Today, the Porsche brand is built on the strength of the seemingly immortal 911, but to many fans, the essence of Porsche was established by this car, the first model to carry the storied name of Dr.-Ing. h.c. Ferdinand Porsche: the Porsche 356.
HERR DOKTOR PORSCHE
We must confess — guiltily, in certain company — to being underwhelmed by Porsches. True, they have many admirable qualities, but even the technologically staggering 959 has always struck us as anodyne rather than lust-worthy. What, then, are we to make of the 959’s quaint, Volkswagen-derived ancestor, the Porsche 356?
We should begin with a brief précis on Herr Doktor-Ing. Porsche himself. Ferdinand Porsche was born in Austria in 1875, beginning his engineering career with a childhood fascination with electricity. After a somewhat scrappy formal education (a surprisingly common characteristic of great figures of the first half of the last century), he went on to an automotive engineering career, highlights of which included stints at Austro-Daimler and Daimler-Benz, for which he designed the remarkable supercharged Mercedes SSK.
Since many of Porsche’s jobs at companies owned by others had ended with his quitting angrily, in 1930 he founded his own engineering firm, headquartered in Zuffenhausen in northern Stuttgart, providing design and consulting services for both street and competition cars.
One of Herr Doktor Porsche’s overriding fascinations, we are told, was the creation of an inexpensive ‘people’s car,’ a kind of modernized Model T Ford. As it happened, this dovetailed neatly with the interests of Germany’s newly minted dictator, Adolf Hitler, who was looking for an engineer to design a low-cost automobile for his loyal subjects to drive on the autobahnen of the future Reich.
In part because Porsche was the only one of the several engineers proposed to the Fuhrer who was not Jewish, Porsche won the commission, the result of which was, of course, the familiar, cheerful shape of the Volkswagen — which Hitler originally dubbed KdF-Wagen, from Kraft durch Freude, Strength through Joy, a popular Nazi slogan and the name of the Reich’s tourism organization. The KdF-Wagen bore a strong resemblance to the groundbreaking Tatra T97, designed by the gifted Hans Ledwinka. The Czech firm did not think the similarity was coincidental and sued Porsche in 1938, although the German annexation of Czechoslovakia in early 1939 made the suit at least temporarily a moot point. (Tatra renewed the suit after the war and settled out of court with Volkswagen in 1961.)
Porsche’s Volkswagen didn’t actually go into production until after the war, but did spawn the wartime Kubelwagen, the Wehrmacht’s version of the American Jeep. Porsche’s other major achievements during this period included the all-conquering Auto Union “P-wagen” racers of the mid-thirties and proposals for various military projects. The latter made the Porsche works in Zuffenhausen a prime target for Allied bombers, which forced the firm to relocate to Gmünd, Austria, for the duration of the war.
Porsche’s family and supporters characterize him as a political naif who abhorred Nazi atrocities; while he did do business with the National Socialist government, he was never a party member. At the end of the war, he was arrested by Allied troops, but was later released after Albert Speer convinced British authorities that Porsche was not a Nazi. Nonetheless, the French authorities arrested Porsche and his son Ferry a few months later as Nazi collaborators. Ferry was soon released, but Ferdinand spent over a year in prison, where French officials put his talents to work on the car that became the Renault 4CV. He was eventually released after payment of a 1,000,000-franc bail, tried in absentia, and acquitted.
While Ferdinand was still in prison, Ferry and engineer Karl Rabe embarked on the development of a new sports car. Considering the physical and economic conditions of postwar Europe — particularly ravaged, divided Germany — that idea was optimistic to say the least, but the Porsche organization desperately needed a new project. The Porsche firm earned some income through an engineering consultancy agreement with the newly formed Volkswagen organization, but opportunities for new business were scarce.
Porsche’s continued involvement with Volkswagen made it logical and practical for Porsche’s new car to be based on the Volkswagen Beetle. In fact, the Porsches had essayed a race car based on the chassis and engine of the Volkswagen back in the late thirties, although the project had gotten no further than a handful of prototypes. The new project, known simply by its internal project code of “356,” would be essentially a sports car version of the Beetle, sharing the Volkswagen’s basic engineering and running gear.
To that end, Ferry Porsche signed an agreement with Volkswagen for Austrian distribution rights to the Beetle, giving Porsche both the revenue and the the Volkswagen parts needed for the sports car project. By leveraging existing hardware and engineering, Ferry believed Porsche could keep the 356’s development and production costs within reason and hopefully sell the new model in sufficient numbers to keep the company afloat.
