Ask most petrolheads when the first Porsche was built and the likely answer you’ll get is 1948, when the Type 356 rolled out. In fact, that’s off by fifty years. This week, the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen will mark its fifth anniversary with the unveiling of the rediscovered and unrestored first Porsche, the P1 built in 1898. Recovered from a warehouse where it languished forgotten for over a century, it’s now the centerpiece of a new permanent exhibit telling the early history of Porsche and its founder.
The official name of the P1 is the “Egger-Lohner electric vehicle, C.2 Phaeton model,” but it gets its unofficial name because it was built by Ferdinand Porsche himself, who stamped “P1” standing for Porsche 1, on all the major components. It’s important historically, not only because it was the first car to be built by the founder of the Porsche company, but also because it contains a number of remarkable technological features.
For a bit of automotive history, the P1 isn’t in that great a shape. Though it’s been cleaned up and conserved against further decay, the years have not been kind to the little electric car. There’s not much left apart from the chassis and the heavy, wooden dash. The tires, seats, body and floor are all gone, and what's left looks more like a hay cart than a car, but the museum has fitted what remains with a translucent blue plastic body to give some idea of what the P1 looked like in its glory days.
The ironic thing about the P1 is that it wasn't born out of Porsche’s interest in petrol engines, but in electricity. In 1893, at the age of 18, he was apprenticed to the electrical engineering firm of Béla Egger & Co, which later changed its name to Vereinigte Elektrizitäts-AG. There he worked his way to head of the testing department and the first assistant in the calculations office, where he made the acquaintance of Ludwig Lohner, owner of the K.K. Hofwagenfabrik Jacob Lohner & Comp. The latter was in the luxury carriage business, but the dawning of the motor car was putting paid to the horse-drawn market and he’d decided to go into petrol and electric cars, and Porsche joined his staff.
After helping to develop a concept electric car, Porsche was given more of a free hand to produce a new vehicle aimed at production. The result of this was the Egger-Lohner C2, AKA the P1, and when it drove through Vienna on June 26, 1898, it was one of the first vehicles registered in Austria.
The rear-wheel drive P1 with stub axle front wheel steering was something of a convertible, with an alternating vehicle body that could be a coupé in the winter and an open topped Phaeton in the summer. Like many cars of its day, it had wooden wheels with pneumatic tires, and a wheelbase of 1,600 mm (62.9 in). Of its 2,977 lb (1,359 kg) of curb weight, 1,103 lb (500 kg) were the batteries and 287 lb (130 kg) went to the motor.
The heart of the P1 was the Octagon electric motor designed by Porsche with commutators wired both consecutively and in parallel, and a single-speed differential gear. It had a phosphor bronze motor shaft pinion that engaged a system of cast steel gear rings on internally toothed wheel hubs, and the motor itself was protected by shock absorbers and suspended to allow it to oscillate around the axle.
Power came from the “Tudor system” 44-cell accumulator battery providing 120 amp hours, with the individual accumulator cells able to be connected and disconnected. The P1 had a 12-speed controller with six forward gears, two reverse gears and four braking gears. There was also a mechanical hand brake and an electrical short circuit brake activated by pressing on the steering wheel rim.
Of course, this being 1898, performance left something to be desired with only 3 bhp (2.2 kW) of oomph, though it could do 5 bhp (3.7 kW) when overloaded. Top speed was 21 mph (33 km/h), with a cruising speed of 15 mph (24 km/h), and it had a driving range of up to five hours or about 49 mi (79 km).
But the P1 was more than just an early electric car. According to the company, it was also Porsche’s first racing victory. Entered into the international motor vehicle exhibition in Berlin in September 1899, it ran in a competition against 19 electric vehicle manufacturers in a 64 mi (40 km) race from Berlin to Zehlendorf and back that included high-speed sections, gradients, and a 4.8-mile (7.8-km) efficiency test. Ferdinand Porsche rolled the P1 over the finish line 18 minutes before the second place getter, while other competitors either failed to finish or were disqualified for not going fast enough. The P1 also came tops in efficiency with the lowest energy consumption in urban traffic.
Despite all this, the P1 wasn't exactly a roaring success. According to Porsche, only about four were built before Lohner and Porsche turned to a new design. Meanwhile, the P1 ended up in a warehouse in 1902, where it remained for over a century.
Part of an extensive redesign of the Porsche Museum, the P1 will serve as the beginning of the exhibit in the “prologue” section complete with an animated film describing the technology used. It will be unveiled on Friday by Wolfgang Porsche, Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Porsche to a gathering of invited guests and goes on public exhibition from Saturday.