How Porsche’s First Le Mans Winner Was Sold, Chopped and Ultimately Restored

Jay Leno gets up close with the 1951 356 SL Gmund coupe that was almost lost.

Jay Leno Porsche

On this week’s episode of Jay Leno’s Garage, wheeling in front of the camera is automotive royalty in the form of a 1951 356 SL Gmund coupe that was the first Porsche to win Le Mans. Back in 1950, organizers of Le Mans approached Porsche at the Paris Auto Show and invited the Germans to compete in the enduro race the following year. Intrigued, Porsche wanted to enter a car with an aluminum body instead of steel. Luckily, Ferdinand Porsche had built 50 such aluminum-bodied examples of the 356 in Gmund, Austria.

Four of those lightweight bodies were scrounged up and used for testing and preparation for Le Mans. Two made it to the actual race, #47 and #46. While #47 flamed out after a crash during night practice, the 1100cc coupe #46 not only raced, but it took first in class, bested all the 1500cc cars and took twentieth overall. Credit its 45-horsepower VW-inspired engine (small but with a lot of camshaft), a supremely slippery body with fender skirts, a belly pan and other aero plates, and a number of redundancies to ensure the car could keep running at an average speed of 74 miles per hour for 1,700 miles.

After Le Mans, this very car saw some rallies and set some speed records, but Porsche sold it with a detuned engine to an American importer and racer, who campaigned it at Pebble Beach and a few other iconic races. At 1,350 pounds, the 356 SL Gmund Coupe wasn’t quite light enough for the owner so he – prepare to cringe here – chopped the roof off.

Everyone saw it run at the Rolex Motorsports Reunion as a red roadster until that driver passed away in 2009. Enter the new owner and Rod Emory, owner of Emory Motorsports and builder of Porsche 356 Outlaws, who did a heap of research to ensure this was indeed the Le Mans car before starting the restoration process. After confirmation came, 3,000 more hours were spent pouring over photos and documents before work even began.

The idea was to not over-restore it, and Emory estimates it’s about 80 percent original. They found small dings in the skirts and door gaps in the original photos, all of which were preserved. The extra bits that made this road-legal race steed a winner were refurbished, including the bigger fuel tank, bolstered drum brakes, extra fuel pump and wiper mounts. Emory even wedged a piece of hose behind the driving lights. Why? The original car had run out of adjustment ability to get the lights aimed at the apex, so a mechanic shoved a piece of hose in there to get the angle just right. “We wanted everything to be period correct,” Emory says. What a fantastic restoration. Check it out below.