Photos courtesy Porsche Museum Archives



With Luftgekühlt 5 taking place at the Ganahl Lumber Company South Bay in Torrance, CA, we wanted to share a surprising aspect of Porsche’s history: the connection between lumber and the carmaker’s early history. History buffs will be aware that the initial series of aluminum-bodied 356 models were constructed at an old sawmill in Gmünd, Austria, and we wanted to shed light on the story and give context to the recipe used for Luft 5.  

As most people would expect, the majority of Porsche’s early automotive design efforts took place in Stuttgart, but the beginning of the company we now know actually has its roots in Austria.

The move from Zuffenhausen was prompted by allied bombing that had become more frequent in 1943. This prompted the company to relocate to a less active area in 1944. It found a new home in a re-purposed sawmill in Gmünd, a town in the Austrian region of Carinthia. Design work and engineering for both civilian and military projects was carried out here, while a separate facility in Zell em See was used for storage.

With the war over, the wooden buildings of the sawmill were soon producing tractor components to help Germany rebuild its infrastructure. And by the end of 1946, the Gmünd factory employed more than 200 workers.

In 1947, Porsche designed the groundbreaking Cisitalia GP in these old wooden buildings. Codenamed Type 360 by Porsche, the 1.5-liter, supercharged, horizontally-opposed, 12-cylinder engine was mid-mounted at a time when grand prix cars favored front engine layouts. It was also designed to be all-wheel drive, which was again unprecedented for the period.

As the racecar design was reaching completion in 1947, the design of a mid-engine sportscar was just beginning. Originally intended as a Volkswagen, the first 356 was conceived as a mid-engine, two-seat roadster.

Using VW components, the mid-engine design wasn’t ideal because the rear trailing arms had to be repositioned to form leading arms. Even with this handicap, the 356-001 was warmly received by factory test divers and journalists alike. It was at this time, Porsche committed to design and build the car in-house. 

From the beginning, the rear-engined sportscar was designed in both coupe and cabriolet body types. By April 1948, the first 356/2 sheet metal chassis had been fabricated, and by July the first coupe was completed. Through 1948 and 1949, 53 of the aluminum-bodied 356 were built in the old sawmill, although the exact number of cars remains a point of contention among Porsche fans.

By 1949, Porsche finally returned to Zuffenhausen, and although the original Porsche facility was occupied by the US Army, at least they were paying rent. So the small engineering team set up shop in the Porsche family villa.

At this time, the company’s prospects were uncertain. Ferry Porsche wasn’t convinced the future lay in car manufacturing. Design and engineering for other companies was more profitable, and there was greater demand for tractors and water turbines in post-war Europe. The 356 had been a success, but it was believed demand would be limited as Europe struggled back to its feet. It was decided that body construction should be subcontracted to one of the many coachbuilders in the area, helping to offset some of the manpower required.

Reutter Carosserie-Werke was among the companies asked to bid on the project. The company was built everything from city trolleys to seats, and had previously worked with Porsche on several of the precursors to the Beetle. But while every 356 built in Gmünd was aluminum-bodied, the German-built models would subsequently utilize a formed steel body, reportedly halving the production cost.

Reutter also became a landlord in 1950, when Porsche rented a 5000 square-foot production area for the 356. Everything from engine building and suspension construction to final assembly were undertaken here, although engine building and dyno-testing would later move to another building in the Reutter compound.

As the enterprise continued to grow, Porsche needed more space. The engineering team was relocated to Zuffenhausen and Porsche Werk II – a large wooden barracks – was established near the original buildings still used by the US Army. The team in the Porsche Villa was also relocated, allowing the company to finally be centered in Germany once more

By 1951, Porsche decided to build its own factory. Although the location and design were quickly established within Stuttgart, banks were hesitant to finance the young car company. Help arrived the following year from Max Hoffman, who would later famously bring VW to the USA. He helped Porsche secure a contract to design and build prototypes for Studebaker, and with more than two-million Deutschmarks earned from the project, Porsche finally had its own Stuttgart production facility.