Porsche 356

Its birth-of-a-marque status is widely recognised, but its history and character are less well known

By Colin Goodwin / Photography by Dexter Flint

In the 1980s and early ’90s there was a car magazine called Supercar Classics, and within its pages was a regular feature called ‘Supercars I Have Known’. As you might guess from the strap-line, it featured well-known car people remembering some of the great cars that had occupied garage space in their lives.

Celebrity chefs didn’t exist back then and neither did today’s celebrity culture, so instead proper people like Nick Lancaster, now of H R Owen, and pilot and historic racer Vic Norman were featured. Some amazing cars came up, such as a road-registered Lola T70, but I noticed over the years that one or two types made regular appearances. It seemed that any enthusiast of note had at one time owned either a Lotus Elan, a Mini Cooper S or a Porsche 356. The latter was always praised highly, with the caveat that it was a tricky customer to drive fast and well. 

A 356 was part of the nomadic life of Motor Sport’s roving correspondent Denis Jenkinson as he followed the European racing circus, until he changed to an E-type. Jenks drove a 1955 1500 coupé and said at the time that “I find it hard to extract pleasure from other forms of motoring to the same degree.”

The first Type 356 was nothing like the car that eventually went into production. When it was designed in the summer of 1947 by Ferry Porsche and Karl Rabe it was seen as a VW sports car study that would serve the purpose of forging a link between Porsche and the new Volkswagen company. The tubular chassis car used VW parts, including the standard 1100cc flat-four – which, interestingly, was mounted in the middle of the car. Finished in May 1948, it was tested on roads around the Gmünd factory in Austria. But before he even drove the first prototype, Ferry Porsche had started designing the Type 356/2. Porsche realised that putting the engine in the middle of the car took up too much luggage space, and so moved it back to where it was in the Volkswagen. 

The engine itself was the standard 1100cc VW unit fitted with bespoke Porsche cylinder heads. The car, referred to in publicity material simply as the 356, was shown at the Geneva motor show in 1949. The first production cars were built in Gmünd, but in early 1950 the firm moved back to Stuttgart and local coachbuilder Reutter started building the bodies for it. The Porsche story had begun.

To chart every technical improvement in the 356’s early life would require hundreds of pages, as developments came thick and fast. In 1951 the engine size went up to 1.3 litres and the VW cast-iron cylinders were replaced by aluminium barrels made by Mahle, with chromium-plated bores. By 1954, when the 356A was launched, the new 1600cc engine bore only a visual similarity to the VW engine. It had, for example, a three-piece crankcase instead of the Beetle’s simple two-part vertically split cases.

The A was followed in 1959 by the 356B. Gone was the jelly mould-shape front end and in its place a more aggressive and sharper nose. In 1963 the 356C was launched with four-wheel disc brakes and a raft of changes that made the car more grown up, more useable and a natural stepping stone from the original, simple 356 of the 1950s to the sophisticated new 911 that was to arrive a year later.

Roger Bray used to restore all makes of cars, but in the early 1980s was asked to restore a Porsche 356 for a customer. The job was done but, as a joke, Bray had fitted a VW badge to the car. “The owner,” says Bray “said to me ‘Since you’ve had a laugh at my expense I’ll have one at yours. I don’t want the car until you’ve put 2000 miles on it’.” Bray did, was instantly converted to the faith and is now one of the foremost 356 restorers in Europe. 

He also sells the odd car, and the one that we’re about to drive has just been found a new home. It’s a 1963 356 1600SC, which means that it’s fitted with a 95bhp engine. Although it hasn’t had the magic touch of Bray and his colleagues, it has been restored. And soundly, according to Bray. Although the 356 is a simple car in concept, in construction it is quite complicated, a myriad of pressings forming its body. A full restoration is a massive task that will result in a large bill if done right, and tears and an even larger bill if done wrong. There’s a car in Bray’s workshop that was rebuilt (elsewhere) with the chassis out of alignment. It looked beautiful but wouldn’t handle. Bray took on the job and had to start again with a total rebuild.

Two things you notice as soon as you step inside a good 356. First, the precise clunk as the door is pulled shut; second, the simplicity of the interior. This C doesn’t even have a radio, just a silver painted facia with speedo, rev-counter, and a couple of minor gauges. The engine starts easily with just a sniff of throttle pedal to open the butterflies on the pair of Solex twin-chokes. The gearlever, which operates only four forward gears, has a very precise action. It’s a far cry from the unco-operative gearchange on my 1970 911S.

