Building the Beutler Porsches

How two brothers gained Porsche’s interest by building custom bodies

by | Aug 30, 2019 | Car Profiles

Photo Credit: John Lamm

Building the Beutler Porsches

How two brothers gained Porsche’s interest by building custom bodies

by | Aug 30, 2019 | Car Profiles

Photo Credit: John Lamm

The Beginnings

The Swiss brothers Beutler stepped on the stage of Porsche history at the beginning of the first act, when Gmünd-built 356s were being sent to Switzerland, some as completed coupes and some as chassis. Importer Bernhard Blank arranged to have the chassis bodied as cabriolets by panel-beater Fritz and designer Ernst Beutler at their workshops on Gwattstrasse in Thun’s southerly Dürrenast district, not far from Thun Lake. 

Although they did a beautiful job in 1947-48 on half a dozen 356 cabriolets for Swiss customers, the Beutlers then left the Porsche stage, preferring bespoke coachwork for individual customers to series production–no matter how small. Relatively soon, however, they resumed activity that would lead to a renewed role in the drama of Porsche development.

“We did more four-seater than two-seater cars,” Ernst Beutler later told Randy Leffingwell. “Our clients always asked: a coupe, nice shape, four places.” As the Volkswagen grew in popularity during the 1950s it became a Beutler staple. Bodies on the VW Beetle chassis were cleverly crafted by the Swiss to give comfortable 2+2 seating on the standard wheelbase of 94.5 inches. Wolfsburg’s shield was a styling element centered on an ornamental oval at the nose that passed for a grille at first glance. 

Custom Coupes & Cabriolets

As early as 1953 a VW was Beutler-bodied as a handsome coupe which eerily foreshadowed the proportions of the Karmann-Ghia that was still two years in the future. By 1954 Beutler had evolved a four-passenger format that it exploited for several years in both coupe and cabriolet formats. Attractive verging on sporty, its style communicated a lack of pretension that appealed to the Swiss character.

The coupe’s curvaceous greenhouse had C-shaped rear-quarter windows while its main body came either with or without a hint of hips above its rear wheelhouses. The Beutler bodies sported roofs in a second color and an oval front motif that could either be an air inlet for front-engined chassis or a decorative design feature for rear-engined machines.

When fitted to a Beetle platform, the result was a car of vast distinction compared to a garden-variety VW. Although at sfr 14,950, it cost three times a standard Beetle’s sfr 5,555. Trim was luxurious with leather seating as well as upgraded instrumentation and steering wheel. In spite of some difficulty in getting platforms from VW, which wanted to protect its Karmann-Ghia, between 1953 and 1956 Beutler built twelve VW-based cars of this genre.

 For performance to match the Beutler Beetle’s looks, a Porsche 1600 Super engine was available as a sfr 3,600 option, with a top speed of 102 mph. It was equipped with equally impressive stopping power in the form of a 356A braking system for sfr 1,200. Before one knew it, one had the equivalent of a four-seater Porsche for a total of sfr 19,750–about $6,170. With the addition of appropriate rear-deck grilles, instruments, and badges, the humble VW became a “Porsche” with all the prestige that implied. 

The Beutler Porsche

A face-lifted “Beutler-Porsche” made its debut at Geneva in March of 1957. “Beutler has reached a new pinnacle,” reported Automobil Revue. “This year’s version achieves an impression of length by the simplest means, namely increases in front and rear overhangs and the execution of both as horizontally as possible. In this bodywork, which has gained in purity of form through many detail improvements, one notes very slender windscreen posts and substantial glass area.” When Porsche-powered, it continued, “these cars achieve an attractive blend of liveliness and spaciousness.”

The Beutlers used some four dozen partial forms against which they hammered the body skins to shape, butt-welding them together to form the complete body. For material, they used an alloy called Aluman, which complemented aluminum with 1.1 percent manganese by weight to enhance its stiffness. They found that the shaping process made the skin even stronger.

