1951 Porsche 356SL Gmünd Coupe

You can only be original once.

Nineteen miles south of Paris is the L’autodrome de Linas-Montlhéry. Created in 1924, it combines a banked oval with a road circuit.

Late in September 1951, it was the site of speed runs by a special Porsche, a 356SL Gmünd coupe fitted with an experimental 1,498-cc flat-4 featuring unique cylinder heads. Over the course of several days, the Porsche circulated the banking. It set records for 500 miles, 1,000 kilometers, and 1,000 miles, and ran 94.66 mph over 72 hours. Drivers included Richard von Frankenberg, Petermax Müller and Helm Glöcker.

After setting the records, the Porsche was driven to the Paris Salon de l’Automobile. There it was displayed on the company’s display stand — bugs, track scars, and all — another important step in the automaker’s growing reputation.

Today the car, serial number 3003, is in Miles Collier Collections at the Revs Institute in Naples, Florida … and what a long, interesting trip it has been.

We begin with that serial number. It is one of two for the car, the other being 356/2 055. This takes us back to Gmünd, Austria, just after World War II. To promote the idea of building a sports car, Ferry Porsche created a forward-looking mid-engine design. The tube-frame special constructed to that design was numbered 356/1. The 356 denoted this was Porsche’s 356th project since the design firm opened in 1931.

When it came to actually producing the first series of Porsche automobiles in 1949, it made more sense to alter the design to create a rear-engine Volkswagen-based sports car. Assembled in a sawmill in Gmünd, these cars had hand-hammered aluminum body panels and were labeled 356/2s.

At this point, the odd story gets still odder. Porsche planned to build 50 of the 356/2, but fewer than that were assembled in Austria before the company-in-exile moved back to Stuttgart, Germany, in 1950. There, it began to build steel-bodied versions of the 356. At that point, another handful of the aluminum-body cars – apparently 11 — were finished as SLs (for Sport Leicht) and given new serial numbers above 3000. Hence the two serial numbers for the Collier 356 … 356/2 55 and 3003.

What was the SL’s purpose? It was apparent that racing would be part of Porsche’s growing reputation, which explains the lightweight SL’s specs. Louvered metal panels replaced the rear quarter windows, aluminum belly fairings added streamlining, a special shifter was added, and fender skirts (what the Brits call full wheel spats) covered the wheels for better aerodynamics.

The alterations worked, and Porsche got the desired results with the 356 SLs. In addition to the Collier Collection’s SL speed records, perhaps the most impressive (and most reported) were first-place finishes in the 751- to 1,100-cc class at the 1951 and 1952 24 Hours of Le Mans, both with Auguste Veuillet and Edmond Mouche driving. These successes were complemented in 1952 by an overall victory in the grueling Liege-Rome-Liege rally and a class win in the Mille Miglia. Well-known Le Mans entrant John Wyer is reputed to have said of the Porsches, “interesting … but the engine is in the wrong end.”

Max Hoffman, Porsche’s U.S. distributor, imported a trio of the SLs. One went to John von Neumann, who raced it very successfully on the West Coast after cutting off the roof to create a “speedster.” The reworked racer was later discovered to be the 1951 Le Mans class-winning car. Its current owner, Cameron Healey, has had the car — chassis 3002 or 356/2 063 –restored to its Le Mans form.

The Collier SL went to Illinois and owner Ed Trego, who raced it for a number of years. And now it is in Naples, but the path to its current state involved some quality time spent in Essex, Massachusetts, where it underwent a comprehensive re-restoration.

As renowned restorer Paul Russell explained, the previous restoration had been done to “conventional standards of the 1980’s: nearly perfect paint, very shiny, nice door gaps, very, very straight, but in that regard not consistent with the way a car might have been built in this little tiny company basically fashioned by hand.”

Rather than settle for a cosmetically nice but inauthentic restoration, Miles Collier wanted it redone to properly represent a “point in time” of the car’s rich past. To accomplish this, a thorough investigation of the car’s history was necessary to help determine, with Miles Collier’s direction, which point in the car’s past the restoration would represent.

The investigation took the restoration team right back to 1951. It so happened 3003 won its class and was third overall in that year’s Liege-Rome-Liege rally the month before its record runs at Montlhéry. Landing on the car’s configuration for that event was a good historical choice as it visually took the car back to its competition roots.

The restoration would include the number 33 rally plates front, sides and back. Leather straps help secure the hood, which has a hole for the fuel tank’s filler cap. Added driving lights and exterior horns plus wire covers over the headlamps are other details that mark the car at the specific point in time, as does the correct license plate: W24-3475. Equally important are the many subtleties that this particular Porsche at this special time in its life exhibited. Meticulous 1951 details, many unseen.

To accomplish the ambitious restoration, Paul Russell and Company had to assemble information from many sources, much of it photographic. Happily, the car had been extensively photographed throughout its life. So the restoration team was able to secure photos from Montlhéry, the 1951 Paris Salon, and even from its first American owner. For example, pictures taken on his front lawn allowed the restorers to discern switch placement on the dashboard.

Then there was literature. And they re-examined the car’s pieces that had not been included in the previous restoration but had been saved and might now be put back in the car. Holes had been welded up, but why? What had been there? The so-called “witness marks” told stories and, at the same time, raised questions.

The community of automotive historians and restorers were able to add to the growing story of 3003’s past.

“This car did not have its original seats in it,” Russell said. “We were able to get help from a former museum director at Porsche to go into the Porsche museum and look at the car that they have and then basically send us drawings, photographs, and reference materials for how to configure the seats in this car, which then had to be built from scratch.”

On the matter of dealing with the parts removed when the car was restored in the 1980s, Chis Hammond, who works with Russell, noted the fact that Miles Collier retained them “took a lot of foresight.”

“One of the things they [the 1980s restorers] had done was make a beautiful new bulkhead and reinstall the correct chassis numbers,” Hammond said. “It wasn’t authentic. We had the original bulkhead, and we reincorporated that.”

Simple enough, right? Wrong.

Not only did the restoration craftsmen have to remove the skin from the top of the car to install the old bulkhead, but once the original was back in, it had 40 or 50 holes — though it only needed about a dozen. Which holes were original? The issue sent them back to the photographs and literature.

“It’s an interesting process where you study pictures, looking at photographic evidence and sometimes you get to point A and point C, but B is still missing,” Russell explained. “You have to kind of interpolate between the two to figure out where you have to end up. Part of that process is letting the car itself speak to you.”

To make the crucial decisions necessary to accomplish a restoration this authentic required understanding how the car was built and what the standards of the day were. The team then executed the work within those standards to make the same decisions the original builders made. Understanding the objectives of Porsche at the time — which was not to make a little luxury two-seater, but to make a competition race car — informed the restoration work, even to the point of leaving some aspects “unfinished.”

“You can only be original once,” Russell said, “but once having lost that, you can try to turn the clock back to represent what the car was at that time, with its character, feeling, and standards of the day.”

After Liege-Rome-Liege and then rocketing around the banking at Montlhéry in 1951, Porsche 356SL number 3003 has come full circle in more ways than one.