From Bray’s workshop we take the M5 for a few miles, and then follow the A30 until briskly turning off for Moretonhampstead and Dartmoor. Several acquaintances drive 356s as regular transport, including Alain de Cadanet. After only a few miles you can see why this is not only possible, but why it would be an utter pleasure. One of the things Jenks loved about his ’55, apart from its gearshift, was its lack of wind noise at speed. Of course, there’s more whistle than you get in a modern car, but cruising at 80mph it’s easy to hold a conversation. The engine thrums away at the back at just short of 4000rpm, leaving most of the noise behind you. Porsche claimed 0-60mph in 10.8sec for the 1600SC and a speed of 115mph. 

Dartmoor is not busy today, but there’s the odd tractor and coach about. Squeezing between them and hedges, you realise how small the 356 is, and therefore how nimble, and how easy it is to place on the road. The whole car feels incredibly tight, helped by the fact that there’s no slop in the steering or clanks in the suspension. The ride, too, is remarkably compliant.

And performance? It’s quite hard to judge. I’d say that in the right hands it might give a first-generation Golf GTI a good run. But the 356 is not about how much faster you could be than someone else, but the pure driving pleasure. If you want a bit of competition, try to find a car of this generation with this performance that can average 30mpg.

Purists tend to prefer the earlier A models because they’re lighter, even simpler and more ‘in the Porsche spirit’. According to Nick Faure, who’s raced 356s, sold 356s and owned more than he can remember, the choice is usually between an A or the more modern and easier-to-live-with, disc-braked C. Even a good 356C coupé is now at least £30,000 – and it is crucial to get a good one. Faure reckons that there’s no old car that’s more important to buy in good bodily order than a 356.

There is a third category of Porsche 356 and that’s the exotica class – speedsters, cabriolets and those cars powered by the fiendishly complicated Carrera four-camshaft engine. Cars fitted with this engine are rare and expensive. Only 310 Bs and 126 Cs were fitted with the 130bhp 2.0-litre Carrera engine, for example. 

The 356 always was a giant killer capable of punching well above its weight. One of the car’s earliest international events was Le Mans in 1951, entered and driven by a customer. It finished 20th, though crucially first in class. It was only the start of a long competition career: Carrera Panamerica, a couple of class wins in the 1953 Mille Miglia including the 1500cc driven by Hans Hermann, and rallies such as Monte Carlo and Liège-Rome-Liège. The 356 didn’t just compete, it was the vehicle that introduced many future stars to motor racing. For example, a young Scotsman called Jim Clark raced a 356 and drove it on the road, too.

Also in Bray’s shop is a competition-prepared racer that has apparently spent its whole life wearing racing numbers. The 356 is a big favourite with historic motorsport enthusiasts both in racing and rallying. And if you don’t fancy going to the effort of racing, there are plenty of regularity events, such as the Tour Britannia, for which the 356 is the perfect car.

If you can never see yourself buying a 356, you must at least try and talk your way into having a drive in one. You will get to experience the Porsche philosophy in its purest form. You will also, perhaps, understand why myself and fellow Porsche bore Andrew Frankel can talk into the night about low weight, rear-engine traction and the purity of the early cars.

DSJ on... Living with a 356

His friends didn’t get it, but Jenks stood by his ownership of a 356, and he explained why in the pages of Motor Sport 

As my use of the car was to tour Europe in reach of motor races I had a 1500cc normal, “a nice car,” said Porsche, “that is reliable and long-living, but rather dull, it does only 95mph and 5200rpm”.

Before I made the choice of a Porsche I had to suffer a great deal of barracking with remarks such as “My God, the oversteer,” or “They are impossible in the wet,” “It will spin as soon as you see a corner,” “You need a bath after changing the plugs,” “They are noisy and rough,” and “Bloody clockwork contraption.” I put up with all these because I thought the aerodynamic shape of the saloon looked about right and it was a car I could lean my elbow on (my friends mutter rude things to me about dwarfs when I discuss heights!).

I have now completed 30,000 miles of Porsche motoring and the oversteer I enjoy having learned to drive on a chain-gang Frazer-Nash, the wet petrifies me in any car, I have only spun it once in the total distance covered and the engine keeps so clean I only need to wash my hands.

Noise is outside the car, not in, and the roughness sounds on the Super model but not on the ‘Damen’ and I found my model has a jolly strong spring in its ‘clockwork mechanism’.

