Porsche designed the SSK for Mercedes — subsequently, the styling inspired Clenet, Zimmer, Excalibur and even a Nissan

Porsche’s enduring designs

by Andy Bryenton

With a new 911 breaking cover recently, Porsche fans will once again face mild-mannered jibes from their mates about the unchanging symmetry and curves of the rear-engined sports classic. The fact is, Ferdinand Porsche, father of the 911, seemed to have a knack for developing enduring auto imagery.

Perhaps the most bizarre case of this ‘Porsche effect’, in which one of Ferdinand’s designs has come down through the years, is found in a family tree of auto oddballs. It starts with the super-prestigious Mercedes SSK, designed when Porsche was still working for Benz. It was a race winner and head turner, beloved (unfortunately) by the dictators on the Axis side during the second world war. All owned the staff-car derivative, the W150, which was literally bulletproof.

That should have been it for a car, which shone briefly in the pre-war auto scene but was tarnished by association with the Third Reich’s leadership.

Not so, however. Despite this ultimate in bad public relations, the design of the SSK proved seductive enough that a small company in America began building ‘updated’ replicas in 1964.

The Excalibur evoked continental, old-school class, packed a 300hp Corvette V8 and stayed in production until 1990. Long enough to spawn three
copycats to the copy of Porsche’s design, and for Arnold Schwarzenegger to buy one.

The first, the Zimmer Golden Spirit, was created to be a ‘retro luxury’ auto and based on the Ford Mustang chassis. A variant of this car is still in production today, with its biggest sales centres in the USA and the oil-rich states of the Middle East. The second was the short-lived but powerful Clenet Coachworks Series 1, as seen on both Dallas and Dynasty. Ronald Reagan called it the car of the century, perhaps not knowing which previous leader’s vehicle it was based on. The third is the bizarre Mitsuoka Le Seyde, a Japanese iteration of the American version of the German original, powered by a Nissan Silvia’s RB20 engine.

Looking at these interesting and anachronistic autos makes the evergreen and simple design of the 911 appear refreshingly modest.

It also illustrates that great auto design, like great art, can be timeless. Though the original may still be better than a reprint, in both cases.