Despite Germany being divided by the Iron Curtain, Porsche enthusiasts in the Communist section of the country still accomplished their desires of a sports car, the 356 Miersch.
The year was 1953, with the Second World War ending eight years before. In Dresden, the Soviet soldiers were on the march again. Citizens in East Germany were rising against the Soviet-installed Communist regime.
When freedom appeared possibly within reach, the Volkspolizei (East German People’s Police) and the Red Army swept in and crushed the uprising. Dresden was still suffering from the massive bombing it received during the war, with large parts of the city still in rubbles.
The once magnificent palatial structures like the world-famous Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) and the Zwinger lay ruined in the rubble.
Hans Miersch, who hailed from Saxony, had been through much during his life. Ten years before, he was injured in the war, requiring an amputation of his lower right leg.
In the small town of Nossen, roughly 40 kilometers away from Dresden, he started a women’s shoemaking workshop. It was a bold move as he was in the Communist part of Germany. Private property was not encouraged, and large companies were taken over and became the people’s property. The planned economy was considered the law, and personal initiative was frowned upon.
Yet, Miersch was not ready to let go of his dreams in his private affairs and professional life. He first caught a glimpse of the new Porsche 356 in the early 50s in a West German magazine. Decades later, Miersch looked back:
“From the moment I saw the first models, I knew: this is my dream.”
The shoe manufacturer shared his dream with other car enthusiasts that he encountered in the East and West, but just like many others, his goal appeared out of reach.
The two German states were worlds apart. Travel to and from East to West was still allowed as the wall was not built until 1961. Still, the German Democratic Republic placed strict restrictions on trading with the capitalist Federal Republic of Germany. Even entrepreneurs like Miersch were restricted from importing a luxury car.
The company car that he used was a self-built machine given a Hanomag body, matched with the chassis of a former Jeep-style Kübelwagen. At that time, the vehicle had been designed by Ferdinand Porsche -a rear-wheel-drive, open-top, four-seater. “The car ran wonderfully,” Miersch recalled. It was also equipped with a self-built trailer that he utilized to go around ‘sister countries’ like Hungary and Poland as he delivered his ladies’ shoes. He made business deals as far as Czechoslovakia, and eventually, these partnerships would help him realize his dream.
The Building blocks start with a Kübelwagen
In the GDR, a scrapped Type 82 was easy to find. In 1945, amidst their immediate retreat, many German soldiers were forced to abandon the cars on the eastern bank of the Elbe and swim westwards to save themselves. In the Dresden area, farmers kept these Kübelwagens in their barns.
Falk and Knut Reimann were 21-year-old twin brothers who were studying at the Technical University of Dresden. The brothers designed a coupé that was noticeably similar to the Porsche 356 of which Miersch discovered. The upcoming Reimann engineers also found another collaborator in coachbuilder, Arno Lindner from Mohorn, which was near Dresden.
Lindner put the brothers’ designs into practice. He built a skeleton of ash wood wherein the body could be pulled and then welded or bolted onto a chassis. Interestingly, Lindner’s family business had a long history with constructions similar to this, as his grandfather used to build horse-drawn carriages with the same principles.
Taking the first step into realizing his dream of an eastern Porsche, Miersch purchased a Kübelwagen chassis. They immediately ran into an enormous problem that had the potential to derail the entire operation: a suitable quality sheet metal in East Germany could not be found.
To resolve this issue, Miersch used his connections in Czechoslovakia to procure 30 square meters of sheet metal. He shared, “It was almost worth more than gold.” The sheet metal had a thickness of one millimeter, and it was cumbersome. Just the hood weighed nearly 20 kilograms. Given that the Kübelwagen was roughly 30cm longer and much wider than the Porsche 356, the Miersch 356 became a very spacious four-seater, contributing to more weight.
Sourcing parts for the drivetrain and chassis was an adventure in itself. The brake system was sourced from the West Berlin dealer Eduard Winter via the mediation of Ferry Porsche. They were smuggled into the East “in a very large briefcase,” risking the punishment of a lengthy prison sentence.
Gradually the automobile began to take shape. In November 1954, seven months after they started, the self-made car was set for the road.
At first, the Miersch had a weak 30hp boxer engine, so it struggled with the 1,600 kg car. The original 356 prototype had twice as much engine power and weighed half as much as the Miersch.
In 1968, Miersche could get his hands on a more suitable engine, a 75hp, 1.6-liter Porsche engine. Considered as automotive spare parts, Miersch could import the dismantled engine given to him as a gift by a relative from West Germany.
In the mid-1950s, Lindner created roughly a dozen more coupés using the same prototype, although the exact number is not precisely known.
What is known is that the Reimann brothers also had one made for themselves. They also sought help from Zuffenhausen and received it as well.
In a letter dated July 26, 1956, they got a reply addressed to “Messrs. Reimann” wherein 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 then wished the brothers “good luck in taking receipt of the parts and pleasant driving with your self-built Porsche.” Ferry Porsche’s secretary signed the letter as the head of the company was at the time, “currently at the race at Le Mans.”
For as long as they were able, the Reimann brothers drove around Europe in their self-built car. The twins shared one driver’s license for years and were never caught to minimize expenses for travel.
Pictures of the two throughout the years show them with different companions at many destinations: Lake Geneva, Großglockner, Rome, or Paris. Wherever they ventured, they were always with their greatest love, the car they called Porscheli.
The western-oriented lifestyle of the twins soon caught the attention of the spies of East Germany’s secret service. In 1961, shortly after the wall was built, they were arrested under the suspicion of helping escape attempts. The brothers spent a year and a half in prison before they were released.
After that, the Porscheli was lost in history. The Porscheli did not resurface until 2011, when Austrian collector Alexander Diego Fritz discovered the car and saved it from being destroyed.
Currently, there are only two known GDR Porsches that have been preserved fully: the fully restored car owned by Fritz and the mostly still original car built by Hans Miersch.
In the early 1970s, Miersch’s shoemaking business was expropriated into a state-owned company, but he was able to subvert the state’s intervention from taking the car. He cleverly used his war wound as an excuse for keeping the vehicle, stating, “it is a personalized, self-built vehicle designed specifically for me as a disabled person.”
When the GDR came to an end, Miersch had already reached retirement age. Even in a united Germany, he stayed faithful to his beloved car. He painstakingly worked to improve and beautify the car. Finally, he was able to get a 90-hp engine from a Porsche 356, allowing the heavyweight champ to have a reasonable driving performance.
A New Custodian for the Miersch 356
In 1994 Miersch finally decided to let go of his life companion. Würzburg Porsche enthusiast Michael Dünninger acquired the now-white Miersch. Dünninger causes a bit of a stir whenever he goes out with the car. “Many recognize the similarity to the 356 but are still perplexed by it,” the new owner says with a laugh. He has also improved the car over the years, including reupholstering the seats with cognac-colored leather and replacing the pre-war Horch speedometer with an original Porsche part.
All the upgrades aside, the 356 Miersch is still a compelling piece of contemporary history. It was created when the world was divided into two: east and west, and people themselves were able to build their automotive dreams.