The whole essence of driving a Porsche lies in the fact that everything is finger-light: the steering, clutch, gear-change and brakes are all of a light smooth feeling that at first comes as strange after conventional cars. It has a live feel in its manner of going that wants caressing, not taken firmly between clenched fists as on some cars, while this manner of going is something that the driver has to accustom himself to. If you approach a Porsche with a view to driving it like a conventional car you will hate it, but on the other hand if you are prepared to spend say 1000 miles in learning to drive all over again, you will love it. 

The Porsche is essentially a sporting car and likes to be driven in a sporting fashion, in fact the harder the better, and you find after a time that there are a number of things about it that you must absorb into your system. One is an appreciation of the rev-counter, for while the engine pulls happily from 1000-5000rpm, it pays to keep it between 2500-4500rpm, and it doesn’t wear out. Another is to realise that the direction in which the nose of the car is pointing is of no importance, providing the driver is convinced of the way he wants to go; and finally, before you start going quickly in a Porsche you must be able to drive anyway. I have met lots of people who have tried a Porsche and thought it terrible and when I have seen them driving a conventional car I understand why; they just cannot drive properly. 

With its low build, trailing-link i.f.s. and swing-axle rear suspension and rear-mounted engine it has an obvious oversteer characteristic, but this is constant and progressive and not changeable and sudden. 

With the Porsches there are three ways of taking a corner: first at touring speeds, when there is no roll at all and the steering is neutral; secondly at fast road speeds when there is still virtually no roll but a slight oversteer which requires you to unwind the steering slightly before you leave the corner. Thirdly, there is the method for very fast cornering and this is where the Porsche technique must be applied; if it is not then you find yourself in a classic vintage oversteering slide on full opposite lock and about to turn right round. 

In almost exactly eight months of fun I have covered 30,000 miles with my ‘Damen’ and executed every known Porsche antic with the exception of the ‘ground-level-flick-roll’ and I find it hard to extract pleasure from other forms of motoring to the same degree. The performance is not the outstanding thing about the ordinary 1,500cc normal touring Porsche.

The top speed, such as I would do on the way home from the office, if I had to suffer such a journey, is 4600rpm in top (95mph) and with a maximum-permissible of 5200rpm this is a comfortable feeling when a long downhill stretch approaches. These sort of figures are not the real charm of the Porsche. That lies in its manner of going, for the suspension gives a very smooth ride, the body makes negligible wind noise, the controls are light, the all-synchromesh gearbox is one of those that will go down in history, and a new standard in lightness. 

It is only natural that a car developed around competition motoring should have an excellent driving position, and as the Porsche saloon is not easy to get into and out of, unless you are fairly agile, it is rather fun to watch an awkward friend, struggling to get in and hear the muttered remarks about dwarfs change to satisfied comments as he finds a near-perfect driving position. 

The easy, quiet manner of going and the comfort factor all combine to make it possible to cover more than 600 miles in a day’s Continental motoring. On English roads 400 miles in a day are effortless and do not involve early starts or late arrivals.

While at the factory I agreed to let the Service Department give the car a routine 15,000 check. While the work was being done I had the opportunity to try a Speedster, the cheaper open two-seater, with normal 1,500cc engine. There was quite a marked difference in handling, but as it was a sporting two-seater it had all the failings of such models. After all, one of the most pleasing things about the Type 356 saloon Porsche is its aerodynamic body, which spells efficiency and a sense of keeping abreast of the times; it is difficult to justify an open car for long-distance high-speed touring. 

After a visit to Sweden I returned to Germany and competed in the Rhineland Rally, a wonderful event consisting of leaving the car in the open all night and from a 7am start covering 22 laps or 380 miles round the entire Nürburgring, using the Grand Prix circuit and the old southern route as well. Those who qualified then competed in a timed hill-climb. By now I had covered 21,000 miles and ‘race’ preparation consisted of a new set of racing Dunlops, an oil change, and removal of all my luggage. After 17 laps around an average of 60-plus mph, I suffered a choked main jet, probably from the open refuelling churns used, and the time lost in locating the trouble after a slow return to the pits was more than I had in hand, so that was that. However, it was a good dice while it lasted.

On the way from Stuttgart to Cologne I put 210 miles in three hours, did 77 miles in the first hour, held 4800rpm in top for at least three minutes on the Dormstadt-Heidelberg stretch that used to be used for record breaking, all at 33mpg with the radio playing, and realising that perhaps Dr Ferry Porsche and his men do know something about building nice touring cars.”

December 1955