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The way Porsche Museum boss Alexander Klein frames it, Peugeot didn’t so much file a lawsuit against Porsche in 1964 as politely ask that the Stuttgart firm’s new 2+2 rear-engined sports car be called something other than ‘901’.
The model had been displayed on Peugeot’s home turf at the Paris Salon in October that year, and the French could quite reasonably point to a tradition of naming cars by inserting a zero between two digits that stretched back to the 201 of 1929 – and indeed it owned the rights in key markets.
“It wasn’t concerned about race cars – we’d produced the 904 and 906 previously – but Peugeot wanted to keep that system exclusive for road cars,” explains Klein.
The diplomatic German doesn’t mention that it would have been more helpful had Peugeot raised its concerns a year or so earlier.
The Porsche 901 had first been displayed at the September 1963 International Motor Show in Frankfurt as the successor to the 356; brochures had been printed displaying the new sports car with ‘901’ badging on its rump; and series production had begun in September 1964.
But Peugeot’s late intervention gives these early 901s even more significance in the 911 story, and this example is believed to be the final 901 produced.
“On 22 October 1964 Ferry Porsche said, ‘Call it 911,’ and this car was the last of three cars built that day, of 55 cars built in total,” explains Klein when we meet at Sonoma Raceway, nestled in California wine country to the north of San Francisco.
It’s not just the Vehicle Identification Number that makes this car so special, because the tale of this late 901/early 911 and its extraordinary life is also the story of post-war divided Germany.
Today it is a concours car, but when Porsche learned of its existence the last 901 was a neglected barn-find basket case, with parts gone AWOL, rust-eaten bodywork and bodged repairs.
Porsche might not have discovered it at all had an East German gentleman in his 70s named Bernd Ibold not got in touch with reality TV series Der Trödeltrupp. A kind of German Cash in the Attic, the name translates as ‘The Junksquad’.
It was 2014, 50 years since his 901 had been produced, and Ibold told the show’s researchers that he had two tired old 911s in a barn – one red, one gold – and that he wanted to sell the pair.
When the show contacted Klein for an estimated value and read out the VIN of the red car, he stopped as though his lottery numbers had come up.
“When they said ‘300057’ I knew this was a very, very early car,” says Klein, his eyes still lighting up at the memory.
“I asked them if they were sure, and they read it out again: ‘300057.’ We had to take a closer look.”
Eleven days later, two members of Klein’s team arrived at a barn in Brandenburg, near Berlin.
The all-important red 911 was covered in dust, with its front wings, front bumper and a door missing, and it was riddled with rust.
“Both cars were in lousy condition, but we confirmed the 901’s identification, and that the gold car was a 1967 ‘L’ model,” remembers Klein.
For the sake of transparency, he asked two independent experts to value the cars. “We paid €107,000 for the 901, and €14,500 for the L. We knew the significance, especially of the 901, so we couldn’t rip him off.”
The amount remains a record for any items sold via the TV show.
The 901 was, of course, the big win. Porsche’s records showed this to be the 55th car built, despite the 57 in the chassis number, because cars with earlier VINs were still being built when 300057 was completed.
It was produced for the home market and passed through two owners in the 1960s before being bought by Ibold, who took it to his home in East Germany.
“Bernd ran a garage and used the 901 as a service car to get to customers,” explains Klein. “He worked on it himself, but couldn’t get all the parts in the East, so often had to improvise.”
When Ibold married and started a family, so the 901 gradually disappeared to the back of the barn, eventually joined by the L, which was purchased as a restoration project and never completed; the intention is that it never will be, instead remaining in barn-find condition.
The 901 restoration was led by master technician Kuno Werner, who oversees the care of around 600 historic road and race cars at the Porsche Museum, and accompanied the car to California.
For Werner it became a tricky balance of restoring a car in terrible condition to its former glory while conserving its colourful past and period significance wherever possible.
When the 901 and its crate of parts arrived at Porsche, it was fully inspected. Werner’s initial estimates that more than half of the body was beyond salvation turned out to be slightly pessimistic; instead, it was the opposite.
