fuel tanks with the gas filler poking through the hood. One of those four test-race cars crashed during that development period. Of the three remaining, they brought the two best cars to Le Mans with Nos. 46 and 47 painted on them. No. 47 crashed in practice, which left them with just one car for the 24-hour race, No. 46
“So they start the race, and the car ends up winning the 1,100cc class and also beating all of the 1,500cc cars and it finished 20th overall,” said Emory. “So that’s a pretty significant victory for a car company that shows up for the first time at Le Mans with a little 1,100cc car.”
After Le Mans Porsche wanted to continue to publicize their sports cars, so they entered two of the race cars in the Liege-Rome-Liege rally and then in the Montlhery speed trials, where they set a number of records. From there, Porsche converted the cars back to street use and sold them to American importer Max Hoffman in New York. At that point exactly which car was the No. 46 Le Mans winner was a little unclear.
“There were VIN numbers, but they weren’t documented,” said Emory. “As we look into the history, one went to Mexico to race La Carrera Panamericana one stayed on the East Coast and then John von Neumann, the Porsche dealer here in Southern California, bought chassis No. 63.”
Von Neumann raced that car at road courses at Pebble Beach, Torrey Pines and Golden Gate Park.
“Then, because at that time there were privateer Glockler Porsches coming out and talk that there were going to be convertible Porsches coming to the scene, von Neumann took the car and had the roof cut off.”
That was in 1952. After von Neumann, there were a couple other owners of the now-roadster before a racer named Chuck Forge bought the car in 1957 and raced it until 2010 - an incredible run of 53 years of the same guy racing the same car. What a life that must have been!
When Mr. Forge passed away in 2010 after that fabulous life, the car was offered for sale to “a select group of potential buyers.” Emory and his friend and client Cameron Healey went after the car. The pair had collaborated on a number of Porsches over the years, Emory as the builder/restorer and Healey as the owner/driver. (Healey has excellent taste in Porsches, by the way. His collection includes: three 908s two Porsche-powered Coopers, aka Poopers a 911 RSR a 911 RS a ’64 911 and a ’53 Cabriolet. His daily driver? A 10-year-old diesel Beetle, which he runs on his own mix of biodiesel. We love this guy.)
But buying the Forge Porsche was a bit of a gamble, since at that point it wasn’t at all clear which of the four Gmund racers this one was.
“We had limited information leading up to it, but I had a strong hunch, myself and Cameron, that this was the Le Mans-winning car.”
So Healey bought it and they started digging through archives, libraries and press reports to see if Emory’s hunch was right. It was through all that research that Emory and Healey noticed a few subtle distinguishing characteristics that No. 46 had that the three other cars didn’t.
“One being the door handle pocket on the car,” Emory said. “The other cars had this little teardrop door pocket, No. 46 had a big wide-open door handle pocket. Tracking the historical photographs of the car, we were able to see that this car traveled all the way through with that big door handle pocket. It also had a greater peak at the top of the windshield. So if you look at this photo (he showed us a photo) you can see that that has more of a peak than those two cars. So there were a couple of key physical characteristics that pointed to this being the Le Mans-winning car.”
Two divots in the hood that showed up in photos throughout the car’s life also helped ID No. 46.
So they were certain they had the car. The question then became what to do with it.
“We said, ‘If we could prove definitively beyond the shadow of a doubt that it was the Le Mans-winning car, then we would restore it back to its configuration,” said Emory. “But if it wasn’t, then we would retain the history of the car as the John von Neumann roadster, because you want the car to ultimately live on in the future at its prime, at its most significant point in history.”
And since that point was Le Mans ’51, they had to put the roof back on. You can’t get a Gmund roof in the Whitney catalog.
“So what we did, we used 3-D scan technology,” said Emory. “I scanned any cars that I could get my hands on then we took that information, because now we’re starting with that car, and we took the data, compiled it and then I was able to get enough information that we comfortably created the lines that we needed to build the roof and to rebuild the body so that we could build it back to how it ran Le Mans.”
And when it ran at Le Mans it was not exactly perfect. So neither are the lines on the restoration.
“It’s not overrestored, it’s got weird gaps, funky-fitting doors, the numbers are painted by hand with brush strokes because we did it exactly to how it was built,” said Emory. “These were hand-built cars with character.”
Emory made big wooden bucks based on the 3-D scans, and on those bucks he power-hammered out and English-wheeled the roof and other big parts.
When the metal was done, they showed it at Rennsport Reunion with no paint, just the bare metal. When the rest of the work was finished, they showed it at Pebble. They will show it at other appropriate venues, too. What are the plans for the car now?
“Just to share it with the world at the appropriate venues and tell its story,” said Healey. “It’s fun bringing it out for the world and watching people’s responses to it.”
So keep an eye out for No. 46. And look at that door handle pocket.
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