The First Speedster
During 1950 Max Hoffman, the sole importer of Porsches in the USA was achieving excellent sales success for the company. He suggested to Ferry Porsche that he could do even better if he had a car that would compete with the imported English sportscars and fit the needs of the American market.
He suggested this new model would resemble a small Jaguar XK120 and be available at a more competitive price than the current 356 range. In October 1950 Erwin Komeda drew up plans for the new car and a prototype was produced by Sauter. This was shown to Max Hoffman in 1951 who enthusiastically named it the America Roadster – Porsche designated it the Type 540.
Early racing results showed the car to be too heavy and Ferry Porsche made the decision to make it in Aluminium which meant it could not be incorporated into the Stuttgart 356 production line but was contracted to coachbuilder Heuer-Glaser.
The America Roadster turned out to be a commercial failure. The cost of production was higher than planned and Glaser lost money on each one leading to their bankruptcy. Even sold in the USA below cost at $4,600 the Roadster was far too expensive compared to the English and American sportscar competition. Only 17 were made although many were successful in racing in the United States with better acceleration, cornering, and braking than the Jaguar XK120 and the other English sportscars popular on the US racing scene.
Even though the America Roadster project was a disaster, Hoffman’s sales of 356s in the USA were accounting for a third of all Porsche’s 356 production by 1954 and so the needs of the US market had to be taken seriously by Porsche
British cars like MG, Austin-Healey and Triumph dominated the American sports car market. Max Hoffman was still convinced that cost was the major barrier to achieving significant penetration of the sportscar market in the USA. The basic 356 Coupe for example cost $300 more than the Jaguar XK120.
Porsche were keen to meet Max Hoffman’s requirements but clearly a hand-built car with aluminium coachwork was out of the question – it had to be a cut down version of the 356 cabriolet and it had to be capable of being produced on the same production line as the other 356s. If they removed trimmings and weather protection they might be able to save weight as well as cost – after discussion between Porsche’s Albert Prinzling and Max Hoffman in New York the concept of the Speedster was born
The Speedster was to have a low, raked windscreen which easily could be removed for weekend racing, bucket seats, and a minimal, folding top, and side curtains instead of wind-up windows
Ironically the new Speedster kept the same Type 540 designation as the America Roadster but was designed by Reutter for minimum production cost. The spartan cockpit had lightweight bucket seats with fixed backrests. Instrumentation was limited to speedometer and temperature gauge. Technically a heater and tachometer were optional extras deigned to keep the magic base price below $3,000. Exterior appearance was standard 356 from the waist down except for attractive full-length chrome side strips running neatly through the door handles.
The Speedster took pride of place in Hoffman’s futuristic Park Avenue, New York showroom in late 1954
Typical Speedster advertising by Hoffman in Road and Track, May 1955 – “Years Ahead in Engineering – Miles ahead on the Road.” The advertised price was $2,995
The car was an instant hit, particularly in Southern California. Production of the Speedster peaked at 1,171 cars in 1957 and then started to decline. It was replaced in late 1958 by the “Convertible D” model. Original Speedsters are now much coveted and can sell for over $150,000 – when a collector can find one.