Article by John Bentley
The story of the South African-built 356s is shrouded in mystery.
John Bentley sketches the scenario-but admits it is not the final word on the saga.
‘A Porsche model built in South Africa?’ The small group of Zuffenhausen middle management brass looked at me in disbelief. I knew it had happened back in the early ‘60s. South African importers Lindsay Saker had assembled a series of 356B ‘hardtops’ in Johannesburg. More than that I was unable to tell. How I wished, on that visit to Stuttgart back in 1985, that I had had the facts at my fingertips. For it is a story known by few, if any, of the modern generation at Dr. ing. h.c.F. Porsche AG.
In fact, with memories dimming, even those involved in the project at the time disagree on some of the finer details! But it is generally agreed that the Johannesburg-built Bs were the only Porsches ever assembled by a Porsche importer anywhere in the world for company-sanctioned resale. All-in-all, our research suggests about 50 or 60 of the 60hp ‘hard-tops’ were built, with the first scheduled batch of six CKD packs going to the bottom of the Suez Canal before the project got under way. The South African saga had its origins in the country’s strict importation laws. With vehicle assembly and manufacture a growing branch of local industry, fully built-up cars could only be imported under permit. And even then prohibitive duties pushed up retail prices dramatically.
It was against this background that George Lindsay, Jack Mincer and Erich Hamp came up with the idea of assembling semi knocked down Porsches locally. Aloise Klesse of Peco was works foreman at Lindsay Saker at the time the decision was made, though he left shortly before the project got fully under way. ‘I remember we first looked at bringing in Coupes with the tops cut off. But the factory didn’t like the idea. Then someone suggested we bring in hardtops.’ At the end of 1961 Lindsay Saker’s workshop manager, Hermann Schmidt, travelled to Germany to finalise the arrangements. ‘We spent a lot of time itemising all the parts to be sent,’ he recalls.
The project was dealt a heavy blow right at the beginning. ‘Six or seven packs went to the bottom of the Suez Canal,’ says George Bernert, who was to become the man responsible for the trim of the Saker Porsches. ‘It happened like this,’ says Bernert, who now operates his own upholstery and trim business in Wynberg. ‘They sent the first two cars out to two separate auto upholstery shops. Then Mr Drake, the service manager, asked me to go and have a look and tell him what I thought. ‘What a mess. I said to him he should rip it out and burn the lot.’ So Bernert, who had been trained in the upholstery craft by Volkswagen and Porsche in Germany, was assigned the task of trimming the cars. ‘Production started up around the middle of 1962, if I remember rightly’, says Herr Schmidt. Bodies, hardtops, engines and gearboxes were shipped in disassembled form. The unpainted shells had no lights, suspensions and brake assemblies were put together locally. Folding cabriolet tops were not fitted, though over the years many owners have had their cars converted.
In those days Paladin was a ‘spanner man’ at Lindsay’s, and remembers the hardtops being put together by assemblers Klaus Bauer and Peter Tuch. ‘Those were exciting times’, he recalls. ‘Everything was new and went together so beautifully.’ Today he still maintains several of the cars built at Sakers. Local content consisted of battery, tyres, windscreen and upholstery. ‘And we also fitted Michelin tyres’, recalls George Bernert. Painting was also initially done in house. ‘There was no production line’, says Hermann Schmidt. ‘Building cars in such small numbers, we just put them together where they stood.’ Quality was superb. ‘I remember that Professor Kay, I think it was, of Groote Schuur, wrote to Porsche in Stuttgart praising our efforts,’ recalls George Bernert.
According to Herman Schmidt, three shipments of 356 hardtop kits were eventually imported. As the project progressed, some of the work went to Stanley Motors, who then assembled Peugeots and Hillmans at their Natalspruit factory. By all accounts, production line assembly could not match the quality of the in-house assembled cars, and PD services turned into virtual rebuilds. In any case, exciting new models were soon to be launched in Germany, and production of the ‘local’ Porsches ended. But the assembly programme had been worthwhile as a cost-saving exercise. The little 60 horsepower hardtops came on the market for something like R2500, the price going up to around R3800 by the time production ceased at the end of 1963. So ended a unique episode in Porsche history. But many of the Cabriolet/Hardtops still live on, beautiful memorials to an imaginative venture.