The first prototype, coded simply “No. 1” (described in some sources as the 356/1), had a low-slung roadster body on a tubular steel space frame. The roadster was powered a hopped-up 1,131 cc (69 cu. in.) Volkswagen flat-four and gearbox, rotated 180 degrees to put the powertrain ahead of the rear axle line. A few months later, the roadster was followed by a second prototype, the 356 (sometimes “356/2”), a sleek fastback coupe with a rear engine, a steel backbone frame, and a highly aerodynamic aluminum body designed by Erwin Komenda.
The handful of journalists who test-drove the prototype were impressed by its handling and sprightly performance on a mere 40 hp DIN (29 kW). A production version followed in 1949, but because the Gmünd factory wasn’t really suited to series production, only a small number of these “pre-A” 356s were actually completed — between 45 and 50, depending on which figures you believe. Larger-scale production had to wait until early 1950, after Porsche had signed a production agreement with Reutter Karroseriewerk (which would become the first of several coachbuilders making bodies for Porsche cars) and convinced the U.S. Army to use something other than Porsche’s Zuffenhausen factory as a motor pool.
The early Porsches were very expensive, in large part because of the extensive amount of hand labor involved, but initial sales were promising. That was just the beginning of what would become a 15-year evolution.
THE PORSCHE 356
Although the early 356 bore some resemblance to the Beetle and shared many Volkswagen components, the Porsche was not, as some sources have incorrectly asserted, a Beetle in drag like the later Karmann Ghia. The 356 shared neither the Beetle’s body shell nor its chassis, instead using a bespoke floorpan welded to the body structure. The bodies built in Zuffenhausen were now steel rather than aluminum, which made the German-built 356 notably heavier than the early Austrian cars.
The early 356 did use a variety of Beetle components, including brakes, transmissions, suspensions (including Ferdinand Porsche’s patented laminated transverse torsion bar springs), and engines, although most were modified considerably — the engine, for instance, had Porsche heads and later unique crankshafts. Many of the VW components were progressively replaced with bespoke Porsche hardware; in late 1952, for example, the Volkswagen gearbox was replaced with an all-synchro four-speed incorporating Porsche’s new patented balk ring synchronizers and the Beetle brakes gave way to larger Porsche-specific aluminum drums.
Larger and more powerful engines were quickly added, including 1,286 cc (79 cu. in.), 1,488 cc (91 cu. in.), 1,582 cc (97 cu. in.), and eventually 1,966 cc (120 cu. in.) displacements in various states of tune, including Normal (commonly known in Germany as Damen, or “Ladies'”), Super, and several limited-production, track-bound DOHC Carreras.
The body also underwent various changes, the most noticeable of which was the adoption of a one-piece, curved windshield in 1952, and in some markets there were several de-contented special editions, many of them contrived by Max Hoffman to allow lower advertised prices. Cognoscenti can spot the differences between an early 356 and a 356A or between the T-5 and the T-6 356B, but suffice to say that while the minor variations are legion, the basic silhouette was little changed. However, the late 356B and 356C models differed extensively in detail from their similar-looking ancestors.
Porsche fans and company marketing would tell you that such continual tinkering was part of the firm’s commitment to excellence, but it was also very much a matter of making a virtue of necessity. It was true that the Porsche organization always prided itself on craftsmanship and attention to detail, but it must also be noted that the biennial facelifts and model changes in which Detroit indulged were not something Porsche managers could have afforded if they had wanted to. It was not until the late 1950s that the firm had the resources to begin seriously planning a new model and that car (which became the 911) was originally intended as a bigger companion to the 356, not a replacement.
FINDING ITS NICHE
The Porsche 356 was not an inexpensive car. In the early fifties, a basic coupe was around DM 10,000 in Germany while U.S. cars started at almost $4,300, the price of a new Cadillac in those days. However, the 356 soon found its audience, thanks in part to the efforts of Porsche’s U.S. importer, Max Hoffman, who would also play a significant role in the many model variations that would emerge over the next few years, including the immortal Speedster, a stripped-down roadster with minimal weight and a low advertised price.
By U.S. standards, 356 sales were negligible, averaging around 1,500 units a year in the early fifties and rising to more than 5,000 a year by decade’s end. However, that was healthy business for a firm as small as Porsche and was about right to cement the 356’s semi-exotic status; production was sufficient to make the model visible, but not so much as to make it common.
The 356 also occupied a unique niche. The Porsche was far more expensive than an MG or a Triumph TR2, but was also a good deal more sophisticated in both styling and feel. The similarly priced Jaguar XK120 was faster in a straight line and arguably a lot prettier, but the Porsche was much more nimble, stopped better, and was generally better built. The Mercedes-Benz 190SL was also comparably priced, but wasn’t really a focused sports car. Perhaps the Porsche’s most direct rival in market and all-around appeal was the Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint and Spider.
