You can’t really ever completely keep a car-lover from the focus of their obsessions. That’s why things like kits for turning Fieros into Ferraris exist and why people build Lamborghinis in basements. It’s also why a pair of brothers ended up building the only sort-of Porsche-approved sort-of Porsche 356s in East Germany. This is an amazing story of determination, luck and a beautiful ignorance of when to quit.
One of the many, many things that happened in the wake of World War II was that Germany was sliced in half, like a big, Germany-filled cake, to be divided between the Communists in the East and the Capitalists in the West.
Right after the war, thanks to something called ordoliberalism that I admit I never heard of until right now, West Germany was going through something they called Wirtschaftswunder, for ‘economic miracle.’ West Germany’s economy wasn’t just recovering, it was booming, and they were building, among other things, a crapton of cars, like the famous Volkswagen Beetle and its sleeker, faster, sexier spawn, the Porsche 356.
Meanwhile, in the East, things weren’t going quite as well. The repressive East German government maintained a very controlled, planned economy, and that plan did not allow for anything as decadent and frivolous as sports cars like the Porsche 356.
In 1954, there weren’t that many car options in East Germany: there were EMWs, re-badged BMWs built in one of BMW’s factories stuck on the wrong side of the line, there were Wartburgs and some other Soviet offerings. The Trabant, East Germany’s people’s car, had only just been commissioned that year.
It wasn’t a great place to be a gearhead.
That was bad news for a pair of gearhead brothers, Knut and Falk Reimann. The Reimann brothers were working together at the Lindner Karosserie Company in Dresden, a firm that built car bodies in the pre-war era, but was struggling post-war thanks to a lack of resources and materials.
The brothers had seen the new Porsche 356s that were so tantalizingly close in West Germany, but knew there was no way in hell they’d be allowed to bring one over the border, even if they had the money, which, really, they didn’t.
What they did have were brains, skill, an intense desire for a 356 and leftover war crap in the woods.
The woods provided the brothers with the chance to make their dream real. Knut and Falk had found a trashed old Kubelwagen from the war abandoned in the woods. Now, what’s especially good about this is that the Kubelwagen used essentially the same chassis and mechanicals as the VW Beetle.
The early Porsche 356 used an improved, but fundamentally similar chassis and engine as a VW Beetle. While they didn’t exactly find a Porsche chassis out in those woods, they did find something that would be a pretty damn good substitute.
They pulled off the trashed Kubelwagen body and towed the rolling chassis and engine out of the forest. All the basics were there: the flat-four air-cooled engine at rear, the axles and suspension, steering, brakes, everything.
Even if they fixed up all the mechanical parts, there was still no way they could get a proper 356 body. Remember, though, these guys worked at a coach building shop, so the lack of a body wasn’t going to slow them down.
A lack of materials would, but the Reimanns were resourceful and sourced 15 damaged hoods from old Ford trucks and beat those into sheet metal to build their dream car.
They built an ash wood frame on the chassis and skinned it with their reclaimed metal. It’s not clear exactly what the brothers were working from in terms of design guides; I suspect they had photos from magazines, maybe, possibly some personal snapshots to use as reference, but I don’t think they had anything beyond that.
The resulting car they built is absolutely fascinating, because it definitely looks like a 356, but it’s just different enough to make it clear that this was a 356 built by people who were nowhere near any real Porsche 356s.
The car is longer and wider than a 356, the result of using the slightly larger Kubelwagen chassis. This also meant that the brothers’ car was, arguably, the first real four-seat Porsche 356, as it had much more room in the back than the original’s occasional Smurf-scale rear seats offered.
They now had a car that looked like a 356, but their engine was still essentially the same one that powered the doomed Kubelwagen they found: 1131cc and 25 horsepower, neither numbers that scream “sports car!”
When Porsche adapted the 356 from the VW, they made some significant upgrades to the engine—by 1951, they had 1,300cc and 1,500cc options, they all used a twin-carb intake manifold, hotter cams, a better crankshaft, more open exhaust and so on. The 1,500 ones made about 60 horsepower, which doesn’t sound like much now, but was a hell of a lot more power than what Knut and Falk were playing with.
The brothers, proud of what they had done and hoping to find a way to get real Porsche parts, took the car on a pilgrimage of sorts to the Porsche factory in Zuffenhausen, at least a five hour drive away. At first, the workers at the factory rolled their eyes at something they saw as an absurd knockoff with a 25 horse joke of an engine.
Ferry Porsche himself found out about the brothers’ car and visit and was initially hostile to them and their project, which he saw as a poor, unapproved imitation that had no right to exist.
After some thought though, Porsche changed his mind, and realized that what the Reimanns had done was less plagiarism and more tribute, and he respected the incredible effort that went into the project.
Ferry Porsche sent the brothers a letter, where he informed them that not only was he alright with their unauthorized 356, they would also be sent (clandestinely, via West Berlin) a set of used Porsche parts, including pistons, cylinders, a twin-carb manifold and other bits so the not-Porsche 356 could finally have a nearly real 356 engine.
The brothers had to pay the shipping costs, and had to smuggle the parts over the border from the West Berlin dealership, but they did it, and, using a VW Beetle engine they sourced as a base, built their 356 engine.
Some sources say Porsche gave them a whole, Porsche-uprated 1,100cc VW engine, but either way, Porsche lent a very welcome hand.
The brothers took the car on a tour of Germany and to Paris, and got enough interest to start building more. Porsche continued to unofficially provide engine parts for these not-356s, and the brothers eventually built an incredible 13 more cars.
Everything went to hell in 1961 when the brothers were caught attempting to escape to the west. They did a year and a half of prison time each, and never returned to the car business after that.
Amazingly, there are still three Lindner/Reimann 356s left, and the number four car the brothers built has been restored, under the guidance of Falk in 2016. Falk died just after the restoration was finished, which makes this story even more bittersweet.
They’re amazing cars, these Iron Curtain 356s. The wider, bulkier look actually wears well with the basic 356 design, and it’s only when you see certain details, like the flatter, simpler engine lid, are you reminded that these things were all hand-built labors of love.