Everyone knows that very early 911s were referred to as the ʻ901ʼ and, similarly, everyone almost certainly knows that, ultimately, Peugeot stepped in and demanded that Porsche stop promoting them under that name. Press releases had already been circulated, brochures printed and point-of-sales material created, all using the name ʻ901ʼ. Indeed, the first 82 cars built were referred to as 901s, but when the first deliveries began, the name had already been consigned to history.
Porsche 901 road drive
This is reason enough for myths and legends to have grown up around those very early cars. While German tuning icon Ruf owns chassis number 300 037, itself quite an early example, the Porsche museumʼs oldest 901 is ʻonlyʼ 300 057. Only recently, a collector in the US unearthed a rather tatty looking model, chassis 300 005, which could well be the oldest surviving series-production 901. But there are even older ones out there. When looking to find the oldest 901 in the world, you have to look further afield – and no, itʼs not located in Stuttgart. We had to go to rural Pennsylvania in the USA.
The owner, American car dealer Don Meluzio, is no stranger to the scene. He purchased what is surely the oldest 901/911 in the world more than 30 years ago and has owned it ever since, but the hype surrounding these old cars is new to him, as well. When, in 1984, he replied to an ad for a ʻPorsche prototypeʼ in the monthly bulletin of the Porsche Club of America, the then 36-year-old Don was looking for a ʻvery special Porsche, a car that I can take to any concours event in the world and which would open the doors to any Porsche event I would like to attendʼ.
Above: By his own admission, Don Meluzio doesnʼt drive the car very much. It is, after all, priceless in the fullest sense of the word. Licence plate is the one worn by the car in period.
Donʼs first visit was a disappointment. What he found was a barely discernible wreck, more or less just a body held together by spray paint. The interior was dilapidated, parts strewn around everywhere. The ʻcarʼ offered to him didnʼt even have an engine. What it did have, however, was a mysterious VIN number: 13 327. All really early 911s (and for that matter 901s) have a VIN starting with ʻ300ʼ. Don took this as his first sign that this Porsche was indeed special.
The asking price of $20,000 seemed astronomical but because there are no other takers, the seller finally agreed to his offer of $14,000. This find was supposed to bring Don to the end of his long search, but it turned out to be just the beginning of years of research and almost a decade of vehicle restoration.
Don immediately started off with a flurry of letters to Porsche in Stuttgart (ʻby mail – itʼs the mid-ʼ80sʼ, he reminds us) who apparently knew nothing about this car. ʻWe have no records of a VIN 13 327ʼ, the factory responded. After Donʼs persistent attempts to get in touch with the factory archive, his restorer Dennis Frick finally got the long-awaited confirmation in the summer of 1985. ʻIt seems that the vehicle has been produced as an early proto-type (sic) of a 911 in order to test the 6-cylinder engine,ʼ wrote a Herr Mattlinger from the department Service Organisation. ʻHow this vehicle arrived later on in the USA is not known to us.ʼ
Above: The front and rear windscreens, and the front bumper, are the same as later production models. Every other body panel and piece of trim is subtly different to those of the 911.
Another year later, Herr Mattlinger finally came up with further news: ʻThe vehicle with the above-mentioned chassis number has been built as a test car in November 1963. It has been designated as a type 901 and vehicle No.7.
ʻThe vehicle was used for testing purposes until (the) end of June 1965. It was then sold to Mr Richard von Frankenberg on July 10, 1965. The manual sunroof did not correspond with the later production sunroof. The two large VDO gauges were installed in this prototype vehicle. The torsion springs of the front lid were only installed later on in production for a very short time. The coil springs on the engine lid, the passenger grab handle on the right windshield post and the locking ignition switch in the steering column were installed as test parts only.