The engine was seized, and both it and the transmission were discovered to be replacement units of the same era. Meanwhile, much of the suspension hardware was badly corroded, including the two longitudinal beams at the rear.
“We wanted this to be an empathetic restoration to reflect how Bernd had received it and his time with the car, and to maintain the unique 901 details,” explains Klein.
“But in those days Porsche used to improve car by car, they were basically handbuilt. There is no period documentation of that, and we had a lot of missing parts – including the engine grille – so we looked at earlier cars and later cars and asked other experts for input because we realise that we are not the only ones who know.”
A donor 1965 911 was purchased, allowing Porsche to use period parts wherever possible – traces of welding carried out by Ibold have even been preserved rather than eradicated, and original parts refurbished rather than replaced.
The 901 was carefully stripped to a bare shell (even unusable parts were retained for future reference), then wheeled into the Porsche Classic workshops on a dolly like a body into a morgue.
Its factory paint was removed with a dip in a chemical bath, which revealed signs of original reworking to the roof from 1964.
The tinworm was cut out of the bodywork and replaced with new metal, including inner and outer sills, and the missing wings and bumper were replaced by those from the 1965 car.
Originality didn’t extend to painting methods: the car was dipped in the same cathodic dip coating as new 911s – “Best for rust protection, and for hard-to-reach cavities,” explains Werner.
Once everything was painstakingly aligned, the body was sprayed in the original Signal Red, using water- rather than solvent-based paint. The body alone took a year of work.
Both the 2-litre flat-six engine and the five-speed gearbox were disassembled at Porsche Classic, with all parts cleaned and inspected before a full rebuild could begin.
Seized pistons were freed and the crankshaft removed, then the crank was replaced with a new genuine part. The camshaft on the right bank was salvaged, the left cam replaced. Some 120 hours were consumed.
Meanwhile, Porsche Classic began searching for the missing period-correct parts including the grille, which protruded much higher than later, flusher versions.
“You would hurt your hand washing it, which may be why they changed it,” explains Klein. “Eventually we found one advertised privately online. We asked the guy to measure it and then we knew it was correct.”
The elephant in the room is the lack of 901 badging on the engine cover to distinguish this final 901 from the first 911. A continuity error?
Turns out not: the badging only appeared in brochures, not on production cars.
The painstaking process spanned three years, and as Werner reveals the details his obvious passion bridges the gap between his faltering English and my terrible German.
Along with the raised engine cover, Werner draws attention to the slightly different doorhandles and release pop-ups, the slimmer bumper overriders, and the wheel-hub mountings.
“The disc brakes were usually from a 904 racer, so the wheel hub is different, like a flower,” Werner elaborates. Everything from the fixing screws to the heat exchangers and exhausts are unlike later cars.
During the restoration, improvements were ruled out in the name of authenticity – 300057 retains leatherette between the body and wing, even though it was later found to deteriorate and cause rust, leading Porsche to switch to rubber.
Pipes for the heating system are still routed below rather than above the rear axle, too.
The driver’s seat is high-set but the bolsters wilt like an old mattress as you settle into them. These are the original, if fully restored, chairs but had been fitted to the gold 911 when Porsche bought both cars.
The houndstooth trim on the seats is made of six strips, not the normal five, a quirk of the early cars that indicated the swap.
Another quirk: Werner opens the ashtray with its wider central hole for cigars, not cigarettes as per later models. Part of the ashtray and its chrome-plated support had disintegrated, leading to careful restoration work to even this seemingly insignificant part. It was apparently one of the trickiest elements to revive.
The headlining isn’t original, but based on a surviving section on the car: it was unusually stamped with square-shaped perforations, not the diamond pattern adopted soon after.
Incredibly, Porsche was able to locate the original spiked roller tool and make a new headlining to the period-correct design.
The large wooden steering wheel with its thin rim is original, as are the dials and all the glass (including the sticker from the Berlin Police Sports Association, added by the first owner and retained by Ibold so he could park wherever he wanted!), while all the factory chrome has been refurbished.
The leather gaiter is original, and different to 911s produced only slightly later.
Twist the key and the flat-six settles into that classic, busy air-cooled chatter.