The popularity of the 356 was of course bolstered by the model’s growing competition pedigree. Auguste Veuillet, Porsche’s French distributor, won the 1,100 cc (67 cu. in.) class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in both 1951 and 1952 and privately owned and factory cars racked up an impressive array of rally and hill climb victories well into the sixties. The 356 was a formidable competitor in the various classes in which its multitude of engine options allowed it to compete.
356 TO LIFE
What was the Porsche 356 like? Former Volkswagen drivers inevitably found it somewhat familiar even years after most actual VW components had disappeared. In size and packaging, the Porsche remained quite similar to its plebeian sibling.
The 356 was neither overtly luxurious nor particularly quiet, but it enjoyed a visibly high standard of workmanship and attention to detail. Its relatively soft springs and fully independent suspension (located with trailing arms in front and swing axles to the rear) provided a surprisingly compliant ride, but firm damping maintained good body control over rough surfaces. The 356 had also strong brakes that, unlike many of its contemporaries, had more than adequate fade resistance for the car’s weight and performance.
In a straight line, an early Porsche 356 could accelerate from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in a bit under 18 seconds with a top speed of about 90 mph (145 km/h). The later Super 90 could complete the 0-60 mph sprint in less than 12 seconds and reach a top speed of about 110 (175 km/h) while a well-tuned Carrera could reach 60 mph (97 km/h) in less than 9 seconds and top 125 mph (201 km/h). This was not blazing speed even for the era, but the 356 was the equal of many significantly larger cars with far more powerful engines. An unexpected virtue was fuel economy, a side effect of the small displacement engines, light weight, and sleek aerodynamics. Better than 30 mpg U.S. (7.8 L/100 km) was easily attainable in highway cruising, even at high speeds. In-town mileage seldom dropped below the low 20s (perhaps 10 L/100 km), still quite good.
With its rear engine and low center of gravity, the 356 was a very maneuverable car with fine steering feel and modest body lean. Nevertheless, the rear weight bias and swing-arm rear suspension, which was prone to the same kind of jacking that plagued early Corvairs, could make it something of a handful. In fast turns, the 356’s initial understeer gradually became a tail-out attitude, still very controllable as long as you maintained a steady foot on the throttle. If you lost your nerve and jumped off the throttle in mid-turn, however, the tail would come around to discuss the matter with you. If the road was wet or you were unprepared for that discussion, a spin was not at all unlikely. Whether such behavior is intrinsically unsafe is still a matter of debate — certainly, few Porsche owners can say they haven’t been warned — but it is a harsh lesson that more than a few 356 drivers learned the hard way over the years.
The 356’s commendable fuel economy and good build quality, sadly, did not make for low running costs. The great promise of Porsches, then as now, was that they could function as reasonably practical day-to-day transportation as well as providing sports car thrills. To some extent that was true, but routine service was very expensive and the consequences of a less-than-religious observance of the owner’s manual’s break-in schedule and services recommendations could range from annoying to economically dire, particularly on the high-strung Carreras.
Even if you treated the owner’s manual as holy writ, owning a 356 could be an expensive and sometimes exasperating proposition. Writer John Bentley, who owned at least half a dozen Porsche in the fifties, once characterized the 356’s engine as finicky and supremely temperamental, possessed of an almost horse-like fussiness about weather conditions. Motor Sport writer Michael Tee (“MJT”), writing of his experience with his personal 356 Super 75, described persistent brake problems and the disconcerting fact that his car ran 2,500 miles (4,000 km) with a ‘loaner’ engine while the original was being rebuilt, despite having only 14,100 miles (22,700 km) on the clock. The cost of this adventure was not disclosed, but we assume it was impressive.
For all these foibles, the Porsche 356 sold well until the spring of 1965, a year or so after the introduction of its successor, the six-cylinder 911. The final 356Cs had four-wheel disc brakes in place of the earlier cars’ drums, but were otherwise little different from their predecessors. Approximately 78,000 356s were sold in all, a more-than-respectable total for a largely hand-crafted sports car based on an economy sedan of prewar design.
THE CULT OF 356
How do we sum up the Porsche 356? Although some critics of the fifties considered it futuristic, neither its styling nor its engineering was imitated outside of Stuttgart; the only modern cars that resemble it are later Porsches. Fans will tell you it’s a practical sports car, although that’s really only true if you accept a very liberal — not to mention financially extravagant — definition of practicality. (Late 1600s were notably more flexible than the early Super and Carrera engines, which tended to sullenly foul their plugs or worse if subjected to too much lazy commuting, but none had an abundance of low-end torque or was especially comfortable at low engine speeds.)
