How the 356 shaped the Porsche we know today
Monday, September 11, 2017
The Porsche 356 was the first production model to wear the Porsche crest. It was a car that started with humble beginnings, but it helped shaped the future of the German performance car maker.
This was the beginning of one of the most sought-after marques money can buy.
The first 356 prototype (aka "No 1") was a rear mid-engined vehicle (the engine was behind the driver, but ahead of the rear axle) with a tubular chassis. The design was chosen because it provided neutral handling when cornering.
However, subsequent 356 models did not have their engines pushed behind the rear axle. The decision to put the engine out back was partly one of cost savings. While the chassis and body were a completely new design, many other parts — including some suspension and engine parts — were initially sourced from Volkswagen.
The earliest 356 models had an 1,100 cc flat-four engine starting in 1948. The earliest cars received the Gmünd designation because of the town in Austria where they were assembled. The idea behind the 356 was simple and partly based on a supercharged Volkswagen Type 1 (aka Bug) that Ferry Porsche had owned.
The goal was to make a small, lightweight car with more horsepower than a Type 1. Since Ferdinand Porsche designed the VW Type 1, it is fitting that it laid the groundwork for a high performance car. Unlike the VW, the 356 was a car that didn't need to make concessions to be able to haul around a family, but one that was built simply for spirited driving.
The pre-A car's power plant options would grow to offer a 1,300 cc and 1,500 cc option in 1951. The more powerful engine options of the air-cooled flat-four offered a significant jump in power output and helped to further push the 356 to compete with the best sports cars of its time. In 1953, the 1,100 cc engine was dropped as an option, and the 1,300 S — the "S" standing for "Super" — was introduced.
In late 1954, Max Hoffman (who was the only U.S. importer of Porsche vehicles at the time) talked Porsche into building a roadster version of the 356 called the Continental. The vehicle was mostly sold in the United States and featured a no-frills lightweight ride with a chopped windscreen. It was the precursor to the legendary Speedster.
In 1955, the Porsche 356 A came into production.
In 1955, the Porsche 356 A came into production. While on the surface things looked similar to the pre-A cars, a number of small changes added up to quite an evolution for the 356 A.
The next variant used power plants ranging from 1,300 cc to 1,600 cc. The hottest performance 356 of the generation was the four-cam "Carrera" engine. Originally, the power plant was only available in the Spyder race cars. One of the best known 356 models, the 356 Speedster, reached its peak production in 1957 during the 356 A generation.
All 356 B variants were powered by a 1,600 cc flat-four engine.
In 1960, the Porsche 356 B made it to showroom floors. The evolution of the 356 continued, and in mid-1962 significant body changes appeared. These styling changes included twin engine lid grilles, an external fuel filler in the right front fender and a larger rear window in the coupe model. Stopping was also improved with the use of disc brakes.
All 356 B variants were powered by a 1,600 cc flat-four engine. 356s with a more powerful version of the 1,600 cc power plant received the S or SC designation.
The 356 C was capable of putting out a strong 95 horsepower in a sports car that weighted about the same as a postage stamp.
In 1964, the 356 C was put into production. The C was available with the most powerful pushrod engine that Porsche had ever made at the time. It was capable of putting out a strong 95 horsepower in a sports car that weighted about the same as a postage stamp.
The 356 C received disc brakes at all four wheels and took the 356 into its final variant. While the 356 C would eventually give way to the 911, it was the zenith of 356 development and helped make Porsche a desirable marque. The 356 started life sharing many parts from Volkswagen, but by the end of the 356's production run, it had taken a huge step away from where it started.
The 356 was pushed out of production in 1965 by the 911 that the company's future would be placed on, but that wasn't the end of the 356 story. The 912 went into production in 1965 alongside the 911 as a less expensive alternative to the 911.
The 912 was similar to the 911 in styling and had some of the same available features. The power plant for the 912 was a flat-four, air-cooled engine based on the one used in the 356 SC. It offered 90 horsepower, which was just 5 less than that used in the 356 SC. The 912 with a 356 based motor finished production in 1969 (it would return for one year in 1976 powered by a VW sourced engine).
The power plant for the 912 was a flat-four, air-cooled engine based on the one used in the 356 SC.
The 356 model helped shape Porsche as the company we know today. The styling DNA of the 356 can be seen in nearly every model that Porsche has ever made. For example, the flared fenders have been featured on most of their road cars since 1948 — what is known as the "Porsche look."
The 356 was powered by an air-cooled engine in the back (except for the first 356 prototype). By putting the engine in the rear of their road cars, the designers provided a defining feature for many of Porsche's greatest cars.
Most people who know little about Porsches think all of their cars have engines in the rear. The fact that their early production road cars had their power plants behind the rear axle helped the performance cars from Porsche stand out from the crowd and helped make them unique.
With all the weight hanging out back, the 356 quickly got a reputation as a widow maker, especially as they became more powerful over years of development. However, in the hands of a skilled driver that knows how to handle the rear weight bias, things could be done in a 356 that couldn't be accomplished in any other sports car. Because of this, starting with the Porsche 356 enthusiasts would simply say, "You have to learn how to drive a Porsche."
With the introduction of the 718 Boxster and Cayman models, Porsche has come full circle. While the name invokes images of the Porsche 718 that replaced the 550 Spyder, the concept of a mid-engined Porsche sports car powered by a flat-four engine goes all the way back to the first 356.
Every Porsche on the road today owes its existence to the 356. In many ways, the car was way ahead of its time — from its aerodynamic styling to the way it evolved during the course of its production.
The 356 set the course for the way all future Porsche vehicles would be designed and iterate through development. It is a true classic with which even the latest models still share so much of their DNA.
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