When they were new... Porsche 356A

An original road test taken from the Motor Sport archives, November 1956 | by Bill Boddy

On arrival at Stuttgart Airport last month we found awaiting us a maroon Porsche Carrera and a grey 1600. The editor was put in the Carrera, his colleague Michael Tee drove the 1600 and thus we arrived at the Porsche works in the pleasant suburb of Zuffenhausen.

The rear-engined flat-four air-cooled Porsche is now well established as a beautifully proportioned high-performance car – in fact there is no car like it. We were conducted round the factory by Fritz Huschke von Hanstein. In an age when a sports car is often endowed with a mass-production motor, a visit to the Porsche factory is a breath of fresh air – the enthusiasm taken to the pitch of near-perfection. Half-measures do not get a chance at Zuffenhausen. Each completed engine is run on a dynamometer for four hours before a horsepower check, and every finished car is driven on the road for one hour. The racing shop is separate from the main factory but the RS engines are checked on the normal test-beds.

The specification of the Porsche is too well known to repeat, beyond reminding readers that three types are available, the 60hp 1600, 75hp 1600 Super and 1500 Carrera, developed from the 550RS with four overhead camshafts, roller-bearing crank, twin-plug head, dry-sump lubrication and twin-choke Solex carburettors, producing 100bhp.

These are available as coupé, cabriolet or ‘speedster’ form, and the type number of all production cars is now 356A.

Few changes have been made to the specification of this remarkable little car since the steering geometry was redesigned some time ago to reduce to a minimum the violent oversteer formerly associated with the rear-engined layout.

After seeing the factory we were asked which car we’d like to try. We decided to take away the Carrera, returning on Saturday to exchange it for a 1600 coupé and borrowing on the Monday a 1600 Super for comparison. In a few minutes we were off on a long test of the fastest Porsche model.

Outwardly the Carrera is only distinguishable by twin exhausts and the name on the side, but inside extra fuel pump and ignition switches are fitted, and there are fascinating markings on the rev counter – the ‘red’ being from 6500-7000rpm! Practical items include a rear seat folding to become a luggage platform, lamps flasher in the steering wheel centre, heater knob by the gear lever, and seats that fold to form beds.

Let me proceed to tell you how much we enjoyed the Carrera. Leaving the pleasant town of Stuttgart we took to the autobahn and got down to it in earnest. Before the war motoring scribes used to come home and tell of sensational average speeds, to the consternation of those manufactures whose cars they had been thrashing. Today the story is rather changed because bridges blown up in the war are still under repair, and there are many ‘two-way with no passing’ stretches where vast USA tank transporters proceed uphill at 3mph and you need a fast car to return good speeds. The Carrera proved happy cruising at 100mph with a maximum of 120mph, though with heavy traffic we could not average more than 88mph over 185km.

There is a real punch in the ribs as the throttles are opened and the engine emits a hard power roar although normal conversation is possible as you motor along at 100mph. The Carrera handled in typical Porsche fashion, over-steering but not excessively, and the seats are exceedingly comfortable, providing the support needed in a car of this performance and manoeuvrability.

After driving through Munich – where parking meters are in use, a foretaste of what London will ‘enjoy’ – the editor drove back to lunch at Ulm in the shadow of the famous cathedral. Arriving back at the Porsche factory we were soon on our way in a normal or ‘Damen’ 1600, naturally quieter than the Carerra. It had heavier steering but the same Porsche syncromesh that makes gear-changing an absolute delight.

Getting up early on the Sunday we drove along back roads through beautiful country to lunch in the open air at Weissensee, having sampled this silver-grey Porsche on a run beside the river from Neckar to Heidelberg the previous evening. For the most sober model of the range performance was certainly impressive, cruising easily at 100mph for hours. After lunch we drove almost to the Swiss border. Summer had come and the roads carried a stream of cars, so the Porsche’s desire to climb the Kesselburg with verve had to be curbed, and it was with relief that we returned along a very beautiful forestry road beside the Walchen-See amid Bavarian scenery beautiful beyond words, a fitting finale to an afternoon of twisting and turning under the awesome presence of tall, snow-capped peaks. In the Munich-bound traffic stream we were impressed by the way everyone drove at 60-65mph along a winding road with steep drops on either side, faster cars making skilful use of any gaps that appeared.

Away from the autobahn the Damen proved a more useful car than the Carerra, which would have been almost permanently in second gear! We covered 670 enjoyable miles in this version.

Back at the Porsche factory we found them happy over their Avus victory [in the Berlin GP] and Frankenberg’s fortunate escape from serious injury [when he went over the banking]. After a quick stroll through the delightful, brightly coloured ultra-modern offices, we were despatched in a third Porsche, a green 1600 Super with twin exhausts. In this the wheel seemed closer to the dash and the steering light and sensitive. The deeper growl of the exhaust told of the greater power, and 120mph was quickly reached, long curves being taken steadily at 105mph. We regarded this as an eminently satisfactory 1½-litre motor car.

The editor kept an eye open for vintage cars, but they are as rare in Germany as they are prolific in France; apart from one early Goliath three-wheeler and one BMW 3-15 (Austin Seven-type) saloon, the score was nil.

Porsche 356 factfile

Production: ’56-’58
Power: 60-100bhp
0-70mph: 15sec (Carrera)
Max speed: 120mph

VW bones – air-cooled flat four, trailing-arm IFS, swing-axle IRS – but perfectionist development turned it into a superb machine. 356A replaced vee-screen with curved glass; by 1959 revised 356B released; twin engine grilles and larger windows mark ’62 model. Disc brakes arrived on ’64 356C with minor styling tweaks; SC engine gave 95bhp. Perfect spec: for sunny boulevards and rainy-day investment, 356A Speedster, especially in rare Carrera form. For practicality, a C coupe in SC form.