In mid-August, during the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, the world’s most prestigious car show, a vehicle that RM Sotheby’s is calling the Porsche Type 64 is expected to sell for about $20 million. It promises to be the most controversial sale of the year.
Price isn’t the issue. The auction estimate from RM Sotheby’s is far shy of the record $48.4 million paid for a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO. The Type 64’s price would still qualify as rarefied, like that of the 1963 Aston Martin DP215, which sold for $21.45 million last year.
It isn’t the car’s design, either, that’s prompted public debate on Instagram and in discreet discussions between auto brokers and their clients—though it does look like a UFO.
Even the fact that the Type 64 was commissioned by the Nazis is unsurprising, grim as that may sound. Many well-known vehicles were developed for Nazi purposes, including the Volkswagen Beetle and Mercedes-Benz 770.
The conflict that has wealthy collectors whispering is that the Type 64 may not actually be a Porsche.
“It’s not,” says Andy Prill, a mechanical engineer and owner of Prill Porsche Classics in England. “This is one thing I’ve been at pains to point out to people.” Prill conducted the presale inspection for RM Sotheby’s, compiling a 53-page dossier on the car. His take: While the Type 64 is a direct ancestor of the Porsches that came later, its mixing-bowl heritage disqualifies it from branded distinction.
In 1939, Ferdinand Porsche was a designer for Mercedes-Daimler (founded in 1926) and Volkswagen (1937), among others. He built the Type 64 as a commission from the National Socialist Motor Corps (NSKK). Its chief, Adolf Huehnlein, had hoped the Type 64 would win a Berlin-to-Rome race that was planned to celebrate the just-signed fascist Pact of Friendship and Alliance between Italy and Germany agreement and to showcase Deutschland’s engineering. But the race was canceled when war broke out, so Porsche—a member of the Nazi Party and the SS who later spent time in prison for war crimes—used it as his daily driver.
Along with its tiny, two-seat interior, split-window windshield, and wide, black steering wheel, the car originally consisted of VW parts and special components made by Porsche himself. It was built on a modified VW chassis, using a body made by German fabricator Reutter, with a VW engine customized to enhance power. In 1948 it underwent styling modifications at the coachbuilder Pininfarina. Later, parts added from Fiat and the Austrian conglomerate Steyr altered it further.
RM Sotheby’s is nonetheless calling it a Porsche, even though the Type 64 was born years before the company was founded in 1948. The Porsche DNA is there: The round headlights, gently curved roofline, and smooth sides that define the brand’s modern cars were evident even then. In his later years, Porsche referred to the Type 64 as “die Ahnherr” (“the Ancestor”), and when starting his company, he added his surname to the car’s grille. “If Mr. Porsche thought it was good enough to carry the Porsche badge,” says Alexander Weaver, a car specialist for RM Sotheby’s, “then yes, I’d call it a Porsche.”
Most observers consider the first capital-P Porsche to be the 1948 356 Gmuend coupe. “People say the 356 No. 1 is the first Porsche,” Weaver says. “We say Type 64 is the oldest car to wear a Porsche badge. If you take it exactly as I say it, that’s correct.” He even used the Gmuend car to arrive at the $20 million auction estimate. “My initial thoughts were, What is a Gmuend worth, and how many Gmuends did they build?” he says. “They are valued anywhere between $4 million and $8 million. And they built 50 of them.” The Type 64 is the predecessor. “Is it worth three times that of the Gmuend? Probably,” says Weaver. “Is it worth twice? Surely.”
Over its eight decades, the car has undergone changes that would disqualify anything else from “original” status. It started life with left-hand-drive but was converted to right-hand by its second owner, the eccentric German racer Otto Mathé, then changed back to left-hand years later.
At various points, Mathé added Fiat brakes, new rear lights, and a new steering rack, and he adjusted the fuel tank and transmission. It was originally black, but he repainted it turquoise. (It’s now silver.) Many of the original parts Mathé swapped out during his 46 years of ownership (1949-95) will be included in next month’s sale; few are currently installed.
Prill’s report on the Type 64 for sale is so detailed it notes such things as hidden logos stamped onto the metal steering rack, the particular WWII way the headlamps were fastened onto the car, and certain tiny holes in the dashboard drilled to hold a now-gone radio. It even mentions the type of (period incorrect) bolts used under the hood: “Whomever rebuilt the engine decided to use modern “Allen” headed bolts for the crank case perimeter bolts,” Prill wrote.
And although it shouldn’t be called a Porsche per se, Prill says, the Type 64’s history of alterations contributes to its significance. “If you think of the world’s great car companies, how many of them could lay a hand on the first car they built in their factory?” he asks. “I don’t think there’s another one.”
RM Sotheby’s has gone so far as enlist two of Porsche AG’s biggest contract cheerleaders, race car driver Patrick Long and automotive commercial-maker Jeff Zwart, in a promotional video. It featured the two driving the Type 64 at Willow Springs racetrack in the California desert, an hour outside Los Angeles, praising it as “the holy grail” of the Porsche family.
The party that could settle this debate—Porsche—has taken a hands-off approach. Dave Engelman, a spokesman for brand heritage at Porsche, declined to comment on the nomenclature debate but noted in an email: “You can truly see the ‘shape of Porsche’ for the first time in the Type 64, and it’s proven to be timeless.”
The Porsche Museum, which displays a replica of the Type 64’s body shell in Stuttgart, Germany, hasn’t officially commented on the car; the brand has discouraged employees from posting about it online. (This after the company tried to buy the car from Mathé during the 1950s and ’60s.) A spokeswoman for RM Sotheby’s says “We’ve had some conversations” but the museum “hasn’t been directly involved” with the sale. Whatever it’s called, Prill says the brand should embrace it. “If we dropped it on their heads, they wouldn’t recognize it,” he says. “Porsche is full of corporate men from top to bottom, afraid to make a mistake.”
Then again, it could just be part of a genius master plan: Keep quiet so as not to bolster the hype and price tag, then quietly buy the car back to keep it in the vaults of the Porsche empire once and for all.
One of Three
There were actually meant to be three Type 64s, though just two were made. Porsche built the first in 1939: chassis 38/41, the one set for the auction block next month. Bodo Lafferentz, then-head of the German Labor Front, promptly crashed it. That car was re-bodied using the metal shell intended for the third Type 64, which—as the war continued to disrupt production—was never built.
Porsche also built a second Type 64, chassis 38/42. That one was destroyed by U.S. soldiers, who, among other indignities, sliced off the roof in order to better enable some pre-demolition joyriding. The Porsche family salvaged a few viable scraps, which they also sold to Mathé. Those fragments are now folded into a privately owned black replica of the second Type 64, which the Peterson Museum trotted out in a retrospective exhibit last year.
For the lucky few who have actually driven the Type 64, its allure borders on the mystical.
“It is quite sensational,” Prill says. “It’s a bit like a bean can. There aren’t many creature comforts in there. There’s hardly any power. But the lightness is immediately apparent.”
He drove it around town late one evening after dark. “It’s actually quite fast,” he says. “It brakes really good. You can appreciate very early on that it would do the job it was built to do. I just didn’t want people around the neighborhood thinking aliens had landed.”