It was June 17, 1953, just eight years after the end of the Second World War, and Soviet soldiers were on the march in Dresden again. Shots rang out in the streets. Like in Dresden, citizens all around East Germany were rising up against the Communist regime installed by the Soviets. For a brief moment it seemed as if the people just might succeed in winning their freedom, but then the Volkspolizei (East German People’s Police) and the Red Army crushed the nationwide uprising. Dresden was still marked by the devastating bombing it had suffered in the war. Large parts of the city still resembled a stone desert. World-famous buildings such as the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) and the Zwinger, a once magnificent palatial complex, lay in ruins.
Hans Miersch had been through a lot. Ten years earlier, the Saxony native had been seriously injured in the war and his lower right leg had been amputated. Just under 40 kilometres away from Dresden, in the small town of Nossen, he set up a women’s shoemaking workshop – a bold undertaking in the Communist part of Germany. Private property was frowned upon; large companies were nationalised and became the property of the people. The planned economy was the law, and private initiative represented an undesirable element.
Yet Miersch had no intention of being deprived of his dreams, either in professional life or his private affairs. In the early 50s, he discovered the new Porsche 356 in a West German car magazine. As he recalled decades later, “From the moment I saw the first models, I knew: this is my dream.” The shoe manufacturer shared his dream with many a car fan in the East and West, but just as for most of the others, it seemed unattainable. The two German states were worlds apart. Although travel between East and West was still possible – the wall was not built until 1961 – the German Democratic Republic imposed strict restrictions on trade with the capitalist Federal Republic of Germany. Even an entrepreneur like Miersch was not allowed to import a luxury car from there.
His company car was a self-built creation with a Hanomag body and the chassis of a former Jeep-style Kübelwagen. Back in the day, the rear-wheel drive, open-top four-seater had been designed by Ferdinand Porsche as the Type 82. “The car ran wonderfully,” said Miersch of his unusual vehicle. Equipped with a trailer – also self-built – he travelled the ‘sister countries’ of Hungary and Poland, delivering his ladies’ shoes. His connections reached as far as Czechoslovakia, which would later prove fortuitous.
A Kübelwagen as the beginning of the magical story
Finding a scrapped Type 82 was not particularly difficult in the GDR. Amid their helter-skelter retreat in 1945, German soldiers had to leave them behind on the eastern bank of the Elbe in order to save themselves by swimming westwards. More than a few farmers in the Dresden area therefore still had a Kübelwagen in the barn.
And just such a Kübelwagen also marks the beginning of this magical story. The twin brothers Falk and Knut Reimann, 21-year-old students at the Technical University of Dresden, designed a coupé on the drawing board that looked strikingly similar to the Porsche 356. Miersch caught wind of it. The budding Reimann engineers found another ally in coachbuilder Arno Lindner of Mohorn near Dresden, who put their designs into practice. He constructed a skeleton of ash wood over which the body could be pulled and then bolted or welded to a chassis. Lindner's family business had a wealth of experience with constructions of this sort: indeed, his grandfather had built horse-drawn carriages according to this principle.
Miersch procured a Kübelwagen chassis as the foundation for his dream of an eastern Porsche. At this point, however, a serious problem emerged that called into question the entire operation: no sheet metal of suitable quality could be found in East Germany. Miersch ultimately tapped his relationships in Czechoslovakia to obtain around 30 square metres of sheet metal. “It was almost worth more than gold.” With a wall thickness of one millimetre, it was quite heavy; the hood alone weighed almost 20 kilograms. And since the chassis of the Kübelwagen was around 30 centimetres longer and considerably wider than the body of the Porsche 356, the Miersch 356 became a spacious four-seater – which in turn meant further additional weight.
Miersch smuggled precious goods from West to East
The hunt for parts for the chassis and drivetrain turned into a real adventure. A brake system for the Porsche 356 A was procured from the West Berlin dealer Eduard Winter through the personal mediation of Ferry Porsche. Miersch smuggled the precious goods from West to East “in a very large briefcase”, sweating bullets all the way. Smuggling, after all, was punishable by long prison sentences in the GDR. “Several times a day” he had to cross the border under the scrutinising gaze of East German soldiers; “the brake drums in particular were incredibly heavy.” Little by little, the car began to take shape. After seven months, in November 1954, the self-made vehicle was ready for the road. Lindner charged 3,150 West German marks for the production of the body.
