Driving Type 901 No. 57: Porsche’s Oldest 911 Provides a Magical Experience
The 911’s roots are murky, but the appeal is clear even 50-plus years later.
It's hard to pin down the Porsche 911's early history, especially around the time it made the transition from the 901 badge to the one that has become the benchmark for sports car handling and style. Take the car in these photos, for example. It's the 57th 901 built, but it was probably completed after some of the cars marked with higher numbers. Or maybe it wasn't—even official sources differ. But it was definitely built as a 901. Or not, depending how you look at it.
Porsche 901: The Oldest 911
In a way, No. 57 (as it's affectionately known around the official Porsche museum in Stuttgart, Germany) is the first 911, or at least among the first handful to be completed as 911s. Porsche was finishing construction of it at the Porsche factory in Stuttgart on the day the company acceded to Peugeot's trademark claim on the 901 name and changed the new 2+2 sports coupe's designation to 911.
"The special thing about this vehicle is that it was produced on the evening of [October] 22, 1964," said Alexander Klein, head of vehicle management at the Porsche Museum. "This was the exact day on which Ferry Porsche gave the instruction to rename all models built up to this point from 'Porsche 901' to '911. '"
Unfortunately, the next several decades didn't treat No. 57 too well. By the time it was unearthed in a true barn find in 2015, it was in true barn-find condition—looking like it had been under a stack of hay bales for a decade or more, missing fenders and a door, and generally needing much TLC. Porsche caught wind of its existence, verified the car's credentials, and snapped it up, filling the last and most painfully blank spot in the marque's collection of its own vintage cars, and making it the oldest 911 owned by Porsche.
Porsche restored the car fully over the ensuing two years and has displayed it in its museum since. Late last year, we were lucky enough to get a day to drive the car right out of the museum grounds and all around the surrounding city and countryside.
Behind the Wheel of Porsche 901 No. 57
So what's it like to drive a 901, maybe even the 901, after its authoritative factory restoration? While it's definitely a creature of its period—engine noise is ever-present in the cabin, the steering wheel is thin-rimmed and large-diameter, the brakes are stiff and require a substantial amount of force by modern standards, the shift lever's movements are vague, and the Hans Mezger-engineered 2.0-liter flat-six out back feels torquey, but only musters 128 peak horsepower—it's also clearly the start of something special.
Steering-wheel shape aside—it does look the part—the steering feel is startling for a car of this era. Given the tires' large sidewalls, the 50-plus-year-old chassis design (and 50-plus-year-old steel), and the lack of power assistance, you might expect the driver's sense of the front tires' contact patches to be muted or vague. Quite the opposite—the rear-mounted engine ensures there's minimal weight over the front axle, making the steering light, responsive, and full of feedback.
That tail-biased weight distribution is responsible for early 911s earning their reputation for sudden snap oversteer. Perhaps the thought of accidentally smashing an actual museum piece into a wrinkled red ball constrained our enthusiasm somewhat, but even when taking fast repeat passes of various stretches of winding road for the sake of photography, No. 57 displayed no ill-tempered behavior. It's also possible Porsche has made some adjustments to the car's alignment in anticipation of its use by those of us who actually wield keyboards as much as we do car keys for a living. Whatever the reason, this Porsche 901's dynamics were flawless. The controls' visceral feel made it easy to sense the car's balance, and the suspension held No. 57 surprisingly flat given the overall comfort and compliance in general driving.
The Porsche 901's pedal spacing complemented the steering feel and chassis balance. Even with somewhat less legroom than is ideal for a 6-foot, 2-inch frame, the driver's position and the brake pedal's height when pressed are spot-on for heel-and-toe downshifts, which are a special treat in No. 57, the 2.0-liter boxer engine's song sounding sweetest mid-blip. It's apparent the driver was the focus of the Porsche 901's engineers, vestigial rear seats and all.
Inside the No. 57 Porsche 901
You'd be forgiven for thinking Porsche perhaps rebuilt this car as a no-holds-barred ringer in an attempt to sweeten the memory of the 911's birth. In fact, however, Porsche left a lot of things "wrong" with No. 57 in order to preserve its true character. While about two-thirds of the sheet metal is original to the car, the remainder still isn't new—Porsche took it off of a period donor car. Likewise, much of the glass surrounding the open cabin is original, even if imperfect in places. Even the steering wheel has visible signs of repair.
"You can see that the car has lived and how," said Kuno Werner, head of the Porsche Museum Workshop. "We could have also restored this vehicle to a condition that is as good as new. However, that would have involved removing the traces of its life."
It's true, as Werner says, you can see the car has lived—and there's evidence it continues to be driven somewhat regularly, despite its status as a museum display piece. But it's also a stunner, the carefully curated aspects of its restoration leaving just enough authentic wear and deterioration to make a passerby on the street wonder if this might just be an immaculately preserved, 57-year-old survivor.
Because of No. 57's role at the manufacturer as the oldest Porsche 911, and also because, like the other Porsche Museum display cars, No. 57 is kept in running condition and actually driven regularly, there's always work to do maintaining the car. And, eventually, it will wear out even its newly remanufactured parts. Werner knows this, anticipating "it is possible that a car like No. 57 is never finished," but merely awaiting its next round of improvements.
We certainly hope so—and we hope we get the opportunity to drive it again to see how it continues to mature into its role as the living figurehead of the iconic Porsche 901, er, 911 range.
Porsche 901 (911) No. 57 Quick Facts:
- Date built: October 22, 1964
- Date found: August 5, 2014
- Restoration completed: December 2017
- Chassis number: 300 057
- Paint color: Signal Red
|1964 Porsche 911 (901) Specifications|
|ENGINE||2.0L SOHC 12-valve flat-6/128 hp @ 6,100 rpm, 128 lb-ft @ 4,200 rpm|
|LAYOUT||2-door, 2+2-passenger, rear-engine, RWD coupe|
|L x W x H||163.9 x 63.4 x 52.0 in|
|0-60 MPH:||8.0 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||131 mph|