Was Porsche’s best racing platform the front-engine Volkschlepper?

Porsche tractor race laguna seca spoiler wing

If you’ve never seen a Porsche tractor race, can you truly call yourself an enthusiast?

In 1934, Dr. Ferdinand Porsche was developing the Volkswagen people’s car when he devised the parallel idea of a people’s tractor—the Volkschlepper. He built three early prototypes. And in true Porsche form, their gasoline engines were mounted in the rear. Total warfare ensued. After World War II, Porsche revisited the concept of the Volkschlepper, signing licensing agreements with two companies to build his design and keep his burgeoning company afloat.

Porsche gave the tractor some clever ideas. One-, two-, three- and four-cylinder engines all had interchangeable cylinders and heads, for easy manufacturing. Instead of mechanical clutches they had hydraulic couplings, deemed more durable and simple for mechanically unsympathetic farmers. As early as 1946, Porsche had the idea of a four-wheel-drive tractor, which went nowhere.

In 1956, the German company Mannesmann AG bought the Porsche-Diesel license. To ensure that it’d pay off, the company bought and renovated the former Zeppelin factory in Friedrichshafen.

Porsche tractor race laguna seca lemans start
Porsche

Ultimately, more than 125,000 Porsche-Diesel tractors emerged from the hulking structure that once gave the world the Hindenburg (perhaps a bad example, but infamous.) Porsche-Diesels were sold as the Junior (single-cylinder, 14 horsepower), Standard (twin-cylinder, 25 horsepower, and the most popular model), Super (three-cylinder, 38 horsepower), and the big-daddy Master (four-cylinder, 50 horsepower). Mannesmann continuously tweaked the design to suit different needs: on Junior and Standard models one could get a narrow-wheeled model for vineyards and apple orchards. In South America, that same model fit coffee plantations.

And in America, the aptly-named American Porsche-Diesel Corporation of Easton, Pennsylvania, brought approximately a thousand stateside from Germany, selling Juniors for $1750 and Supers for $3600—the equivalent of $14,200 and $29,300 today. Rumor has it that some early models were painted green, but John Deere, guardians of the green, objected. Every John Deere is green and every Ford is blue and every Porsche tractor is, well, Guard’s Red.

A Porsche is a Porsche

Tractor collectors are a weird bunch. Porsche collectors, too.

Why the Porsche tractor, then? The cynical will suggest that Porsche enthusiasts will reach for anything with those magical seven letters displayed, that Porsche’s cars are becoming so expensive that enthusiasts must widen the gyre, that they’d buy a Porsche-branded Salad Shooter if Ferry had eaten more kale, that they aren’t even farmers, anyway.

Porsche Rennsport Tractor race from the stands
Porsche Rennsport Tractor race

You’d be half right. Turns out, just as Porsche is capable of building a pretty good sports car, it once built a pretty good tractor. “The tractors were over-engineered and had impeccable build quality,” says Myron Vernis, who has six tractors: four Porsche-Diesels and two Iseki tractors (Porsche tractors built under license in Japan). “They were highly regarded in Germany and surrounding countries. When I was importing used tractors in the early ’90s, we were buying them directly from farmers where they had been in continuous use for over 30 years. A real tribute to their build quality and engineering.”

Vernis also happens to run the North American Porsche-Diesel Registry, a font of information for collectors who, like him, have discovered one of the cheapest ways into air-cooled Porsche ownership. Bragging rights that come with a tetanus shot are just $5–6,000. The pride of Vermont, fully restored, will run you nearly three times that, up to $20,000.

“They're really not that rare,” says Jack Swint of Porsche Classic in Atlanta. “You can pick them up relatively inexpensive. We'd like to do one in our shop and have that one on our portfolio.”

Such is the Porsche appeal. Vernis still owns the 1963 Porsche 356B Coupe that he bought at the age of 19 for $1500. So to him, Porsche-Diesels are Super. But “being a lifelong city dweller, I’ve never owned other tractors.”  

A race, but definitely not a sprint

Porsche Rennsport Tractor race tractor lineup
Cameron Neveu

Weird things can happen at Rennsport Reunion VI, where—in the midst of the cacophony and noise, the sights and sounds and smells of every legendary race car you’ve only read about—a tractor race breaks out.

“They’re racing what?” Mark Webber asks. “That sounds like something better watched from the bar. Who the hell would do that?”

Listen, if Rennsport Reunion is a celebration of all things Porsche, then it has to be a celebration of all things Porsche.

“To be honest with you, it was super cool. It was by far the most fun I've had all weekend,” Cooper MacNeil says. “You're not going fast enough to make it scary. If you're doing 50 miles an hour, maybe, but we're doing… 10? Eight? Something like that? Unfortunately, we had one here that broke, and we had to send it home. We clocked it at 22 mph. So that's pretty quick!”

MacNeil, who normally races Ferrari 488s in IMSA and at Le Mans, noted that a Porsche-Diesel is faster through Turn 2 than any Ferrari “because I can cut through the dirt.”

Porsche tractor race laguna seca high speed turn
tractor and race car
porsche tractor race feet up
Cameron Neveu

Slow and rumbling, against the concrete barrier, the ancient smoldering diesel exhaust bathed us and the entire crowd in particulates. The tractors were in various states: gleaming fresh restorations next to literal barn finds. One tractor featured Martini stripes and a carbon-fiber wing. One Porsche Master was painted in the Pink Pig livery, sporting front and rear active-aero wings from a GT1, towing another trailer that was also painted pink, with six tiny tractors atop the trailer—all pink. On its tractor seat was painted the word “buttocks.” John Oates—yes, that one—was driving it. His racing suit was pink. At least three drivers wore cowboy hats atop their racing helmets. Mark Webber was nowhere to be seen.

Then, the starting flag dropped, and the drivers ran a Le Mans start before leaping into the spindly machines: lurching, clanking, sputtering, belching black smoke, they looked like a 4-H parade gone mad. The Martini tractor struggled off the line. A Standard rocketed past an absolutely hulking Master the size of an entire paddock. The tractors that managed to navigate past their ungainly peers were immediately running four-wide over the crest and dropping into Turn 2, where again, many opted for the dirt shortcuts. Minus one tractor, which couldn’t make it up the first hill.

Six turns later, the race was finished.  

That day, Porsche Works driver Earl Bamber—who won the Porsche Supercup in 2014, who won the 24 Hours of Le Mans twice, who just that morning was within milliseconds of obliterating the Laguna Seca track record in the 919 Hybrid Evo—won (this time in a Porsche-Diesel Standard Star) the one race that truly matters.