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1954 Porsche Speedster


Speedster and 356 - a name and number that have invoked motoring magic for almost six decades - were heard again at the Los Angeles Auto Show this week with Porsche's U.S. introduction of the iconic model's fourth edition.

Only 356 will be built; just 15 are slated for Canada, priced at $245,900 each.

The first Speedster arrived in North America in 1954 - a stark, light, quick and cheap version of Porsche's original 356 model - and went on to become a sports car legend, playing a pivotal part in establishing Porsche's reputation here over the following four years.

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This despite, according to Porsche history author Mike McCarthy, having a shape "often referred to as an inverted soap dish in polite circles … a hilariously dumpy, squat, beetle-browed pudding bowl on four wheels."

And if Speedster sounds like it has a more gee-whiz American than German ring to it you're right. It appears to have been coined to describe sporty U.S. cars early in the last century and, oddly, was used by Studebaker (which had contracted Porsche to do some prototype work in 1952) for a model it also sold in the mid-1950s.

Porsche resurrected the name in 1988 on a 911 Carrera-based special - which introduced the double-bubble cover for the soft-top - and used it again with the next evolution of the Carrera in 1993-94.

The latest Speedster is also 911 Carrera-based, with a windscreen chopped 60 mm, that double-bubble top cover, black and white checkerboard seats, wider rear bodywork and a 408-hp, 3.8-litre flat-six that gets it to 100 km/h in less than 4.5 seconds and to a top speed of 305 km/h.

Back in 1954

Sixteen-year-old Marilyn Bell becomes the first to swim Lake Ontario, taking 20 hours and 59 minutes to cover the 52 km from Youngstown, N.Y., to Toronto.

Devastating storm Hurricane Hazel hit the newly incorporated Metropolitan Toronto area and resulted in the deaths of 81 people.

It was a big year for television with RCA Victor marketing the first colour TV, on which could be watched new programming that included The National on CBC, The Tonight Show, Lassie and The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin.

Vancouver hosted the Commonwealth games, which saw the "Miracle Mile" run in less than four minutes by both Britain's Roger Bannister (who became the first to run a sub-four-minute mile earlier in the year) and Australian John Landy.

World's first nuclear power station begins producing electricity for Russia and Bell Laboratories reveals a "solar battery" that converts sunlight to electricity.

That's considerably more performance, handling, luxury and - well just about everything - than the original Speedster offered. But times were simpler when it arrived late in 1954 priced at $3,000 (U.S.) - equivalent then to the U.S. average annual salary, which today is about $50,000 - not a quarter of a million dollars.

The Porsche saga began with the legendary Professor Ferdinand Porsche in the 19th century dawn of the auto industry, but was continued by his son Ferry following the Second World War, who created the first Volkswagen-based Porsche 356 prototype in 1948.

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By 1950, the 356 was in series production and came to the attention of New York-based auto entrepreneur Max Hoffman, who was busy cashing in on the growing U.S. demand for European cars. A meeting between Ferry Porsche and Hoffman resulted in a contract to supply 15 Porsches a year and the first three 356s arrived in the fall of 1950.

The small, rear-engined but surprisingly fast German cars proved a hit and Hoffman was soon selling a dozen a week and was keen to improve on that. To do so he felt he needed a more affordable model and Porsche's response was the Speedster.

It had already made a stab at producing what Hoffman had in mind with the America Roadster of 1952, an aluminum-bodied, lightweight, racing-oriented machine, but only perhaps 20 of these $4,600 cars were built.

The Speedster was built on the existing cabriolet's chassis, but with unique two-seater bodywork and stripped of most amenities. Its windshield was a cut-down affair and the top a canvas pup-tent that, when erected, limited outside visibility to little more than the view through the gun-slit screen and blurry images through the clip-on plastic side windows.

The 1954 Speedster's driver and passenger sat in seats that were pared down to the minimum and looked out over a sparely equipped dash panel. The benefit of this Spartan approach was a car some 70 kg lighter than other 356s. That was a big deal, as the air-cooled, horizontally-opposed, 1.5-litre "Normal" engine produced just 55 hp and the optional for $500 "Super" with roller-bearing crank made 70 hp. Both came with four-speed gearboxes. It took the former more than 14 seconds to get to 100 km/h and the latter about 10 seconds.

Suspension was essentially Volkswagen, a torsion bar trailing arm system up front and simple swing axles at the rear, the latter notorious for creating snap-oversteer if the car's cornering limit was exceeded. Drum brakes and 16-inch wheels shod with skinny tires completed the Speedster's specification.

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I'll leave it to McCarthy to describe what made the Speedster, which was replaced in 1958 by the more elaborately equipped (and profitable) Convertible D, so magic.

McCarthy, after his first drive in a Speedster, says it had "that indefinable something … that cannot be duplicated. There is a delicacy, a precision, a lightness of controls that is unique. The steering is beautifully light and precise. The gear-change merely requires two fingers to flick it through the gate and the clutch is smooth. The engine responds instantly to the throttle. Treat it with finesse and it behaves like a thoroughbred horse, almost reading your mind in its reactions. To cap it all there is that other Porsche feel of quality about the car, taut, solid and rattle-free."

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