The name Porsche puts the picture of a blisteringly fast sports car in most people’s mind. Even the very trail-capable Porsche Cayenne 4x4 inspires go-fast fantasies. Not too many would mistake the Cayenne for a military rig, but Porsche does have a history in military vehicle design.
It’s common knowledge that the Dr. Ferdinand Porsche was responsible for the developing the legendary Volkswagen beetle in the ’30s while at the helm of F. Porsche GmbH, which was then an engineering development firm. Some also know Porsche designed the Third Reich’s Kübelwagen (bucket car) and Schwimwagen (swimming car) for World War II. Darn few know about Porsche GmbH’s postwar military vehicle, the Type 597. Primarily designed by Dr. Ferry Porsche, Ferdinand’s son, the 597 was one of Porsche’s few failures and one the best military 4x4s ever to be rejected.
After WWII, Germany was in a shambles. Though Germany soon was allowed to equip a small national police force, it was denied the option of creating a full-scale standing military and a place in the newly-formed NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization). By the mid-’50s, it became clear that making Germany a participating member of NATO was integral to countering an increasingly grouchy Soviet bear.
In 1954 Germany was finally allowed to rebuild and begin equipping a large standing army. Part of the process was to jump start the manufacture of home-built military equipment. Light transport is as much a part of that as tanks, machine guns, and fighter aircraft. The Federal German Republic (FGR) put forth some operational specs for a new ¼-ton 4x4 field car and Goliath (a part of the Borgward organization), Auto-Union (which eventually became Audi) and Porsche all responded to the invitation to bid.
Porsche dusted off its WWII designs and concepts, created some fresh engineering DNA and responded with the Type 597. That number indicated it was Porsche’s 597th engineering project from its founding in 1931. Other Porsche project numbers you might recognize are 356, 911, 914, 924, 928, and 944. The 597 was designed along the same lines as the Type 82 Kübelwagen, small, agile, and light, but it had one thing most Kübels didn’t—four-wheel drive. It was rear-engined, with a 50 hp industrial version of the 1500cc Porsche 356 sports car engine, which itself was a development of the original VW air-cooled flat-four.
The body was a watertight unitized tub, which shows Porsche originally envisioned the 597 as being amphibious. The less subtle hint of that was indicated by the first few being fitted with an engine-driven propeller. Though the body retained its capability to float, subsequent versions were not fitted with props. The layout was a doorless four-seat soft-top.
The 597 used a part-time four-wheel drive system with a simple “in-or-out” lever to engage the front axle. No low range was used but the five-speed trans had an extra-deep First gear for low speed work. The transaxle had an automatic locking diff and was fitted with a jackshaft to supply power to the front axle. Reduction gears were used at the axle ends, similar to those used in the Kombi (aka the bus or transporter). The front suspension was a double-transverse torsion bar affair, similar to the VW and Porsches, but with knuckles and CV-joint axles fitted and a differential feeding power.
When it came time for tests, The 597 was compared with the Auto-Union LKW (later to be known as the DKW “Munga”) and the Goliath prototypes. The Porsche was the clear winner in the performance and technology standpoints. It was actually too good. At an estimated $4,500 per unit, Porsche had priced itself out of the market. The Munga was 1/3 the price with at least 2/3 the performance, so almost as soon as it was born, the 597 was rejected for its primary purpose.
After spending 1.8-million Deutche-marks in development and setting up a small assembly line alongside the race car line, Porsche immediately began shopping the car out to other European military markets. As with the FGR, the company found admiration but tight purse strings. By the late 1950s, the company had even tried marketing the cars to civilians as the Jagdwagen (pronounced “Yahgd-vah-gen,” hunting car). Of the 71 units built, 49 were eventually sold to civilian buyers.
As late as 1959, project 597 was still in the minds of Porsche, but soon the company’s destiny as a sports car icon became clear and Porsche would not offer another four-wheel-drive vehicle (AWD Carrera 4s don’t count!) until the ’02 Cayenne debuted.
Myron Vernis, the owner of the ’56 597 you see here, is the leading U.S. authority on the 597. He has three of them in his Akron, Ohio-area shop, which means he owns about 20 percent of the surviving population worldwide. Under restoration is the second prototype, which was one that originally came with a propeller. His third car is one of the last 597s built. Found as a derelict, it has been “restified” with some vintage Porsche performance goodies and a screaming yellow paint job.
The 597 was one of those examples in automotive history where a manufacturer designed and built its product just a little too well. Failing by winning, what a concept!
Vehicle: 1956 Porsche 597 Jagdwagen
Owner: Myron Vernis
Estimated value: $250,000
Engine: 1582cc (96.5ci) Porsche air-cooled flat-four
Power (hp): 50 @ 4000 rpm
Torque (lb-ft): 75 @ 2400 rpm
Comp ratio: 6.51
Transmission: 5-spd (First gear compound)
Transfer case: 1-spd
Front axle: Independent, torsion bar
Rear axle: Independent transaxle, swing axle w/diff-lock
L x W x H (in): 133.7 x 63 x 56.3
Wheelbase (in): 80.7
Weight (lbs): 1951 (dry)
Fuel capacity (gal): 13.2
Top speed (mph): 62
Minimum speed (mph): 1.6
Fuel economy (mpg): 22-28