LA PUERTA-SULTEPEC, Mexico – It was a different era in 1950 when the first La Carrera Panamericana cross-country race joined the Mille Miglia and Targa Florio, along with the track-based Le Mans 24-hour, Sebring 12-hour and Tourist Trophy races, as part of the FIA Manufacturers Championship series.
Porsche chose to recreate some of the glamour and glory of that era to introduce the 2017 Panamera, which took its name from the event, on a portion of the original route.
The fabled Mexican road race ran for five consecutive years during which, it became known as the most dangerous race of any type in the world.
La Carrera Panamericana was organized by the Mexican government to showcase its road building achievements and attract international business. The five-day, 3,517-km border-to-border event claimed 20 lives over a five-year span (1950- 1955).
By 1955, following the negative publicity from the bloodiest race in history, when a driver and 83 spectators were killed and 120 more injured at Le Mans, the Mexican government felt “the original goals of La Carrera Panamericana had been reached,” and cancelled the event.
Porsche first entered in 1952 with a virtually stock 356 1500 Super Cabriolet, finishing eighth overall among more than 100 entries. By that time La Carrera Panamericana attracted competitors from around the globe representing every form of motor sport, from F1 and sports cars to stock and rally cars.
Factory teams from Europe and America had also become involved, with entries including everything from Alfa Romeos and Ferraris to Cadillacs and Lincolns.
Porsche had great success with its compact, light and extremely reliable sports cars, often vanquishing much larger and more powerful competitors.
The race became so special to Porsche that the company gave its name to both its Carrera and Panamera models, just as the Targa name was adopted from the famous open road event in Italy.
To showcase the new 2017 Panamera using some of the original La Carrera Panamericana route, Porsche was able to close a section of the road to traffic, with the support of the Mexican government and national police force. There, a half-dozen Canadian, a few French and a group of Latin American journalists were invited to “explore the Panamera’s capabilities.”
It was easy to see from the security of the new Panamera, just how dangerous the original event must have been. The combination of extreme competition, public roads with no protective provisions and spectators hugging the roadside was an invitation to disaster.
Our day involved more than 400 km of driving not only on the race route but also a on a wide variety of roads to, from and in the city, ranging from modern multi-lane toll expressways to poorly maintained narrow tracks.
We sampled a brace of 2017 Panameras equipped with V-6 and V-8 engines, both with twin-turbos and a new eight-speed PDK automatic transmission.
There is a lot that is new in Porsche’s four-door, four-seater for 2017. In addition to two new engines and the automatic transmission, it gets a restyled body, new interior, increased connectivity and additional interior and cargo space.
The front continues to look very much like a 911 while the new roofline and revised rear do away with the controversial and, to many eyes, ugly butt, replacing it with a much more streamlined and completed look.
This is a big car, but it looks and drives like a much smaller one - albeit not as small as that original winn
The 356 was created by Ferdinand "Ferry" Porsche (son of Ferdinand Porsche, founder of the German company). Production began in Gmund, Austria in 1948. Only 50 cars were built before it moved to Zuffenhausen in 1950 where production continued until April 1965, two years after its successor, the 911, made its debut.
The light and nimble, rear-drive sports car used the block of the engine originally designed for the VW Beetle. The version used in the La Carrera Panamericana displaced 1.5 litres and produced 69 horsepower.
The Porsche I drove boasts 550-horsepower from a new 4.0-litre V-8 with a pair of turbos resting between the cylinder banks. Where the engine in the 356 Super produced 46.4-horsepower per litre, the turbo triples that number with 137. Each of those horses in the 356 had to propel almost 11 kg of mass, compared to only 3.6 for the Panamera Turbo.
The four-cylinder 356 sent power to the rear wheels through a four-speed transmission. The new Panamera has twice as many cylinders, twice as many gears and the power goes to twice as many wheels, thanks to a sophisticated all-wheel drive system.
It reaches top speed in sixth gear – with the remaining two reserved for smooth, quiet and relatively economical highway operation.
That original racer was highly successful because it was light and nimble. The 356 Super 1500 weighed 760 kg and stretched just 3,850 mm from one bumper to the other. At 2,000 kilos and more than five metres in length, the Panamera is far from small or light, but it is nimble.
Maximum speed back in the fifties was 175 km/h. The Panamera turbo is said to top out at 305! I saw 250 on a couple of occasions and can attest to its solidity and planted feel at that speed.
Erasing that speed back then was the task of 280-mm drum brakes, while the new Panamera turbo boasts massive 410-mm discs. The 356 had 16-inch wheels wrapped in 5.6-in wide rubber; the Panamera turbo has 20-inch wheels with 295-mm wide tires.
They do not, indeed, build them like they used to. But some things haven’t changed over the 65 years between these two vehicles. Both are fun to drive, and right at home when driven hard on a variety of roads – even those that haven’t changed in six decades.
POSTSCRIPT: The Carrera Panamericana was revived in 1988 and has been run under strict guidance ever since, attracting entrants from around the globe, most in classic and period cars. Now in its 34th year, the current iteration of the event covers 3,200 km and takes seven days to complete.