Sotheby's to auction 'world's first Porsche' for $20 million, but the automaker says it's not a Porsche

Key Points
  • The confusion around the Type 64 stems from its complex history.
  • Ferdinand Porsche, a relentless and visionary auto engineer who was also a member of the Nazi Party, started making cars in 1931.
  • He developed the car known as the Type 64 from an early version of the Volkswagen Beetle for the Nazi Party in 1939.
  • The car company wasn't started until 1948. 
1939 Porsche Type 64
Source: RM Sotheby's

This weekend, a sleek, vintage car that's being called "the world's first Porsche" heads to the auction block with an estimated price tag of over $20 million.

There is just one problem: Porsche says the 1939 Porsche Type 64 isn't the first Porsche ever made. To purists, it may not even be a Porsche.

"We would like to be very clear, it's not the first Porsche," Frank Jung, head of the historical archives for Porsche, told CNBC. He said the world's first Porsche, from 1948, is sitting on display at the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart, Germany.

The flood of recent headlines about the car — from Top Gear, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times — herald it as "the first Porsche" with "first" sometimes in quotation marks. Being able to own the world's first Porsche is the dream of countless wealthy Porsche collectors and is presumably a big part of its appeal and value when it rolls over the RM Sotheby's auction block at Pebble Beach car week in Monterey, California, on Saturday.

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RM Sotheby's is specific in its sales language, saying the car is "the oldest car to wear the Porsche badge." Its sales catalog quotes Porsche expert Andy Prill saying "This is the most historically significant of all Porsche cars and it is simply incredible to find the oldest Porsche in original condition."

The confusion around the Type 64 stems from its complex history. Ferdinand Porsche, a relentless and visionary auto engineer who was also a member of the Nazi Party, started making cars in 1931.

He developed the car, known as the KdF-Wagen or People's car, that later became the Volkswagen Beetle. In 1939, as part of Hitler's propaganda efforts, a road race was planned between Berlin and Rome, and Ferdinand Porsche created a racing version of the KdF-Wagen for the rally for the Nazi Party.

With its streamlined, lightweight alloy body and more than 2,000 rivets, the car called the Type 64 borrowed aircraft technology to turn the KdF-Wagen's sub-40-horsepower engine into a racing machine well ahead of its time.

1939 Porsche Type 64
Source: RM Sotheby's

The outbreak of World War II scuttled the race plans. Ferdinand's son, Ferry Porsche, had three Type 64s built for experimentation. Only one survived the war, which Ferry drove as his personal car.

Ferry Porsche started his eponymous car company in 1948 with the debut of the 356, the roadster that launched the brand and the global auto empire that followed. Porsche unveiled the 356 on a racetrack in Innsbruck, and had the Type 64 follow along as the chase car. Sometime before the demonstration, Porsche added the crudely applied "Porsche" letters to the hood of the Type 64.

Jung says the 356 driven at Innsbruck that day, known as No. 1, is the true first Porsche. It remains at the company's museum and Porsche is proud that it is one of the few car companies that retains its first car ever built.

Because the Porsche lettering was only added to the Type 64 later, the one being auctioned Saturday is not a true Porsche, Jung said.

"It was to show where the Porsche brand comes from," he said, adding that the Type 64 has some of the same design DNA as the 356. "It was more or less for marketing purposes."

1939 Porsche Type 64
Source: RM Sotheby's

The true description of the Type 64, he said, is a "race version of a pre-Volkswagen."

He concedes that the Type 64 is a "very important piece of history for Porsche." RM Sotheby's said it stands by its catalog language and that the Type 64 is important in the development of Porsche and the lives of Ferdinand and Ferry Porsche.

Jung said Porsche met with RM Sotheby's before the sale was announced to make its position clear and to make sure RM Sotheby's didn't use any of the company's archival photos. But he stressed that Porsche will not be among the bidders vying for the car Saturday.

Saturday's sale price will determine whether collectors view the Type 64 as the world's first Porsche or a historically interesting pre-Volkswagen racer.