The Aluman panels were 1.2 mm thick apart from the 1.5 mm used for the doors, sides and rocker panels. Carrying them were steel tubular structures that also contributed to the body-shaping and -forming process. Typically two months were needed to complete a body before sending it to Lothar Lauenstein, whose paint shop was next door. Of the new design introduced in 1957, priced at sfr 20,390, five were produced.

Duke Carl’s Beutler

A new German platform of interest to Beutler was introduced in 1958. This was the Auto Union 1000, an up-powered version of the Ingolstadt-built two-stroke DKW. At Geneva in March of 1959 the brothers launched a body for this model that retained the usual greenhouse while breaking with the previously bulbous lower-body lines to offer a much sharper front-end appearance and hints of tail fins with vertical rear lamps.

Seen at Thun during its creation, this much fresher Beutler look appealed strongly to a tall Stuttgart-based 22-year-old whose family name had become that of a German state: Carl, Duke of Württemberg. In 1975 he would become head of the House of Württemberg—since 1952 officially part of the unified state of Baden-Württemberg, home to Porsche—when his elder brother renounced his right of succession.

Duke Carl’s interest in a cabriolet version of this new style coincided with increased involvement in the Beutlers’ activities by Zuffenhausen. Since their first combined activities in 1947-48 Ferry Porsche and Erwin Komenda had kept in touch with the brothers. Now, a decade later, they thought it was time to see if there was merit for these four-passenger models as an adjunct to the Porsche range. During a visit to Thun in December 1958 they agreed on lengthening the standard 356A chassis by 250 mm, almost 10 inches, bringing the wheelbase to 92.5 inches.

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Early in 1959, related Randy Leffingwell, “Erwin Komenda returned to Thun. He brought with him some Porsche frame rails, an extension for the gearshift linkage and some modified wiring. At Beutler, workers made a support to hold the car solidly in place with a hydraulic-pump assembly to accurately open up the length.” They went to work on two chassis sent from Zuffenhausen complete with engine, suspension and steering, plus the instruments.

These first two stretched Porsche chassis went under bodies of the new style. A Swiss businessman was eager to take possession of his coupe, which was ready in early 1959. For his part, Carl of Württemberg provided a factory-fresh 356A 1600 Normal chassis, bought from a dealer in Reutlingen, to the Swiss brothers for adaptation to a soft-top. During the construction process, said Ernst Beutler, “the Duke came to sit in the car to check that he fit inside—because he was very tall.” In fact, modifications to its roof line had to be made.

Work went ahead quickly. In May of 1959, Duke Carl had his cabriolet, metallic blue with a tan top and beige interior. The bill? sfr 26,000. Like its coupe sister, it had vertical tail lamps on muted fins that hinted of Britain’s Sunbeam Alpine. Both had Carrera-style twin air-inlet grilles in the rear deck.

A Four-Seat Porsche

Under the headline “A Four-Seat Porsche” both cars were featured in Automobil Revue of August 27, 1959. Recapping Beutler’s renewed cooperation with Porsche, the paper described their lengthened wheelbase and “luxurious equipment”. At the front, it noted, luggage capacity had grown thanks to the trunk’s more-forward placing and reshaping of the fuel tank. Weight, it stated, was 2,070 pounds. Although this was an increase of some 200 pounds over a standard Porsche, in spite of its much more elaborate design its aluminum skin allowed it to compare favorably with the 2,025 pounds of Porsche’s own effort at a four-seater, its Type 530.

Only one cloud darkened the skies of the refreshed Porsche-Beutler relationship: Komenda didn’t like the design. After the good reception the new look had received, this was disappointing. But the Porsche people had only allowed their chassis to be used under the 1959-style bodies because those two cars were already nearing completion. “We discussed the front, the bumpers, the styling,” Ernst Beutler recalled. “They said I had to change the ‘mouth’, to have another front and also the back, styled to integrate some original Porsche parts.”

