The Porsche America Roadster that started it all
I first encountered Rev. Ronald Roland’s America Roadster at the Concours d’Elegance of America, where it was part of a fabulous display of historic Porsche race cars. In my opinion, it stole the show. Roland, an automotive restoration expert in the Metro Detroit area, has owned this Porsche America Roadster, serial number 10465, since 1975. He has researched the marque and the model extensively and he is certain that his car was the second built and the exact machine that achieved Porsche’s first overall race win.
On a June day in 1952, not long after the running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Ferry Porsche invited automotive entrepreneur Briggs Cunningham and race car driver Phil Walters to his Stuttgart home to show them a car. Not just any car, but a Porsche Aluminum Roadster, one of 16 the factory would eventually build.
Porsche hoped that his Roadster could secure the marque’s first overall race win at the Brynfan Tyddyn, a road race that would be staged in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in July, and he wanted Cunningham and Walters to take on the challenge. Back in the U.S., Cunningham visited Max Hoffman’s New York Porsche showroom on Park Avenue, where a 1952 Porsche Aluminum Roadster, bearing serial number 10465, awaited him. They struck a deal and the car was prepped for the race.
Why would Porsche choose to contest the Brynfan Tyddyn, a relatively obscure event? Due to the rough condition of the 3.5-mile course, engine displacement was limited to 1900cc. Porsche felt his crisp handling roadster would be very competitive with its 75-horsepower 1500 Super engine and could secure the marque’s first overall win. He was right.
John Bentley, editor of Auto Age, wrote in 1953, “Walters, on that July weekend, undoubtedly turned in the finest performance of his brilliant amateur career, squeezing out of the nimble Porsche a speed that seemed to defy all laws of centrifugal force and gravitation.” Cunningham, Walters, and the Porsche scored an overall win over a tough field of MGs, Siatas, Crosleys, and a featherweight 800-pound Bandini. Porsche was on its way.
Having served its purpose, the car, which along with the other Aluminum Roadsters that later came to be known as the Porsche America Roadster, made a few more race appearances with Cunningham’s son, Briggs Jr., at the wheel. But racing technology was advancing at breakneck speed, and the roadster was soon uncompetitive. Porsche continued its racing efforts, with the 550 Spyder race car and the 540 Speedster, and the America Roadster went into retirement.
The powerplant that brought home that first win is a 1488cc horizontally-opposed four cylinder, sporting a robust-for-the-day 8.2:1 compression ratio. Two single-barrel Solex 40 PBIC downdraft carbs supply the air/fuel mix. Output is approximately 75 horsepower, at the time substantial for the 1581-pound car, which could be rendered lighter in race trim by replacing the windshield with a small plastic competition version, and unbolting the bumpers and other parts not needed on the race track.
Driving the car is difficult, given its unsynchronized four-speed trans, swing axles, and the propensity of early rear-engine Porsches to easily slip into extreme oversteer. But at the hands of a skilled driver, oversteer can be used to advantage, and the car’s massive aluminum drum brakes enabled it to be driven deeper into corners than most cars of the era.
Over the years, the car changed hands 11 times, and for much of its life it was not well cared for. Bentley, the editor, was the second owner, having purchased the car from Hoffman after Cunningham returned it. Although it was no longer competitive on a national level, Bentley raced it and, based on his Auto Age article, seems to have enjoyed it immensely. Subsequent owners continued to beat it to death on race tracks, and it soon showed considerable wear and tear. Owner number 11, Vic Skirmants, a Porsche racer and restorer, can be credited with rescuing it.
In the early ’70s, Skirmants responded to an ad for a hot-rodded Porsche Roadster with a 912 engine and contemporary running gear. A parts car was part of the deal. The parts car was 10465, dilapidated but in running condition and largely intact. It was the America Roadster that had won at Brynfan Tyddyn. In 1975 that didn’t mean a lot. Today it does.
Skirmants bought the parts car rather than the hot rod Porsche. He then drove the America Roadster to Roland’s house, and the two Porsche enthusiasts enjoyed an afternoon on Michigan roads. Despite the car’s condition, they found it to be an enjoyable machine. Soon, Skirmants sold the car to Roland and restoration began. Determined to “do no damage,” Roland retained as much as the original car as possible, replacing the steel longitudinal pan supports and the bottom of the tunnel. Roland had to learn to weld aluminum to save many of the body panels. “The car now retains about 95 percent of the original aluminum body panels and about 75 percent of the steel,” Roland says.
While the seats and door panels appear to be new, they are in fact original. Roland softened the ancient vinyl with lacquer thinner and sprayed them with a commercially available seat coloring product that is a perfect match of the original color. The engine is original and has undoubtedly been rebuilt many times.
Roland painted three different competition numbers on the cars doors and hood. The 78 on the hood is what the car wore in that first Brynfan Tyddyn race. The 77 on the passenger-side door is Bentley’s number, and the 18 on the driver-side door was used when Briggs Cunningham Jr. competed. The numbers underscore the car’s history and it’s honored place in the pantheon of Porsche race cars.