The 356 is, however, the epitome of car as cult object. For all its inarguable virtues, it remains a car of rather narrow appeal. Even in its day, it was not fast enough to appeal to the speed-crazed, luxurious enough for the sybaritic, or sexy enough to arouse the kind of lust accorded Italian and British exotics. The 356 was not cheap enough to be an everyman’s sports car nor was it toweringly expensive enough to equal the snob appeal of a Mercedes 300SL or prewar Bugatti. The 356 was a machine for blitzing along winding roads and country highways at absurd speeds and was uneasy (if not actively sullen) if not allowed to perform in the manner for which it was intended. As with the Chevrolet Corvette (a comparison that many Porsche owners would find abhorrent, although it is nonetheless apt), if the 356 was your kind of car, it was likely to be very much your kind of car. If not, even a Porsche salesman probably would tell you that you were better off shopping elsewhere.
Ferdinand Porsche did not live to see the end of the 356 line; he suffered a severe stroke in late 1950 and died on January 30, 1951, at the age of 75. He did live long enough to see the cars bearing his name roll of the line at Zuffenhausen, which is the kind of moment that makes PR mavens tear up a little (although in fact the Porsche 356 was more Ferry’s design than Ferdinand’s). The company went public in the mid-seventies, but the Porsche family continued to dominate the advisory board well into the 21st century.
Today Porsche is extremely successful — and so profitable that as of this writing, they are angling to purchase a controlling interest in Volkswagen AG [Author’s note: This turned out not to be the case; Porsche ended up being taken over by Volkswagen in late 2009.] — but its fans perennially complain that the company has sacrificed its monomaniacal drive for sporting excellence in the search for higher profits. Deviations like the plush, somewhat antiseptic 928, the conceptually distasteful but highly profitable Cayenne SUV, and the upcoming Panamera sedan have tested the resolve of the Porsche faithful, who want desperately to believe that the company’s tradition of making narrowly focused sports cars is an act of spiritual devotion rather than circumstance and necessity.
Still, it isn’t difficult to understand that faith, however naive it may be. In an era when many corporations seem to think they can create identities for their products by just applying the right marketing buzzwords, it’s hard not to wish such a legend were true.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources for this article included the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Porsche Chronicle (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, Ltd., 1995); Mike Covello, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002, Second Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001); the interviews in Randy Leffingwell, Porsche Legends (Motorbooks Classic) (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1993); Mark Wan, “Porsche,” AutoZine, n.d., www.autozine. org/ Manufacturer/ Germany/ Porsche.html, accessed 9 April 2015; the Volkwagen Beetle’s Wikipedia® entry (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volkswagen_Beetle, accessed 30 December 2007); “Road and Track Road Test No. F-8-52, Porsche Coupe, 356-4,” Road & Track November 1952; “New Cars Described: Porsche Modifications,” The Autocar, 12 December 1952; Dick van Osten, “Auto Trials: The Porsche 1500,” Auto January 1953; John Bolster, “The Porsche 1500,” Autosport 8 January 1954; Maurice Gatsonides, “Porsche 1500 Super,” Autosport 5 June 1953; John Bentley, “Carrera Gran Turismo Speedster,” Foreign Cars Illustrated October 1958; “Porsche 1600 (The Autocar Road Tests 1704),” The Autocar 10 October 1958; Wayne Thoms, “Porsche vs. Corvette,” Motor Trend April 1959; “Best of the Rest: Germany : Porsche Super 90,” Sports Car Graphic June 1960; “Road Research Report: Porsche 1600 and Super 90,” Sports Cars Illustrated May 1961; “Power at a Price,” Sports Car Graphic May 1961; Wayne Thoms, “Porsche Super 90 Road Test,” Motor Life July 1961; Hansjeorg Bendel, “Porsche Carrera 2-Liter,” Road & Track July 1962; William Boddy, “Analysis of the Type 356B Porsche Super 75,” Motor Sport August 1962; “Autocar Road Test 1894: Porsche Super 90,” Autocar 21 September 1962; “Porsche 356C,” Track & Traffic June 1964; Jerry Sloniger, “To Monte Carlo by Porsche,” Sports Car World July 1964; Keith Seume and Tom Wood, “Jewel in the Crown: 356A buyer’s guide,” 911 & Porsche World December 2001; John Simster, “Buying Guide: Porsche 356 1948-1965,” Classic Cars October 2000; Richard Heseltine, “Glam that rocks,” Classic & Sports Car October 2004; the latter articles are all reprinted in Porsche 356 Ultimate Portfolio, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2006).
Historical exchange rate data for the dollar and the mark came from Harold Marcuse, “Historical Dollar-to-Marks Currency Conversion Page,” UC Santa Barbara, 19 August 2005, www.history.ucsb. edu/ faculty/marcuse/projects/currency.htm, accessed 9 December 2009. Inflation estimates came from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Inflation Calculator, data.bls. gov/ cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl. All equivalencies cited in the text are approximate and are provided for illustration and informational purposes only — this is an automotive history, not a treatise on currency trading or the value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!