Ease the dogleg ’box down and left for first, release the friendly clutch and we’re chuntering down a private road on a wine estate, getting familiar with the floor-hinged pedals with a softish brake and perky throttle, the light but feelsome steering and the delicate little snick of the gearlever.
It quickly does that 911 – sorry, 901 – trick of setting you at ease thanks to its compactness and feathery 1080kg kerbweight, as well as excellent vision both ahead and behind.
To this practicality is added an instinctively mechanical feel that brims with precision and response.
It feels approachable and usable as much as exciting, which is a big part of why a 911 remains the default sports car nearly 60 years on.
Almost unbelievably – given its significance, the time invested in its restoration and its undoubted value – we take a quick drive of Sonoma race track, which tumbles through the landscape with precious little run-off.
It is greasy and laced with standing-water booby-traps, having just been drenched by a rainstorm.
Given the conditions, the flat-six making a relatively modest 130bhp and the tall gearing (the 911 borrowed shorter ratios from the four-cylinder 912 from July 1965), the 901 is happiest in second gear climbing through Sonoma’s first few corners.
The steering bobs gently if chattily in hand as the nose glides effortlessly at each apex, and the rear tyres easily soak up the available performance.
Revs have to be kept up – it fluffs and sputters at low engine speeds.
Treading the tricky waters and the challenge of Sonoma’s undulations, it’s hard to fathom how the 911 earned a reputation for unpredicability simply because it feels so planted and safe.
Partly it’s the modern Pirelli 15in tyres made in the style of period originals, with a thin 165 width all round (911s didn’t get staggered tyres until later) and deeply absorbent sidewalls.
They’re not only impressively grippy, but gently progressive when they finally let go, too, thank goodness.
The front feels strikingly light but, as you lean on it, there is also such purity to the communication filtering through steering and tyres.
Taking it right to the edge of understeer seems completely natural, not the leap of faith it could be given that wet grass and walls lurk just beyond the track limits.
The sweetness of the turn-in is partly because there’s so little mechanical baggage over the front end, but these early models also had a wheelbase 57mm (2.24in) shorter than those from ’68.
It feels incredibly agile as a result, which is why classic racers rave about them and have to have the shorter wheelbase.
Same-size rubber all round no doubt helps reduce the natural understeer bias of a tail-heavy/nose-light sports car, too. This is a beautifully balanced car.
As confidence builds, the speed picks up and the dynamics are worked harder. The soft brake pedal is pressed with more conviction, settling the weight over the nose, turning in to the corner as the light, progressive steering tremors a little as tread blocks tremble on the edge of grip.
And yet just as it seems you’ve reached the limit, you can climb all over the throttle and power out of the corner with 184kg of engine squashing down the rear tyres, while the carb-fed flat-six rasps towards its 6200rpm power peak without so much as a hint of wheel scrabble.
It’s so absorbing that you forget this car is essentially irreplaceable, as both the very earliest 911 in Porsche’s collection and the last 901 built.
Former keeper Ibold was one of the first to see the finished car.
“We invited him to lift the sheet off in our workshop,” reveals Klein. “We were nervous and asked, ‘Do you remember this car?’ He remembered all the details and was close to tears. We’re still in touch today.”
It’s a long way from the old red 911 left in a barn, and yet the quirks of its early specification and marks of a colourful life mean that it could be no other than the final 901.
Images: Jordan Butters
- Sold/number built 1964/55
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine alloy block and head, sohc 1991cc flat-six, two triple-choke Solex carburettors
- Max power 130bhp @ 6200rpm
- Max torque 128lb ft @ 4200rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension independent at front by MacPherson struts, longitudinal torsion bars rear semi-trailing arms, transverse torsion bars; telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes discs all round
- Length 13ft 7in (4163mm)
- Width 5ft 3in (1610mm)
- Height 4ft 3in (1320mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft 3in (2211mm)
- Weight 2380lb (1080kg)
- 0-60mph 8.5 secs
- Top speed 131mph
- Mpg 19.2mpg
- Price new £3750
- Price now £70-220,000 (first-gen 911)*
*Prices correct at date of original publication