Everyone knows the Porsche company's origin story, right? He designed a "People's Car" for that guy everyone gets compared to on the Internet, a racing version was made before WWII but never used, and then after the war he built the first real Porsche sports car in a Austrian garage. But something's missing in the middle there.
There always seemed to be a sort of gap in the Porsche record there. Volkswagen Type I to the VW-Derived Porsche Type 64 makes sense — it was built in 1938 specifically for the Berlin-Rome race that never quite happened. The VW was unproven as a sporting vehicle, but the whole point was to promote it via racing, which was reason enough to build that car. But what gave Porsche the confidence that the basic Beetle platform could be adapted into a capable sports car like the 356 became? The answer is, like all good answers, desperate men.
Porsche's People's Car design saw plenty of utilitarian and military service during the war, but it wasn't until after the conflict that the car knew the thrill of motorsports. After the war ended in Europe in 1945, Germany was a huge mess. Everyone was starving, defeated, and essentially living in a vast rubbish heap. Surviving was everyone's sole interest.
Even in life or death situations, people manage an incredibly capacity for boredom and novel ways to eliminate it. That could be the motivation for the rebirth of auto racing in Germany starting around late 1946/early 1947. Cars (and fuel) were still extremely rare, but Germany did have at least a few extra cars of one type laying around: VW Beetles and their military derivatives, like Kubelwagens and Schwimmwagens.
There was also a fair amount of aircraft scrap and aluminum. Combine that with the salvaged VW parts, restless, trained people eager to both put the war behind them and you get a fascinating class of race car, the postwar VW Specials.
I've heard these referred to as "VW Specials" but they don't really have an official name, as far as I've heard, nor is there that much information about them online. I learned about them primarily through Dan Post's book Volkswagen: Nine Lives Later, which is also the source of some of these photographs.
The cars raced used almost exclusively VW chassis and drivetrains, often with some very clever modifications: new cylinder heads, twin-carb setups and more. The bodies were usually highly (if somewhat naively) streamlined, made out of hand-worked aluminum. The cars looked a bit rough, but at the same time futuristic and sleek; in many of them, you can see the inspirations for the Porsche 356 and 550 that were to come down the road.
Petermax Muller, who later went on to race for Porsche, created one of the best known (and said to be the first) of these VW Specials. Listen to this description of the genesis of his Special:
His thoughts again turned to racing, in post war Germany food was scarce and the Wolfsburg factory was only working on standard manufacturing. As Müller knew where he could obtain food supplies he used his ingenuity to trade food for work by the Wolfsburg engineers on his engines.
It was at this time he would meet an engineer named Vogelsang. He was a brilliant engineer with a passion for motorsport, so when Müller and Huscke von Hanstein arrived at his door with food supplies, he was only too happy to offer his services. The rest is history, the Vogelsang engine that runs in the Petermax Müller VW Special was born.
Late 1946 early 1947 Müller set up his workshop in a deserted Diary barn, with the help of a bodywork man he had brought with him from Berlin, they built their first streamlined open aluminum sports car based on a Kübelwagen chassis with front suspension from a Schwimmwagen.
Maybe there's another noted racecar that was built in exchange for food, but if there is I don't know it yet. The Petermax Muller special's special cylinder heads were pretty remarkable: a separate head for each cylinder that included a hemispherical combustion chamber and an individual carb per cylinder. With it, they made 50 HP from 1100cc, not bad at all for 1947.
So many racers during that troubled period after the war got their start in home-built, VW-based Specials. One of Porsche's first Racing Managers and PR Directors was the well-known "Racing Baron." That Baron, Huschke von Hanstein, continued his war-interrupted racing career in a series of handmade Specials.
Porsche would have been released from a French prison right around the time that these VW Specials were really being raced, in the 1947-1948 time period. I'd imagine he would have been very aware of how these drivers and builders were modifying his utilitarian little economy car, and I believe seeing these VW Specials perform as racing cars may have helped cement Porsche's idea to develop the basic VW Type I design into what would become the Porsche 356.
Ghosts of the 356's eventual styling can be seen in some of these cars, and even the VW factory itself seems to have been both a little influenced by the streamlined design of some of the cars and foreshadowed the 356 eventual look in experimental vehicles like this prototype fiberglass-bodied VW. With steel in short supply, it's not surprising that VW would have tried their hand at fiberglass bodywork. What is surprising is that great fastback/Kammback look and very 356-like front end.
I think this period of amateur racing and home-brewed, DIY racears must have, on some level, influenced the 356. Possibly because of the likely unsavory political affiliations of many of the people involved (come on, it was right after the war in defeated Germany; I'd be surprised if there weren't ex-Nazi soldiers involved) this period doesn't get quite the credit it may deserve in Porsche's origin story.
Of course, I'm just speculating. Even though that first Porsche 356 is often treated as this exquisite one-off created in isolation in Austria, I think the Porsche line can really be said to have many ancestors, and they were made of tired old war VWs and airplane scraps. And I think that could be a compelling tale.