Arguably one of the most misunderstood cars of the post-war era, Porsche’s 356 actually the Professor’s 349th design — first appeared as a crude, but sound, VW-based chariot amidst the economic gloom of 1948. At first Porsche did not expect to sell more than 500 units all told, but when production was transferred from Gmund (where the first 50 alloy-bodied cars were built) to Stuttgart, demand grew quickly.
Although the 1948 prototype was mid-engined and had a tubular-frame chassis, all the production cars were rear-engined to increase cabin space, while to reduce production costs the body and chassis were of unitary construction. To reduce costs further all the Stuttgart production bodies were made of steel instead of aluminium alloy.
To allow the car to compete in the 1100cc class in international sporting events, the air-cooled flat-four Beetle-based engine was reduced in capacity from 1131cc to 1086cc while in compensation the compression ratio was raised to 6,51 and a brace of Solex 26 VFJ carburettors were substituted for the single Solex employed on the standard Beetle.
Despite a relatively feeble 40bhp on tap, the car was good for an impressive top speed of 80mph thanks to its aerodynamically slippery body. Like the Beetle all four wheels were independently sprung by transverse torsion bars with swinging half-axles at the rear.
Down the years the car’s essential character never changed, although continuous development work resulted in thousands of minor and major production changes. A more powerful 1300 engine was introduced in 1951. and a 1500 followed in 1952 along with an all-synchromesh gearbox to replace the traditional non-synchro VW unit. In addition to the normal plain-bearing engines, roller-bearing crankshafts became available as an extra-cost option, but despite the extra power they allowed — up to 70bhp in the case of the 1500S — engine longevity was seriously compromised.
In response to demand from the American market for a cheaper but more sporting version of the cabriolet, Porsche launched their all-time classic, the Speedster, in September 1954. ‘Bathtub’ styling, an unlined hood, sidescreens instead of wind-up windows, bucket seats and a revised dashboard distinguished this model from its better-equipped fresh-air sister.
The following year, the 356A debuted at the Frankfurt Motor Show and boasted a modern, one-piece windscreen, 15in wheels in place of the old fashioned 16in items and a host of other improvements, but the most exciting development was the introduction of the complex fourcam/1500 Carrera model, which pushed out an endearing 100bhp and boasted a top speed in excess of 120mph.
Further detail improvements were incorporated into the Ti version of the 356A in 1957, including a new 1600 engine. The restyled 356B model, with a new 90bhp version of the 1600 engine, appeared in 1959. To curtail the tendency of the car to develop excessive oversteer under hard cornering, a compensating spring was added to the rear suspension at the same time.
By Porsche’s sales standards the Speedster hadn’t been a success, and was superseded by the more civilised Convertible D and Roadster models towards the end of the decade, before being dropped from the range in 1962. The 356B was treated to a final facelift in 1961 when Porsche also went to the trouble of replacing the Carrera’s 1600 four-cam engine with a powerful 130bhp 2-litre ‘four-dammer’.
The final incarnation, the 356C, appeared in July 1963, and apart from the usual detail changes, the most significant modification came in the form of ATE disc brakes on all four wheels. Production officially ended in 1965 to make way for the 911, but a further 10 coupes were built to special order for the Dutch police force in 1966.
In a long production run of 17 years, nearly 80,000 356s emerged from the small factory at Zuffenhausen, and despite their propensity for rusting, a relatively high number survive today. A good proportion of them in America where enthusiasm for the little car remains as strong as ever. As well as the bewildering range of regular models, there was an America Roadster, of which 16 examples were made during 1952, and 20 Abarth Carrera GTLs that were built for racing in the early 1960s. And in addition to the factory hardtop, which was an extra-cost option on cabriolets, there was also the Karmann-built hardtop model, but it was not a great success and there are few survivors.
In every respect the 356 is a delightful, well-built and refreshingly practical classic car. By today’s standards even the Carrera 2-litre is not particularly fast, but a top speed of 130mph, although not to be sneezed at, is fairly academic anyhow. Pay no attention to those who deride the car’s roadholding; learn to handle one in the intended manner and nothing on four wheels will provide as much fun — Porsche expected the same standard of driving from his customers as they did of his engineering.
As is the case with many cars these days, the cost of a complete ‘ground-up’ restoration is likely to exceed the subsequent market value (With the possible exception of a four-cam Carrera or Speedster), but the good new is that there is an abundant supply of spare parts and some, being interchangeable with the Beetle, are cheap.
And finally when considering a 356, it is well to appreciate the implications of the ancient legal doctrine Caveat Emptor — buyer beware! Regrettably, the 356 was largely ignored before the classic car boom of the 1980s, and many examples were badly repaired to keep them running as everyday hacks. Years of cosmetic patching up have taken their toll, and there are dozens of cars whose real condition has been concealed by body filler and a coat of shiny paintwork. Don’t get caught out.
What to look out for
Body/chassis: No part of the body or chassis is immune to severe rusting. Use a magnet to test for body filler, and be suspicious of fresh underseal — even experts have been fooled. Many 356s, particularly the early ones,’ were damaged in accidents; rippled front inner wings, an ill-fitting bonnet and general lack of body symmetry all point to crash damage. Check the diagonal dimensions with a piece of string.
Engine: All pushrod engines notoriously leak oil from the pushrod tubes, but a little is perfectly acceptable. A deep grumbling sound may be indicative of worn bearings: test end-float by rocking the crankshaft pulley wheel with both hands. Also check that the exhaust/heater boxes are in good order — rusty units will result in fumes in the cabin. The majority of cars are now fitted with plain-bearing engines and life expectancy is roughly 100,000 miles between rebuilds. Rollerbearing crankshafts need overhauling roughly every 30,000 miles. Complexities of four-cam engines are well beyond normal mortals.
Electrics: Bosch 6-volt electrics can suffer from voltage drop in cold weather. 12-volt electrics were fitted to some later models but many cars now updated in private hands. Batteries for 6-volters are becoming increasingly difficult to obtain ‘over the counter’.
Tyres: The crossplies originally fitted to the vast majority of 356s should be put under house arrest and never allowed to see daylight again.
Bodywork: Shutlines should be 3 5mm wide. III-fitting doors, especially along their bottom edges, point to bodged repairs.
Suspension: Torsion bars can snap, but this is unusual and replacements, although expensive, are available. Torsion bar tubes and front uprights can rust badly.
Steering: A little free-play at the wheel is normal, and steering boxes are notoriously long-lived. Any tightness or looseness points to a dangerously worn steering box.
Brakes: Drums and discs work well, even if the discs were once prone to cracking on high-mileage examples. The tendency to lock the front wheels under excessively heavy braking is not unusual with rear-engined cars.
Transmission: Both early VW ‘crash gearbox and Porsche synchro units are unburstable. Synchros can wear but rebuilds are inexpensive. Rubber gearbox mountings can perish and force the lever to pop out of gear under acceleration.
Hood: The cost of Cabriolet and Speedster hood replacements depends on source. Hood frames are wickedly expensive.