Jay Leno welcomes ‘royalty’ to Hay’s Garage, as the first Porsche to ever race – the 356 SL Gmünd Coupe – makes its debut
“It’s not often we get automotive royalty on the show, but that’s what this car is. This is a Porsche 356 SL from 1951. It raced at Le Mans. This is the car that was there at the dawn of the whole Porsche racing empire. It’s actually the first car Porsche ever raced.”
Not often you hear Jay Leno almost lost for words. The Jay’s Garage host comes close though on several occasions as he introduces the Gmünd Coupe. Designed by Ferdinand Porsche in just three months in Austria back in late 1947, the first aluminium-bodied, air cooled four-cylinder-powered model was already complete by mid-1948, a further 39 produced within the next 12 months before production moved to Germany. The 1950 Paris Motor Show though proved a catalyst in ways Porsche couldn’t have imagined, the organisers of the 24 Hours of Le Mans convincing him to field the 356 Coupe in the following year’s endurance event, the race that would come to define Porsche itself.
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Based out of a small workshop in Teloché – where Porsche would continue to base its Le Mans challengers until the early 90s – the race squad replaced the steel bodywork with aluminium, the 356 ‘SL’ (Super Lecht) now featuring a 1,086cc four-cylinder boxer engine delivering 46bhp, enough for a 160kph top speed thanks primarily to the newly lightened, aerodynamic bodywork. Not to say things went smoothly for Porsche though. National pride was already at stake, Porsche being the only German manufacturer entered. One of only three cars entered – #47 – was eliminated after a heavy shunt during night practice. The race winning Jaguar C-Type was also well out of sight come the chequered flag. However, 20th overall for the #46 entry and no technical issues cemented Porsche victory in the 751-1100cc class.
Competition for #46 didn’t end at Le Mans either (though the 356 would take class victory again in 1952). By 1957, #46 had made its way to California to continue its endurance racing career, albeit without a roof (ouch!) in a drive to cut further weight. #46, now painted red, would remain with one owner – Chuck Forge – from 1957 until his death in 2009, its date with Jay Leno pre-destined when new owner Rod Emory discovered its competitive history.