One of Two
When I first read that Porsche produced a bare-bones 356 solely for the purpose to train mechanics in the ’50s, I was puzzled and intrigued. Why would Porsche ship a functioning shell-less car and not just stand-alone motors or transmissions? Porsche produced two 356A Training Chassis for the US with only one left in existence and that single survivor popped up at RM Sotheby’s auction last October as part of Porsche’s 70th Anniversary sale. The chassis sold for a total of $112,000 and as the auction ended, I wondered which museum, restoration shop or private collector scooped it up and if the public would ever see it again.
Driven To America
Every fall, I look forward to Driven To America (DTA), an annual event in New York celebrating Porsches and Max Hoffman, the man responsible for first importing the marque to America and his showroom, Hoffman Motors, in New York City. And each year, David Jacobson, DTA founder and owner of Collector Car Showcase (CCS Motors), curates a special group of cars to be showcased in the Hoffman Circle of Legends.
As the third installment of DTA (DTA3) approached, to my surprise the 1956 356A training chassis popped up in our social feed as one of the cars that would be displayed in this year’s Hoffman Circle of Legends. I was thrilled I’d be able to see it in person. Now some of you might say, “Why all the excitement? It’s a shell-less, bare-bones 356 made for mechanics.” Two words: Simplicity. History.
Parked front-and-center on the lawn of the Fort Hill Mansion among its air and water-cooled kin, sat the only surviving Porsche 356A training chassis. With all of the amazing Porsche’s on display, the simplicity and history of this vehicle piqued my interest.
Once the crowds thinned out, I was able to get closer to see the details. Contrasting red seats against a stark-white chassis, a fully exposed steering column, the shiny four-gallon gas tank tucked behind the passenger seat, the green instrument dials attached to a makeshift dashboard, the suspension, engine, electrical and mechanical lines all neatly exposed and easily accessible.
It goes without saying that the iconic body of the 356 completes the package, but there was something special about seeing a fully functioning and driveable 356 stripped of its exterior. Besides, this was the car on which mechanics at Hoffman Motors and the New England area honed their skills.
The story of the training chassis began with Max Hoffman. He believed that proper knowledge of the mechanics and inner workings of the 356 was essential to the success of Hoffman Motors so he asked Porsche to send him a “training chassis” from Stuttgart – not just stand-alone motors and transmissions, but a complete running car without the body.
But when it was delivered, it became clear that this was no ordinary chassis; it used different components on each side:
“The suspension on the left side seems to represent an earlier configuration than the right. The stub axle assembly on the left is the VW type with thrusted ball bearings, while the right is the later reinforced type with tapered roller bearings. The tie rods are different left to right, one side displaying an early fixed tie rod with small diameter ends and the other using the larger reinforced variety.” – Panorama, November 1987
Porsche had cleverly created a custom chassis that simultaneously simulated both early and late 356A production models, all the way down to the brakes, providing the mechanics with the unique opportunity to work on two variations within a single chassis.
After its time at Hoffman Motors, the car moved around and finally ended up in Massachusetts where it was parked in a backyard chicken coop and forgotten. Then in 1976, Bill Jones, a former Porsche distributor in Texas who had requested a training chassis after touring Hoffman Motors in 1959–but never received one–discovered it. For over a decade, Bill and his son Bob restored the chassis at their restoration shop, Jone’s Autowerks in San Antonio. After making a brief appearance in an article in Porsche Club of America’s Panorama magazine in 1987, the car remained in a private collection until it resurfaced again in 2018 at the RM Sotheby’s auction.
After years of serving Porsche mechanics, being cooped up with chickens, and restored by the Jones’, the training chassis’ journey came full circle and made its way back to its home in New York and into the collection of CCS Motors for Driven To America. If you’re in the New York area, stop by CCS Motors to see this important piece of Porsche history.
Lastly, big thanks to DTA for allowing my buddy Andrew Florin and I an opportunity to hop into the training chassis. As Andrew said, “This is how I imagined it would be.”