ʻThe above chassis number is correct, but has never been published in records because, as mentioned before, we are talking about a prototype car. The odometer reading at the time of the sale cannot be determined anymore, neither do we have the sales price available. The colour of the vehicle was red, however, we do not have any answers to your further questions, such as colour and material upholstery, brand of carburettor, brakes and wheels, etc.ʼ
Below left: Oil filler neck shows evidence of several rethinks concerning its length and shape! Below: Although the bloodline is clear to see, it still comes as a surprise to see how much the 911 has grown over the years…
Don Meluzio embarked on a number of trips to the Stuttgart archives, which he would continue for many years. Eventually he got in contact with ʻButziʼ Porscheʼs office and made an appointment to meet the man he was expecting to tell him all about his unique car. However, the day he arrived for his appointment, Butzi had left Stuttgart. His mother, Dorothea Porsche, had passed away the night before. Don met the archive staff instead and tried to find engineers who had worked on 13 327 some 20 years earlier.
ʻWe didnʼt attempt a conventional American restoration to a “better than new” standard,ʼ declares the proud owner. ʻInstead, we had to think like engineers and try to rescue as much of the original substance as was humanly possible. Wanna see it?ʼ Of course, thatʼs why we travelled 3700 miles to get here!
Don opens one of the three large doors to his garage, inside which hides a small car museum. In front is a 1957 Porsche Speedster, next to it a yellow 911T from 1973. There are also not one, but two Bizzarrinis, a 5300 Strada Coupé and one of only three Bizzarrini Spyders ever made. Next there are some Abarths and an extremely rare Fiat OTAS, a number of Corvettes and, at the very end, we spy what looks like a red 911.
Below left and right: Itʼs the manual sunroof that really confuses people – it slides forward and tilts up at the rear. Placement of the winder handle is unique, too.
Despite its unique status (and not only in Donʼs collection), this Holy Grail, the mother of all 911s, looks at first glance like a regular early 911. Before we can roll the car out into the early morning dew, Don has to take all the winnerʼs rosettes off the windscreen. ʻThe 901 and I have been to all three big events in the States – Pebble Beach, Amelia Island and St. Johnʼs – and the car won its class every time,ʼ he says proudly.
The 68-year-old looks almost lost behind the big steering wheel. One turn of the key and the two-litre flat six (taken from a slightly younger car) bursts into life with a surprisingly deep burble, with no sign of the famous 911 ʻwhirrʼ. Don rolls the 901 onto the damp forecourt outside his garage so we can take our first look. ʻThe road should be dry very soon, letʼs just wait a little longer,ʼ he says, ʻIʼve never driven it in the rain and I always treat the underbody with furniture wax.ʼ Come again? ʻYes, the judges love that sort of stuff. Iʼve also never adjusted the suspension since the restoration 20 years ago. The nuts have been painted over as they would have been from the factory and if you tried to adjust them, the paint could crack.ʼ
Above left: Vents duct warm air to the quarter windows – a feature which never made it past the prototype stage. Above: Two large instruments dominate the dashboard – theyʼre sourced from a BMW and then hand finished in Porsche style.
Time for us to have a closer look at this prototype. Don, every inch the American car enthusiast, walks us around the car and points out all the details for photographer Greg Jarem. ʻEven though it might not seem so, the roofline, the side contours, the doors, the windows – all of that has slightly different dimensions to later series production models.ʼ Most obvious are the carʼs side panels, that arenʼt rounded at the bottom like on later 911s but straighter, like those on a Porsche 356. The doors are shorter and higher but the length of the side window glass is longer.
The oil filler neck in the engine compartment is one of those details that Don and his restorer Dennis Frick were so keen to preserve. ʻI guess they spilled a lot,ʼ laughs Don, ʻseeing how often they extended it.ʼ Indeed, the neck shows half a dozen extensions welded on, one after another. The window winders can trap your fingers, a fact that Porsche development chief Helmut Bott had already noted in early factory documents. The door handles also didnʼt find approval: engineers complained they were too prone to accidentally open the doors.
