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1951 Porsche 356SL


From the sign:

John von Neumann got into the sports car and racing business when he opened Competition Motors in North Hollywood, California in the late 1940s. The shop would be the genesis of what would become one of the largest and most successful Porsche and Volkswagen distributorship in the country. The income from selling and servicing these case provided the means for Johnny to indulge himself in racing Porsches, and Ferraris when he was later appointed to a Ferrari dealer in Hollywood.

The April 1952 issue of Road and Track carried the first public announcement the Competition Motors would be selling Porsches, but by the time the advertisement appeared, von Neumann was already racing one of the tiny German coupes.

U.S. Porsche importer Max Hoffman had brought in three lightweight Porsche 356SL coupes, three of the last cars build in Gmund, Australia in 1950. Starting out with 1,100cc VW engines, the three cars ware created for long-distance racing and rallying, and record-setting at Monthlery in France.

In 1951 one of the SL coupes won the 1,100cc class and finished 20th overall at LeMans, and in 1952 it won its class and finished 11h overall. When Hoffman brought the three SLs to American, they each had a factory-tuned 1,488cc engine.

Hoffman sold the three cars to Fritz Kosler, Ed Trego and John von Neumann. The first two were run in the 12-hour race of Vero Beach, Florida (a race devised by the SCCA to compete with Alec Ulmann's FIA-sanctioned 12 hours of Sebring); the Kosler car dropped out, but the Trego Porsche driven by Karl Bracken and John Bentley, finished seventh overall.

The Trego and von Neumann coupes were then entered at Pebble Beach for the April 1952 race. Because these Gmund built Porsches were really Volkswagens under their aluminum skin, the early brakes were not up to short-course, stop and go racing, and both cars dropped out with failed brakes.

A month later von Neumann's coupe, the silver paint now replaced with red, was entered in the Golden Gate Park race in San Francisco, and once again failed to finish due to brake problems.

When Volkswagen switched from mechanical to hydraulic brakes in 1950, Porsche also utilized these newer brakes on the Stuttgart-built cars. The record isn't clear on whether von Neumann's car had mechanical or hydraulic brakes when he bought it, but before his next race at Torrey Pines in July, 1952, he had fitted brakes from the 1952 production Porsches which include 280x40mm drums replacing the 230x30mm VW-size units.

Other changes before the Torrey Pines race included having Emil Diedt cut off the coupe top, making the Porsche into a roadster (looking remarkably like the Speedster that would be introduced in late 1954). This lowered the car's weight by more than 100 lbs. and reduced frontal area by, maybe, 20 percent.

Von Neumann sold the Porsche later in 1952. It was subsequently raced by Bill Whittington, Ed Phelank Don Dickey and Ernie Spitzer -- all in west coast events. During this period the car was maintained in Gordon Vann's body shop in Berkeley, California.

In 1957, Chuck Forge, bought the 356SL and has owned it ever since.
Last modified: Sat, 23 Aug 2003


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