75 years ago, the motoring world changed for ever as a clutch of iconic vehicles made their debuts on a wave of post-war optimism. Here we look at the Porsche 356…
It took a year to build just 52 units at Porsche’s first factory in Gmünd, Austria, but the 356 would be the car to launch the firm as a motor manufacturer.
Ferdinand Porsche’s name was already well-known in automotive engineering, having designed for Adolf Hitler the KdF-Wagen (better known as the Volkswagen Beetle) and been involved in the pre-war Auto Union Grand Prix titans, but he’d never before produced a car under his own brand.
Ferdinand’s son, Ferry, would be the one to navigate those earliest days in Austria, before 356 production moved to Porsche’s traditional company headquarters in Zuffenhausen, Stuttgart, while nearby coachbuilder Reutter was contracted to build bodies for the new model.
The recipe was a relatively simple one at first: Porsche’s own bodywork, chassis and interior were fashioned around a 1131cc Volkswagen unit lifted straight from the Beetle, with an extra 10bhp added by twin carbs, a new exhaust and further basic tuning.
Plenty of other componentry was VW-sourced, too, from the all-independent torsion-bar suspension – which Ferdinand Porsche had designed for the Beetle – to smaller parts such as the headlights.
The 356 would quickly and increasingly diverge from the Beetle, however.
By 1951 the Porsche was offered with an optional 1286cc engine, and by ’52 a 1488cc unit was also available – both long before VW itself began enlarging its motors.
Porsche’s fully synchronised gearbox also came in 1952, making it the first series-production model with synchromesh on all forward gears.
Humble in origin though much of the 356 may be, the 1954 ‘Pre-A’ we have at Goodwood, a competition-prepared car belonging to Raj Sitlani, feels every inch the specialist product – albeit not an intimidating one.
Before starting up, you have to reach under the dash to rotate a fuel tap, then hold a button for 10 secs to draw through petrol before pushing the starter.
The handbrake is hidden away beside the steering column, and looks closer to something found in a railway signalbox than a modern sports car.
The fact that this dates from the Stuttgart firm’s very earliest days is obvious, but within the first couple of hundred metres you can detect that Porsche DNA we’ve grown to love, the refusal to do anything by half measures.
At low revs the engine behaves much like the VW unit it is based on, but, with a downshift and a bit more throttle, the 356’s flat-four starts to climb towards a real crescendo, with that snarling scream all Porsches love to exhibit.
And it’s not bark without bite.
We have just 55bhp to play with in this ’54 car, but Porsche tuning pays dividends in the middle and upper reaches of the rev range, where the 356 offers genuinely lively acceleration – if not numbers that look wildly impressive on paper.
It has a thrillingly responsive throttle and there’s a real sense of graduation between partial and full depression of the pedal, often impossible on cars with such relatively low power.
There’s a noticeable, if subtle, push back into the seat when you open the taps fully.
As much as the engine is a masterclass in hotting up a previously humdrum powerplant, it’s the way the Porsche steers and handles that really set it apart in 1948.
The seamless body tub is a fantastic piece of craftsmanship, free from panel gaps bar the openings for the doors, bonnet and engine lid, and gives the 356 a supreme rigidity that lays the foundations for everything it does well.
It’s a world away from the flex and scuttle shake of so many of its sports car contemporaries.
With similarly firm springing, the 356 has an almost race-car-like bob over bumps, and the little Porsche refuses to roll or buck around, cornering flat, fast and with an overwhelming sense of control.
Unless you put it on a poor road surface, that is, where it can feel crashy.
The steering is light, thanks to the rear-mounted motor, yet extremely communicative.
It can get a bit too weightless at higher speeds, but this early 356 lacks the power to reach a pace where it would become disconcerting.
The reason people still flock to the 356 in a world of more powerful 911s is the agility that comes from its compact size, and you relish in that dexterity around Goodwood, particularly through the tighter complex at St Mary’s.
You get a sense of the rearward weight bias, but not to the same extent as in an early 911.
The 356 more easily turns on its axis, and is not so predisposed to lift-off oversteer: it’s a friendlier experience for those not yet attuned to Porsche handling, allowing the driver to throw it into bends with greater enthusiasm, and relish in the car’s mighty traction on the way out.
It is clearly easier to get a car to work with four cylinders hanging over the rear axle rather than six, and where it took Porsche a bit of time to perfect the balance of the 911, it hit the ground running with the 356.
Given that the future of the company depended on the success of this model, Porsche’s sole offering for the following 17 years, it’s fortunate that its opening effort was so strong.
Images: Luc Lacey
Thanks to: Mick Pacey at Export 56
From Beetle to 911
Porsche had actually built four cars before the 356 – three Type 64s, intended to race in the (cancelled) 1939 Berlin-Rome event, and the one-off Gmünd roadster – but the 356 was the first production model.
By ’55 the car had been developed enough to be considered a new model, the 356A, and cars from before this became known as ‘Pre-A’.
Porsche 356 ‘Pre-A’
- Sold/number built 1948-‘66/77,766
- Engine all-alloy, ohv 1131cc flat-four, twin Solex carburettors
- Max power 51bhp @ 2600rpm
- Max torque 42lb ft @ 2400rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
- Weight 1499lb (680kg)
- Mpg 35-40
- 0-60mph 23.5 secs
- Top speed 87mph
- Price new Sfr14,500
- Price now £150-450,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication
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