The number “597” might sound like the internal codename of a Porsche sports car from years gone by. But those three digits represent an entirely different concept. The go-anywhere vehicle you see here was the company’s response to a call for tender made by the German army in the early 1950s. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it’s essentially an invitation for suppliers to respond to a request made by a government or a private entity.
The German army needed a lightweight and reliable vehicle capable of tackling any road while being easy to service. The engineers from Zuffenhausen came up with the 597, nicknamed “Jagdwagen” (German for “hunting car”). Porsche was one of the three German firms that responded to the call for tender, along with Auto Union (the precursor to Audi) and Goliath, a subsidiary of the original Borgward automaker.
While some would be tempted to say the 597 was related to the Volkswagen Type 181 (“The Thing” in the United States) due to their visual similarities, the VW came out much later, in the late 1960s. The first all-wheel-drive car from Porsche had a rear-engine layout with a modified flat-four derived from the 356 sports car. The 1.6-liter boxer unit made 50 horsepower, enough for a top speed of 62 mph (100 km/h).
Although Porsche was already known for its performance cars, the 597 was all about agility and being able to drive off the beaten path. It weighed only 1,918 pounds (870 kilograms) and used a custom four-speed manual gearbox with an off-road gear. You can draw similarities to the 959 all-wheel-drive supercar from the 1980s, which also had a “G” short gear, the Gelände (meaning “terrain”).
The 597 showcased exceptional competence on tough terrain, effortlessly scaling inclines of 65 percent with the engine spinning at 1,000 rpm. Its watertight tub-like monocoque bodyshell allowed the military vehicle to float on water, prompting some early examples built by Porsche to forgo doors. Measuring just 141.7 inches (3.6 meters) in length, this off-roader was remarkably maneuverable and nimble.
The 597’s basic appearance hid complex hardware. Porsche engineered the car with independent suspension, telescopic shock absorbers, and selectable all-wheel drive courtesy of an innovative front axle coupling. The air-cooled engine was tweaked to prioritize reliability over peak performance. It sent power to the front axle after fitting a front differential fixed to the body and connected to the wheels with oscillating axle shafts.
Porsche produced a total of 71 units before pulling the plug in 1958 when Auto Union secured the contract with its cheaper-to-build Typ F91 Munga. Approximately 50 examples are estimated to have survived over time, and most of the current owners belong to what is believed to be the smallest Porsche club in the world—the Porsche Jagdwagen Registry e.V. There were just 49 civilian cars, while the remaining 22 were built in military specification.
Given how rare these vehicles are nowadays, their value has soared. At a Monterey auction a couple of years ago, RM Sotheby’s sold a military-spec 597 for the princely sum of $665,000.
1900 Lohner-Porsche Semper Vivus
Although the 597 was technically the first Porsche with all-wheel drive, company founder Ferdinand Porsche had worked on an AWD car half a century earlier. The fully electric 1900 Lohner-Porsche had four wheel hub motors and was also the first passenger vehicle with four-wheel brakes. In the same year, the Semper Vivus (“Forever Alive” in Latin) was unveiled as the world’s first functional hybrid.
The Semper Vivus used a different setup. It had two single-cylinder combustion engines that acted as generators, feeding the wheel hub motors and a smaller battery. The ICEs worked independently of each other and made 2.5 horsepower. Maximum range was claimed to be 124 miles (200 kilometers) and top speed was rated at 22 mph (35 km/h) for a vehicle that weighed 3,747 pounds (1,700 kilograms).
A year later, the production-ready Lohner-Porsche Mixte was introduced with a 5.5-liter four-cylinder Daimler engine making 25 horsepower. It too acted as a generator by providing energy to a pair of wheel hub motors. Compared to the Semper Vivus, it was about 1,100 lbs (500 kg) lighter thanks to a smaller battery. Only seven cars were built with Daimler engines before switching to Panhard & Levassor from 1903.