“Porsches are fast,” they say. “Porsches are refined,” they claim. “Porsches have great handling,” they allege. Well, I just drove a Porsche for the first time, and I can say unequivocally: Porsches are none of those things. I’ve been living a lie.
A few weeks ago, I finally drove a Porsche for the first time. And it was a proper one too: air cooled, rear-wheel drive and of course, manual-shift. It was a blast, though it left me wondering why people keep telling me Porsches are fast. The 1960 Porsche 108 Junior I drove could barely jaunt itself down a driveway in the time it took you to read this.
A Little Bit Of History
Some of you will say that, because the engine is at the nose, this thing isn’t really a “pure” Porsche, but then you’d be wrong.
Ferdinand Porsche himself took part in designing early prototype tractors way back in the 1930s, right alongside the people’s car that later became the legendary Volkswagen Beetle.
World War II ultimately thwarted production of Porsche’s “Volksschlepper” (people’s tractor) until after the conflict was over, at which point the company contracted out its engine and drivetrain design to the Uhingen, Germany-based stamping and machining company Allgaier GmbH.
Allgaier built the first model, the “Allgaier Porsche” AP17 in 1950, and then later the A111, A122, A133 and A144. Each was branded Allgaier on the hood, with a small “Porsche System” badge on the nose.
Allgaier ceased production in the mid-1950s, selling the business off to German industrial firm Mannesmann AG. That company started Porsche-Diesel Motorenbau GmbH, and for the following seven years, cranked out 125,000 of the big-wheeled machines—each adorned with large “Porsche-Diesel” badges—from the company’s Friedrichshafen assembly plant. The 108 Junior that I drove was among these Mannesmann AG-built models.
A Porsche Dripping With Soul
One day, as I spoke with my friend Andreas—the same German Jalopnik reader who showed me that awesome Mitsubishi collection last year—he told me nonchalantly: “Yeah, my girlfriend has a Porsche tractor.”
Immediately, the record in my mind scratched, and I forgot the conversation we’d been having up to that point. “Your girlfriend owns a what?!” I shrieked uncontrollably. I’m not sure if Porsche tractors are just NBD in Germany, but I consider the “red-noses” among the rarest of agricultural gems. For someone I know to own one was too much for my feeble mind to comprehend.
After Andreas splashed water on my face to wake me from my faint, he asked his girlfriend, Josi, if I could have a chance to drive her machine. When she said yes, Andreas had to refill the bucket.
On a Saturday morning, Andreas and I arrived at Josi’s house, where she showed us the tractor in the dark garage you see in the photo above. The Porsche, she told me, had belonged to her great grandfather who had bought it second hand in the 1960s for farm work.
This Porsche-Diesel was not treated like any kind of collector’s item. Over the years, Josi’s family had continued to use the machine to do tractor things like pull trees out of the forest, cut hay, and mow the lawn. All this hard work showed on the outside; one look at the battered and bruised machine made it clear that the thing was a legitimate workhorse.
The whole vehicle was covered in a layer of grime (as was the floor beneath it), the seat was torn, the rear tires were dry-rotted, the hood was so busted that it required two people to open, a rear lamp was broken, and the sheetmetal was covered in dents.
But it was these imperfections that gave the bright-red tractor—with its metal hoop on the fender to carry a passenger and its two half-moon grille openings (one with a feather in it)—so much character. It was breathtakingly soulful, but in an unconventional way. And that was before I heard the engine.
What It’s Like To Drive
After charging the dead battery, Josi pushed the button that once triggered the horn (but has since been repurposed to power an electric starter), and fired up the 14-horsepower, single-cylinder air-cooled diesel motor. Black smoke spewed from the exhaust as the once state-of-the-art silumin (aluminum and silicon blend) engine quickly sprang to life, emitting a sound unlike any engine noise I’d ever heard before.
Single cylinder engines are called “thumpers” for a reason—they make a unique, harsh sound, allowing drivers to almost count each and every powerstroke. Combine that single-cylinder setup with a diesel design—also not exactly know for refinement—and the result is an engine that legitimately sounds like it’s got a terrible, unfixable, catastrophic engine knock.
But, it turns out, that’s how a little 822 cc single-cylinder Porsche diesel is supposed to sound when the mechanical injection pump feeds it fuel from the center high-mounted tank. And when I got behind the wheel, and gave her a few revs, I stopped fearing that a piston might come flying through the hood, and actually grew to love that unique “clacking” rhythm.
The tractor is actually really easy to drive. The steering isn’t powered, but the gearbox under the engine—combined with those skinny front tires—made turning relatively painless. And once that wheel was cranked all the way, the 108 Junior could turn tight enough to embarrass a Ford Fiesta trying to pull a quick 180.
From behind the wheel things look a bit intimidating; the lever above the steering wheel controls idle speed, the pedal on the left side activates the clutch (which works with a brilliant Porsche-designed oil-hydraulic coupling to soften engagement), the tiny pedal on the right is the accelerator, and the right two large pedals activate the brakes (either just a single rear wheel, or both rear wheels). The yellow lever is the park brake, and works by simply holding the foot brakes in place.
The gear lever is right between the driver’s legs, as is a lever for the front and rear power take-off to run agricultural attachments, a lever for low and high range, a tiny lever to shut off the hydraulic system (which is used to raise and lower a rear attachment via another under the right side of the driver’s seat) and a lever to switch on and off a mowing unit.
This photo below shows the differential lock pedal reaching forward right above the portal rear axle tube, and just above it, a small, thin lever that raises and lowers the rear hydraulics.
It’s all a bit complicated, if I’m honest, so I stuck with just the single shifter in the middle, which worked exactly like the three-speed manual in my 1948 Willys CJ-2A, minus a synchro or two.
I didn’t really need any synchronizers, though, because every time I pressed in the clutch and tried to shift, the tractor quickly came to a stop, I popped it into gear, and the torquey engine (and all that gearing) got the Porsche going without issue.
In any gear, the tractor felt fairly quick—well, from about zero to 1 mph, after which it began to run out of steam. Though the 108 Junior’s top speed is technically just under 12.5 mph, I probably didn’t reach half that, and, to be honest, I barely drove more than 200 yards. Still, I had the time of my life sitting four-feet high on the back of this little red Porsche tractor.
Between all those vibrations from the engine, gearing, tires and the hood rattling all over the place; the bumps from that lack of suspension; and that magnificently loud air-cooled one-cylinder engine, the Porsche-Diesel punished me relentlessly as I drove it 5 mph down the driveway. And for some reason, I kinda loved it.
People often ask me why I like old cars, and my reason almost always has to do with their raw, unrefined nature that makes me actually feel something behind the wheel. It’s their lack of noise, vibration and harshness mitigation—things like engine covers, foam between the body panels, perfectly optimized aerodynamics, and air intake resonators—that floods my senses and makes driving feel special. And if you have the same fetish for rattles an unassisted controls as I do, the Porsche 108 is as “pure” as driving’s going to get.
I’m not sure what’s stranger, the fact that my first tractor was a Porsche, or that my first Porsche was a tractor. But either way, this experience has me yearning to get behind the wheel of more Porsches. And also more tractors.