Initially, the Miersch was powered by a weak 30-hp boxer engine, which struggled with the 1,600-kg vehicle. The original 356 prototype weighed only about half as much, and had twice as much engine power to boot. It was not until 1968 that Miersch was able to install an engine of suitable stature: a 75-hp, 1.6-litre Porsche engine. He was allowed to import the dismantled engine – ostensibly a gift from a West German relative – as automotive spare parts.
Lindner produced roughly a dozen other coupés based on the same prototype in the mid-1950s; the exact number is not known for certain. What is certain, however, is that the two designers, the Reimann brothers, had one built for themselves as well. They, too, hoped for help from Zuffenhausen – and they, too, received it. In a reply to the “Messrs. Reimann” dated July 26, 1956, Ferry Porsche wrote: “To help you out of your predicament, we will be sending you a set of used pistons and cylinders as per your request in the coming days by way of the Eduard Winter company in Berlin.” He went on to wish the two gents “good luck in taking receipt of the parts and pleasant driving with your self-built Porsche.” The letter was signed by Ferry Porsche’s secretary. The head of the company himself was, as he said, “currently at the race at Le Mans”.
The Porscheli was always at the centre
For as long as they could, the Reimanns undertook extensive tours through Europe in their self-built car. To save money for the travel fund, the twins shared one driver's license between them for years. The ruse was never uncovered. Snapshots of the two over the years show them with different girlfriends at the Großglockner, at Lake Geneva, in Paris or Rome. At the centre was always their greatest love – the Porscheli, as they called it. The western-oriented lifestyle of the two sports-car replicators was not lost on the ubiquitous spies of East Germany’s secret service. Shortly after the wall was built in 1961, both were arrested for allegedly abetting escape attempts. Nearly a year and a half went by before the two were released from prison.
And with that, all traces of the Porscheli would be lost for decades. It was not until 2011 that Austrian collector Alexander Diego Fritz discovered the car and saved it from ruin. As far as anyone knows, only two of those GDR Porsches have been completely preserved: the fully restored car owned by Fritz, and the largely still original car built by Hans Miersch. It had remained continuously in the hands of its first owner, including the original RJ 37-60 registration number. When Miersch’s shoemaking operation was converted into a state-owned business in the early 1970s – in other words, when it was expropriated – he managed to protect the car from state intervention. Miersch cunningly used his war wound as a rationale for keeping it: “It is a personalised, self-built vehicle designed specifically for me as a disabled person.” He said it was worth 1,800 East German marks. From now on, the former factory owner had to earn his living as a worker in a roofing paper factory.
By the time the history of the GDR came to an end, Miersch had reached retirement age. He remained faithful to his beloved car even in a united Germany, painstakingly beautifying it and improving it all along. At long last, a 90-hp engine from a Porsche 356 enabled the heavyweight champ to achieve reasonable driving performance.
Handover of the Miersch 356 to a Porsche enthusiast
It was not until 1994 that Miersch decided to part with his life companion, now painted white. He found a worthy successor in the Würzburg Porsche enthusiast Michael Dünninger. Wherever Dünninger shows up with the car, he causes a bit of a stir. “Many recognise the similarity to the 356, but are still perplexed by it,” he says with a laugh. And over time, he too has made some improvements. He had the seats reupholstered with a cognac-coloured leather, for example, and swapped the pre-war speedometer from Horch for an original Porsche part.
All adaptations aside, the Miersch remains a compelling piece of contemporary history. Developed in an epoch in which the world was divided into east and west. And in a time when people could still build their automotive dreams themselves.
The self-built car of Falk and Knut Reimann in film
A series of moving pictures at 911-magazine.porsche.com tell the story of how Falk and Knut Reimann constructed their Porsche replica. The model in which the twins went on their European tour still exists today. Or rather: again.
Unlike the lovingly maintained car of Hans Miersch, it had mouldered for decades in undeserved oblivion. Austrian Alexander Diego Fritz restored the car and wrote a book about it in 2016: Lindner Coupé: DDR Porsche aus Dresden (Lindner Coupé: a GDR Porsche from Dresden, not yet available in English).
Text first published in the Porsche magazine Christophorus, No. 396.
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