With these changes, the Porsche men explained, Beutler could keep the original factory warranty and be sure of getting the various components it needed to build the cars. This was framed as an offer the Swiss couldn’t refuse if they wanted to keep on building “Porsches”. The possibility was explored of selling four-seater cars through the Porsche network.

This possibility was not denied to Porsche’s supplier of Spyder bodies, Wendler Karosseriebau GmbH in nearby Reutlingen. Soon enough its interpretation drove into the Werk I courtyard. Wendler stayed close to the 356A, using its front end and windscreen. Stretching the frame some 300 mm ahead of the rear wheels, it built a notchback greenhouse with more angular quarter-windows. Vertical Mercedes-Benz tail lamps capped the extended rear fenders of a prototype that remained exactly that.

Drawings of the new Komenda-influenced Beutler design were shown to clients at the March 1959 Geneva Salon. Based on 356B chassis the first two Porsche-look Beutlers left Thun in November of 1959 for Jacksonville, Florida where they had been ordered by a freshly minted Porsche distributor for the southeast. The new model’s styling and its carrying capacity appealed to the wife of Hubert Brundage, founder of Florida VW distributor Brundage Motors and, from September 1959, as BRUMOS a Porsche distributor as well. She kept one, said researcher Marco Martinello, while the other was sold.

The Komenda-influenced Beutler-Porsche made its formal bow at Geneva in March of 1960. “Rumors about development work by Porsche on a car in a larger-displacement category,” said Automobil Revue, “have heightened interest even more in a lengthened four-seat version developed by the Beutler brothers in Thun.”

The Specs of the Four-Seater

Advertised by Beutler as “A genuine four-seater on the speedy Porsche chassis,” the new model did indeed resemble a stretched version of the new Type 356B Porsche. While the greenhouse was classic Beutler, with its slim pillars and generous glazing, it rested atop a body that had been “Porschefied”. At the rear Porsche tail lamps were next to mini-fin fender extensions while the nose, visually much longer than the original, ended in a Swiss interpretation of the 356B with side lamps and air inlets integrated.

Headlamps were vertical instead of sloping in VW/Porsche style, adding to what one observer called the new version’s “elongated character”. While the 356B bumpers and their overriders looked natural enough at the rear, the effect at the front can only be described as jarring, protruding as they did well forward of the bodywork. Pricing was a shock as well, the 1600 Normal version costing sfr 25,900 and the Super priced at sfr 26,900—notable uplifts from the prices of previous Porsche-powered Beutlers.

“Whether these VW and Porsche versions, something special for enthusiasts, have the same driving characteristics of the originals remains an open question,” Automobil Revue opined. Although famed for its road tests, the paper never assessed one. No longer elegant and not yet sporty, the Porsche-look Beutler was an acquired taste. Two more were completed in May and November of 1960 with a final car leaving Thun in November 1961 to bring to five the number of this version made. The last one, made on a pre-production T-6 platform, graced Beutler’s Geneva stand in March of 1962.

“Their noses are different,” said Beutler-Porsche owner Henry Walker, Jr. “The coupes began with a higher, blunt nose, with Beutler apparently trying to increase space in the front luggage compartment, then became lower and more like a 356. The last two also have a noticeable crease from below their headlights to the front wheel well.” Survival rate of the rear-engined Beutlers is impressively high.

The Rest of the Story

Demand was demonstrably less than intense for these final “Porschefied” Beutlers. The idea of selling them through Porsche’s network proved infeasible when set against the Beutlers’ traditional direct-selling practice, which left no margin for middlemen. Nor were Thun’s production methods geared to the output pace that would be needed to satisfy even a minuscule slice of Porsche’s global markets.

Like other bespoke coachbuilders, Beutler suffered from the introduction of monocoque auto bodies that lacked the separate frames on which they built so many bodies. Although carrying on, the company never wholly regained the special affection that the Swiss granted to its VW-based creations. It remained in business until 1987, when Beutler was finally shuttered. Although only enjoying a walk-on part, Beutler’s role in the Porsche drama was notable.

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