Saturday, June 1, 2019

Porsche Wanted To Build An SUV 45 Years Before The Cayenne Arrived

This is the story of the 597 Jagdwagen.

Things have never been the same for Porsche since it launched the first generation Cayenne SUV back in 2002. Many Porschephiles still haven’t gotten over the fact their beloved sports car brand branched out beyond ass-engined and GT driver’s cars. Their heads nearly exploded when the Panamera arrived in 2009, and ultimately did so upon the Macan’s 2014 debut. But back in the mid-1950s, Porsche designed and built the 597 Jagdwagen, which translates to “hunting car.”

It looks very much like a post-WWII SUV, but don’t think of it as the Cayenne’s ancestor. They have absolutely nothing in common, mechanically speaking. The 597 was very much a rough and rowdy SUV without a hint of luxury or comfort. Back then, Porsche was still trying to find its footing in the industry; was it going to stick solely with sports cars, like the 356 and 550 Spyder? Perhaps not. Porsche figured it was worth taking a shot at winning a NATO-issued tender for a light army-transport vehicle inspired by the original American Jeep. The 597 Jagdwagen was the result, and it had one significant thing in common with the 356: it was also rear-engined.

Both 1.5- and 1.6-liter air-cooled flat-fours were prepared, though the latter was the “premium” engine with a grand total of 50 hp. Top speed? Around 62 mph. Weighing just under 2,200 pounds, the 597 Jagdwagen came with a five-speed manual gearbox – a lot of gears at the time – and the capability of switching between two- and four-wheel drive on the fly. Like any good German-built vehicle, the Jagdwagen was very purposeful, offering solid off-road capability and even managing a climbing gradient of 65 percent. It also had some amphibious capabilities, specifically floating without taking on water. Its monocoque shell did not have doors, but the high sills made it difficult for passengers to climb in and out.

For better or worse (depending on whom you ask), Porsche lost the tender to the DKW Munga, an off-road vehicle built by Auto-Union, the predecessor to today’s Audi. Its winning 4x4 went on to have a 12-year production run with 46,000 examples built. However, selling the car to civilians and private owners wasn't easy. As for Porsche, instead of ending the prototype project completely, it wanted to try to rebrand the Jagdwagen as a 4x4 aimed at hunters, and those who worked in outdoor professions. Porsche invested 1.8 million Deutschmarks into the project, an especially large sum at the time. It wanted the 597 Jagdwagen to find appeal somehow, as the company wasn’t in the mood to take a financial hit just yet.

The result was a somewhat refined civilian version 597 Jagdwagen, now equipped with doors. It could still float, though it was by no means seaworthy. A grand total of 71 units of the 597 were from 1955 until 1958, although just 49 were made for civilians. Not all of them survive today, but the few that do sell for some serious bank. Jerry Seinfeld had one in his vast Porsche collection that later sold for $330,000 at auction. Unlike any generation Cayenne, the 597 Jagdwagen was ugly, but in a cool way. It was designed to be purposeful, not stylish. And in some ways it was ahead of its time; who knew back then that Porsche SUVs would make up a majority of its annual sales.

Aside from its looks, perhaps one reason why the 597 Jagdwagen didn’t find buyers was because it simply looked too much like a German military vehicle. Anything with even a hint of a connection to the Nazis in post-war Germany was considered taboo.

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