Words: Mike Ryan
Photos: Porsche Newsroom and RM Sothebys
Today, every prestige and luxury car brand either has an SUV in their range or is close to bringing one to production, as the widespread appeal of the SUV is something that even the stuffiest and most tradition-bound automotive brands can’t ignore. Porsche was amongst the first premium marques to introduce an SUV, with the Cayenne going into production in 2002. But almost five decades earlier, another four-wheel drive off-roader wearing a Porsche badge was introduced…
The ‘Type 597’ is perhaps the most obscure Porsche of all time. Not surprising, really, as it was produced in very few numbers and for a very short time. Rare as it is, the Type 597 did show that Porsche could not only build a four-wheel drive that was very capable off-road, but one that remained true to Porsche’s performance pedigree, too.
Germany’s first decade post-World War II saw some remarkable economic growth and recovery. That was evidenced most clearly in the auto industry, with Volkswagen becoming a force domestically and soon to spread that influence internationally.
The Cold War was also influencing what was going on in Germany at the time – or West Germany as it was known then. While it may have grated against many with fresh memories of the horrors they’d experienced just a few years earlier, a large, strong and mobile German Army was considered essential in supporting other Western armies as a bulwark against the Eastern Bloc forces led by the Soviet Union.
Demilitarised and under occupation since 1945, it was only with the formation of the Federal Republic of Germany (aka West Germany) in 1949 that any consideration was given to forming a new standing army for the country, but when that decision was made, moves to equip and arm the army proceeded at pace.
Part of that process involved modernising the army and one of the areas identified in need of modernisation was transport, including light vehicles for reconnaissance and patrolling, troop movement and general cargo duties that didn’t require larger trucks and personnel carriers.
As such, the new German Army (it wouldn’t be officially known as the Bundeswehr until late 1955) put out a tender in 1953 for a vehicle to replace the WWII-era Kubelwagen that was still in use in some areas, as were the Ford GPW and Willys MB Jeeps from the Allied forces.
The requirements of the tender were exacting, with the winning vehicle to be fast and agile, weigh less than a tonne, be suitable for off-road use, simple to operate, reliable, easy to service, with a 24-volt electrical system to handle radio equipment, water-fording and hill-climbing ability, as well as a large carrying capacity – four fully-equipped soldiers and extra gear at a minimum.
Apparently, four-wheel drive wasn’t specifically stated as a requirement – the Kubelwagen was two-wheel drive – but “suitable for off-road use” made it virtually mandatory.
At the time the tender was announced, Porsche was progressing nicely with its 356 sports car and related offshoots, as well as its tractor business, but it was looking to expand, and the military contract presented an opportunity to do so.
Along with Porsche, both Auto Union (under the DKW brand) and Borgward (under the Goliath brand) would also engage in the tendering process, but curiously, Volkswagen chose not to take part. Presumably, demand for the Beetle and Transporter was keeping them busy enough.
The Type 597
While Porsche wasn’t the largest of the three German companies to respond to the German Army tender, they were perhaps the most innovative. They also had an advantage in their founder, Ferdinand Porsche, who had not only created the original Volkswagen, but also had a hand in designing the Kubelwagen and related Schwimmwagen for the Wehrmacht during WWII. Both these military vehicles used VW engines and other parts.
That heritage, along with the layout of Porsche’s current 356 model, explains why the Type 597 used a rear-mounted, air-cooled engine where their rivals used front-mounted water-cooled units.
That engine was Porsche’s existing 1.5-litre flat four from the 356; detuned but still producing around 50hp (37kW) and capable of delivering a 100km/h top speed.
The full synchromesh four-speed transmission carried over from the 356, too, but with an additional ultra-low ratio added to allow the Type 597 to progress at walking pace – matching that of marching soldiers.
To incorporate four-wheel drive into the design, Porsche engineers added a shaft off the existing secondary gearbox shaft that ran to a front differential fixed to the body, which in turn was connected to oscillating axle shafts. Anticipating that such a vehicle would spend as much time on the road as off it, the driven front axle could be disengaged, essentially giving the Type 597 selectable four-wheel drive. Suspension was independent all round, made up of torsion bars and shock absorbers, with drum brakes fitted all round, too.
The running gear and mechanical parts were incorporated into a bathtub-like monocoque body with no doors that fulfilled the minimum 50cm water-fording requirement and ensured the vehicle could float. Expanding on this, some of the very first Type 597 prototypes included propellers at the rear in the style of the Schwimmwagen. This concept was not carried further, but some subsequent prototypes did come with oars, allowing the vehicle to be paddled across calm waterways, supporting the minimal forward motion provided by the spinning wheels.
