The ‘Kaiserslautern Coupe’ Is A German Coach-Built Mystery
Photography by Jeff Stockwell
For me, the most exciting piece of the world of cars is related to its size. People who don’t share our hobby tend to lump everyone in as “car people,” and while we do share a lot of the same opinions, there are so many different groups that form around particular brands, models, eras, body styles, etc. You know what I mean. That’s why my favorite aspect is the sheer amount of information to absorb. Since birth I’ve been soaking up all things automotive, and now as a 50-year-old man I’ve accumulated a fair bit of know-how from my experiences and curiosities, but I know there are still plenty of foreign areas left to explore in the car world.
From my early days spent following my father around to car shows and watching him tinker with his own, I’ve prided myself on knowing at least a little about most cars, and more than most on the cars I now have the pleasure of calling part of my collection. Still to this day though, there is not a week that goes by that I don’t learn something new about old cars, including the ones I thought I already knew everything about. Discovering things about cars like this one still boggles me, considering for instance all the information I acquired while chasing it down for over a decade.
Before getting into this story, allow me to give a tiny bit more background on myself. My specialty has always been cars with two base traits: air-cooled, and German. While I have strayed at times into many different areas of collecting—from 1930s Packards to vintage tractors—the core of my world is horizontally opposed and driven by an engine in the back. That means I’ve been around many a Porsche and Volkswagen, but even so, I’d never found a car like this.
At a regular local SoCal VW event, this car surfaced one day and I was transfixed by it ever since. I walked around it again and again and could not figure it out. At the time it was sprayed in primer, lowered to the ground on polished Porsche wheels, and it had a monstrous turbocharged VW engine hanging out of the back. For me it was like seeing a vintage Ferrari on a Jeep chassis and rolling on mud tires, but this car was something far more special than a rat rod—there was some serious soul and a story underneath it all. I took the owner’s number and proceeded to keep in regular contact with him, asking yearly if he would consider selling it. Patience and persistence paid off, and earlier this year I found myself sitting on the garage floor of an apartment complex in San Diego having a heart to heart conversation about it changing hands. The owner knew it was something special and he held on tightly, but in the end he knew the car would have a good life if it came home with me, and so we struck a deal.
The afternoon I came home from our meeting, I found the latest Porsche 356 registry newsletter in my mailbox, and a certain article inside gave me goosebumps. It was a story on a Porsche-based special that was built in Germany by the Meisterschule für Handwerker (MHK) in Kaiserslautern, Germany. The similarities between the car on the page and the one I’d just agreed to purchase seemed significant, and I started to research more. MHK, the school, has been in existence since 1874 and is still in operation today. Their focus started in construction training and art, and they continue the tradition today as a school for vocational training and education in industrial, technical, and creative-artistic fields. Much like the Art Center in Pasadena does today, MHK has produced and shaped countless students that have gone on to design and build the world we know. Their automotive technical and design department has been in place since the birth of the automobile, transitioning from making carriages into horseless ones, and on to the computer-designed-and-constructed vehicles of the moment.
In the first half of the last century, Europe was the creative hub for car engineers and and designers. Coachbuilt cars made by hand were in their prime years of innovative forms, from the wild designs of Figoni et Falaschi to Pininfarina, Karmann, Hebmüller, and the like—MHK trained the hands that held the pen as well as the hammer. The work they did reflected this, as with each session the department would work together on a project car, from design and drawing to cost analysis, parts acquisition, technical construction, body shaping, and construction. The process even went through the final stages of quality control and finishing before delivery to an imaginary client.
Over the years, the school used the chassis and engines of a variety of cars as the basis for their builds, but every body part above the chassis was shaped with metal, by hand. While small items such as instruments, lights, and controls may be off of a parts shelf somewhere, the body and all its workings were hand built. Not only were they hand built, they were built to look like the factory had made it. If an inner support panel was needed for instance, it was shaped and strengthened with ribs, rain gutters, ventilation, hinges and closing panels. All of it looks “right.”
While there is photographic evidence of the school’s cars online if you search deep enough, there are only a few of the actual creations that have surfaced and exist in the modern world. The feature car in the registry newsletter I mentioned earlier is one of them, but to this day I have not been able to prove definitively that my car came from the same place without a period photo of it. Each one was different, but there are many commonalities. While I am 95% sure this car was built at MHK, there is still a shadow of a doubt. Until I can get confirmation from the school and see drawings or photos or some other source of concrete documentation, the car remains a bit of a mystery. I’ve attempted contact with them on several occasions but have never had a reply. Perhaps someone out there can assist in digging up the history!
Whatever its provenance, the design of the car is something I never tire of. It’s a pleasing mixture of design elements that characterized the icons of its time, but it’s very original too. The nose is a bit of Porsche Abarth or Alfa in shape; the rear is nice and round and reminds me of the Denzel racers; the roofline a bit like the Karmann Hardtop, but with a Golde sliding sunroof.
On the mechanical side, the engine and brakes are those of a Porsche 356, while the chassis number looks to be a Karmann Ghia from the late ‘50s. It also sports a Porsche steering wheel as well as a VW fuel tank and speedometer. The car is a mix of everything here and there, but as a whole it is totally unique. I know it was built with skilled hands using all German parts, but I have yet to learn whose hands and in which workshop it was created. I plan to keep on digging until I learn the answer, and until then I’ll continue circling in on it and scratching my head. There is always something new to learn, and with time I hope to solve this mystery too.