Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 5
Perceived as a rather dumpy-looking rear-engined sports car, the 356 was modelled on the VW Beetle
which was also designed by Ferdinand Porsche
. Early editions of the 356 had split windscreens and an 1100cc flat four motor that produced a mere 40 bhp. The power to weight ratio was obviously more important then than readily available horsepower. While the target weight of 555kg was never achieved, the original 356 only weighed in at a mere 600kg!
The first prototype
of the 356 was completed in the European spring of 1948 - however production would not commence until 1950
. The first 1000 356's were sold by August the following year. Later models used 1287cc, 1290cc and 1488cc motors that produced up to 70 bhp. In 1955
its roundish styling was sharpened somewhat with the introduction of the 356A that also boasted a curvy one-piece windscreen, better front suspension
and a 1600cc engine.
A Miracle Is Born
That the Porsche 356 ever saw the light of day was somewhat of a miracle. Even Ferry Porsche, who built the car partly because he wanted better transport than a military VW Beetle
, wondered if he would ever find 500 friends who would be willing to buy a "Performance Volkswagen
". The idea was not new. Ferdinand Porsche
built his first overhead valve air-cooled
flat-four back in 1912 as an Austro Daimler aircraft engine and one of those original VW prototypes
had twin carburettors on test.
even planned a 1.5 litre sports car based on the Beetle
in the Thirties, but the idea never came to the metal. Porsche
did build a 30kW, 1.5 litre streamliner for a Berlin-Rome race in 1939 but the whole enterprise foundered as the war clouds gathered. Thankfully the streamlined
idea stayed in Ferry's mind, however, and after the World War 2 he planned a new VW-based sports car and built a prototype - the first 356.
The Original Porsche Roadster
That original 356 was created in the open fashion of the time, though works legend insisted that Porsche
always intended the road cars to be GT coupes. Ferry Porsche decided to make the very first car to carry the Porsche moniker an open car for lightness and because he didn't have the presses needed for such a complex job as producing a coupe body. The idea was to run the car up to tease demand. Ferry did all of the work, though his father approved it full on his return from imprisonment in France at the end of the Forties. Porsche soon discovered that finding parts in the depths of Austria was far harder than finding eager buyers. The 356 prototype was delayed by the Cisitalia GP project since that the true money earner.
Getting parts for the prototype was difficult. The spark plugs had to come from Germany hidden in a worker's pocket and electrical system parts were sourced from Switzerland. Only the VW bits were familiar. The prototype chassis was complete in the spring of 1948 in backwater Gmund although it was obvious Austria couldn't possibly support a sports car then. Porsche used the VW suspension and gearbox as it was and left the Beetle engine at 1131cm at first. Merely boosting the compression ratio to 7:1 was risk enough on Austrian fuel. Two carburettors were fitted and cylinder heads
were reworked. The result was a full 30kW from an engine designed for 18.6 - or the same power as the Berlin-Rome race car from an engine with 25 per cent less capacity.
What Porsche needed to do, given the technological constraints of the time, was make the car light. That original 356 weighed less than 600kg although it didn't quite get down to the projected 555kg with a 200kg load rating. Earliest drawings, dated 17th July 1947, leaned heavily on streamlining, provided for a turret top and showed two spares flat in the nose and flat, disc hubcaps on the VW wheels. Erwin Kommenda, the man who designed the famous VW emblem, drew the shape whose nose and tail clearly foreshadowed his 356 coupe body. The prototype was first driven in its tubular-chassis form in March of 1948 and as a whole car that May. They had the Katschberg Pass nearby for early tests and the Grossglockner toll road (where early VW runs had been made) wasn't much further away.
First recorded trouble with the Roadster came near postcard-picturesque Heiligenblut on the high-alpine Glockner when a rear trailing arm broke in the late evening. Fortunately this happened near a highway service station with VW sympathies. The proprietors owned an amphibious ex-war Kubelwagen for trips to town. Ferry and passenger borrowed two bits of U-shaped iron, bored holes in them by hand, bolted them to the trailing arm and were on their way in two hours. When the car returned to Porsche in 1958 those bits of old iron were still doing their job. Porsche didn't keep the roadster around Gmund for long. A second 356 (coupe version) was built by September 1948 and Porsche needed cash to get on with Number Three. He sold the mid-engined 356 to a buyer in Switzerland for 7000 Swiss francs (at the time very expensive, and by comparison the Beetle cost 5300 Deutsch Marks less).
Porsche Promises Not To Build Beetle Competitor
The price dropped to DM 4800 by the time the first Stuttgart-built Porsche coupes appeared and were sold for DM 10,200. After the prototype was shown to the public, not surprisingly, orders poured in. Sweden wanted 20, Holland 50 and Portugal offered to swap sardines for 15 Porsches. The roadster had apparently come in answer to a need nobody else had noticed. On September 17, 1948 Porsche also signed its famous pact with VW whereby Wolfsburg would pay Porsche a fee per car and Porsche promised not to design any beetle competitors. Porsche engineers would continue to advise VW and 356/'production" (by then five-a-month with luck) could use Volkswagen parts as needed.
There was even a sales brochure produced in German and English although drawings took the place of photos and the engine was still 1131cm , a size soon changed to 1086 (by reducing the bore) to suit the 1100 racing class. Although the alloy coupe was heavier, Porsche claimed a 140km/h top speed and 0-100km/h in 7.2 seconds with the same wheelbase, track and exterior dimensions (except height) as its roadster. The very first stories were already commenting that sports car fans shouldn't bother tuning their VWs; Porsche was doing it better. Ferry had preferred the mid-engine location for handling reasons but accepted tail wag in exchange for passenger and luggage space. Drive Number One now and you really realize that handling has indeed come a long way, baby, since the days of bicycle-width tyres.
The Roadster Becomes A Coupe
After the open style prototype, the 356 turned into a well rounded coupe late in 1948, and while the original had the engine amidships, for the production version it was moved to the car's extreme rear to make room for occasional rear seats and some luggage space. The production 356 was a very different drive from other cars of the classic era, especially when you remember that most of the world's drivers weren't even familiar with the Beetle back in 1948. But that was not enough to hold it back, and few cars have every achieved classic status as quickly as the 356 did.
For one thing, the 356 was of a mechanical layout almost unseen before that time, and despite its unorthodox layout it was arguably the best sports car then going. In 1959
the 356B was higher in its nose and existed in two versions - Roadster and Coupe. The top of the range was the Super 90 which could top 177 km/h, whilst other models could credibly manage 160 km/h. The 356C had four-wheel disc brakes
and ZF steering
Names were altered as well with the Super changing to the 1600C, the Super 75 becoming the 1600S and the Super 90 was known as the 1600SC. Carrera versions of the 356 existed from 1955 using familiar flat four motors but differing in details. Because of its lighter body these 100 bhp vehicles could manage 193 km/h with the 1958 models that used 1.6 litre engines managing with a fantastic 193 km/h. The Carrera 2 cars from 1960 used a two litre type of complex flat four that allowed 155 bhp. Over time the 356 changed dramatically causing it to move away from the VW Beetle influence. Compact and beautifully made its passing was mourned by many when Porsche 911 took over in 1965.