When completing the interior, Don and his team sadly werenʼt able to rely on any factory information, so he decided on the early series production black-andwhite hounds-tooth cloth in the front. The back seat, however, is covered in black leather, a combination Don insists was available. Looking at the dash, one of the biggest differences becomes immediately apparent. Instead of the five later instruments we all know so well, 13 327 has only two large VDO dials (sourced from a BMW, but handpainted with Porsche-style graphics) staring at the driver, indicating speed and engine revs. Even the smallest of details like the vents for the quarter-lights did not make it into series production.
Below left: Note 356-style steering wheel, two-dial dashboard and pillarmounted grab handle. Choice of seat trim was a guess as there was no available information. Below: Unlike all production 901s and 911s, ʻBarbarossaʼ has the ignition switch mounted on the right of the steering column.
Don decides it is now dry enough to take to the streets of Pennsylvania. ʻFirst and reverse are quite close to each other, so donʼt get them mixed up,ʼ he smiles before handing me the keys to his multi-million dollar property. Finding the ignition is the first hurdle. Here, it is not located left of the dashboard, as in all lefthand drive 911s, but to the right, on the steering column, like on contemporary VW Beetles. Mirrors adjusted, feet on the floor-mounted pedals, and off we go.
It is surprising how easy and self-explanatory everything is. This Porsche was built 50 years ago as an engine test bed yet it is as easy to drive as an example built in 2016. As was to be expected, the steering is ultra-light, thanks to the rear-biased weight distribution, feeling almost 356-like. The view from this early 901 with its thin pillars is magnificent, the lack of headrests making the interior feel light and airy. The engine sound is pleasant but by no means quiet, and we comment that weʼd expect longer trips to be a bit tiring. Don responds by saying ʻI rarely ever drive it.ʼ
Above: Not immediately obvious is the fact that every body panel you see here differs from those used on production models. Note the contour of the sill panels, for example – they are straighter, more like those of the earlier 356.
During one of the many turning manoeuvres, the engine stalls. Don had warned us this might happen, because the carburetted engine doesnʼt like short trips very much. One turn on the key (to the right, donʼt forget!), a little more gas, and we were in business again. After a few hours of obeying commands from our photographer, we brought the oldest 911 in the world back to its resting place. The engine crackles as we hand the key back to the owner.
“IT HAS BEEN DESIGNATED AS A TYPE 901, VEHICLE No.7…”
Below left: Don Meluzio is understanably very proud of the car – it took years of painstaking research and restoration to get it into the state it is today. Below: Factory archives came up with priceless information…
“AND DON? HE IS JUSTIFIABLY PROUD OF HIS CAR…”
What we noticed – especially in comparison with a current model we brought along – is how right the concept, the design, the idea was from the outset. The Porsche style and driving experience seemed spot-on from the very beginning – an impression that holds true to this day. Once you put both old and new next to each other, you realise how wide, how huge the 911 has become – in order to get that kind of interior space in the 1960s, you would have had to buy a saloon.
Above: Note the location of the windscreen washer bottle at the rear left corner. Also, check the torsion-springs used to hold the front lid open, rather than gas struts. Above right: VIN plate and body badge read 13 327 – the seventh 901 prototype made and the oldest surviving example.
And Don? He is justifiably proud of his car, knows every single element of it and doesnʼt want to part with it for any sum of money. Instead, he has promised it to his son one day. Don doesnʼt care about the hype surrounding early 911s these days. He wants a car that documents like no other the transition from 356 to 911. We are delighted that we had a chance to find out for ourselves. ʻYou see? I never really drive it,ʼ Don says again and puts 13 327 back into its place in the garage…
“THE VIEW FROM THIS EARLY 901 IS MAGNIFICENT…”
Below: As a prototype, 13 327 was almost certainly equipped with a variety of engines in its early life, but now runs a period-correct 901/01 unit – note the preproduction air-filter and the coil springs used to hold the engine lid open.