the first speedster
Porsche rarely misses an opportunity to produce an anniversary model, but it is significant that the 991 Speedster Concept celebrates 70 years of the sports car rather than 30 years since the best known 911 Speedster, the impact-bumper 3.2. In fact, there was a 356 Speedster built from 1954 for the US; a specific cut-down and denuded barchetta sold for owners who wanted a competitive weekend racer. Not offered in Europe, the Speedster was the choice of the thinking American club racer who might otherwise have bought a Corvette, an Austin Healey or a Triumph TR2. The Speedster’s replacement was effectively the 1955 550/1500 RS Spyder as Porsche’s competition-build models switched to mid-engine.
When the 911 was launched, its subsequent race-oriented versions – the S with its various Sportpaketed upgrades or the race-engined R – were all based on the Coupe, as there was no open version of the 911. A somewhat half-hearted attempt to make a 911 convertible to replace the 356 Cabrio had been abandoned, with problems of structural rigidity gone unresolved. After the ruckus stirred up by Ralph Nader, future US legislation seemed likely to outlaw open cars. In the circumstances Porsche’s Targa model, conceived quickly in 1965, appeared to fill the gap in the market for an open sports car.
Ten years later Porsche knew how to make an open 911 sufficiently rigid: work on a possible Cabrio 924 had shown that a combination of the transmission tunnel and stronger passenger bulkhead largely overcame structural concerns. However, this was at a time when under CEO Ernst Fuhrmann, development of the 911 had been halted in favour of the transaxle 924 and 928. Board member for engineering Helmuth Bott, an open car devotee, was frustrated at this, as there was now no technical reason not to reintroduce a convertible, and as far as Porsche sales personnel were concerned there was plenty of demand to justify the model.
Fuhrmann however was increasingly determined to make his legacy at Porsche the 928, and would not hear of it. Worse, feeling more and more isolated by his universally disliked stance on the 911, he is said to have threatened Bott with dismissal if the chief engineer persisted in a pet project of a simplified convertible 911, a latter day Speedster. Always loyal, Bott dutifully rolled the partially completed prototype out of his workshop in Weissach and into a discreet lock-up at the back. Then Porsche underwent one of those sea changes, which seem to occur at ten-year intervals during its history.