A spare wheel was mounted at the front, as was the fuel tank, accessible without having to open a bonnet or any panels. The windscreen folded flat and there was no rollover protection, while a folding canvas top and clip-in side curtains provided some degree of weather protection.
Inside the Type 597, there were two front bucket seats and a rear bench seat, with a thin-spoke steering wheel, speedo and a few warning lights for the driver.
Developments and Disappointment
Porsche continued to refine and develop the Type 597 through 1954 and 1955, incorporating things like a two-piece windscreen and a larger 1.6-litre flat four engine.
The first three Type 597s had bodies in flat sheet steel, made by Reutter, but the next two, along with most of the subsequent examples, were bodied by Karmann and incorporated ribbed panels to improve body strength.
In all, 22 different prototypes were produced; the volume supposedly due to ongoing changes requested by the army, so it must have been galling for Porsche when the contract was ultimately awarded to DKW’s Type F91 ‘Munga’ in 1956. The Bundeswehr selected the Munga despite the Type 597 having more power and torque, better fuel economy and superior off-road capability, including being able to scale 65-degree inclines.
It’s believed that Porsche lost out due to the complexity and cost of the Type 597. As innovative as they were, the Porsche’s suspension and four-wheel drive system were more complex than what was in the DKW and Goliath, thus increasing the per-unit cost of each vehicle.
Additionally, there were doubts over Porsche’s ability to produce the required number of units and provide an ongoing supply of parts. The Bundeswehr would require tens of thousands of vehicles and require them quickly at a time when Porsche’s annual production was less than 6,000.
Ultimately, DKW would build in excess of 46,000 unit of the Munga, but that was over more than a decade. Most of these went to the Bundeswehr, as per the original order, but some went to the armies of other NATO members, West German border patrol units, the forestry service and other relevant government departments. Some were sold overseas, too, including units built under licence.
Porsche, in an effort to recoup some of their development costs, tried selling the Type 597 to foreign armies, but found no takers. Pitching the vehicle to the civilian market, as a car for hunters, fisherman, forestry workers and farmers, was only marginally successful, with less than 50 units of the ‘Jagdwagen” (Hunting Car) sold before production ended in approximately 1958. In total, it’s believed only 71 units of the Type 597 were built, including all the prototypes. Of that number, around 50 still survive today.
Long Wait for a Sequel
After Porsche closed the book on the Type 597, it would be forty years before they revisited the idea of an off-road model.
In June, 1998, Porsche and Volkswagen announced a joint venture, known as ‘Project Colorado’, that would see an AWD SUV developed on a common platform, but with different styling and each brand also fitting their own engines and using their own chassis set-ups. VW’s off-roader from this partnership would be the Touareg, while Porsche’s was the Cayenne.
Greeted with derision at first as not being a “real” Porsche, the global appetite for SUVs meant the Cayenne soon went on to become the brand’s top-selling model, with that title only surpassed by the smaller Macan, also an SUV, in 2016.
In 2020, the millionth Cayenne was built, hitting the milestone in a third of the time it took the 911 sports car to achieve the same number.
The Cayenne is a long way removed from the Type 597, but it does owe something to that model, which prepared the way for what was to come. You could say the Type 597 was the first Porsche SUV.
The Type 597 presented in the majority of photos shown here is one of the earliest examples built – Prototype No. 5 – and recently went to auction in the USA.
Built in early 1955, this vehicle was retained by Porsche for a period after it was completed, as were most of the other prototypes, but would be sold on to a Porsche-VW distributor, Löhr & Becker AG, in Germany, in April, 1956, passing into private hands soon after.
This vehicle spent most of its life in Germany and was subjected to a complete restoration there, too, before coming to the USA. That restoration included a full rebuild of the air-cooled 1.5-litre engine, the unique transmission and selectable four-wheel drive system, as well as the suspension and brakes.
The seats were retrimmed in green vinyl to match the Olive Green paint, with a new canvas hood and side curtains manufactured, too.
Described as being used only sparingly before it was consigned for RM Sothebys Monterey auction in August, this Type 597 is rare enough, but being a prototype makes it doubly so.
Those two factors saw it sell for an impressive US$665,000 (AU$964,250 approx.), which is almost certainly a new auction record for this model.
For more details, go to: rmsothebys.com