Porsche 356:

Evolution of a Classic

T he term typically used by Porsche when describing its philosophy of why they build sports cars the way they do is "engineering driven." For 50 years it's been fundamental in the company's drive for excellence. But no matter how close buyer perception comes to excellence, it is unlikely that any Porsche ever will be labeled as perfect. . .for that would mean no further improvements could be expected, and complacency never has been a dominant trait at Zuffenhausen.
Dr.-Ing.h.c. Ferdinand Porsche was acknowledged as a leading-edge automotive engineer for five decades before his son Ferry launched the car that bore his name, yet Ferdinand lived only three years after the debut of that car. Fortunately for automobile enthusiasts, Ferry proved himself an apt disciple, and brought with him marketing and promotional experience that was lacking in his engineering-oriented father.
Born in Vienna, Austria in 1909, Ferry Porsche died March 27, 1998, not far from Gmund, where the first Porsche cars were built. He lived 88 years and had been retired for some time from the day-to-day management of the company.

A Sports Car Is Born

Marque chronology begins in 1948 with Porsche 356-001, a spartan, ground hugging two-seat roadster whose rounded lines established a styling theme that would evolve over the lifetime of the 356. Most prophetic was the 001's configuration, a rounded shape with no sharply defined edges. Production cars that followed were just as round, with the Speedster appearing in the mid-'50s characterizing this shape perhaps better than any other Porsche of the period. Speedsters were often referred to as "inverted bathtubs."
And like the VW Beetle on which the Porsche concept was originally based, the overall shape changed little over 17 years of production, during which some 76,303 Porsche 356 models were produced. As was the case with VW, virtually no mechanical or body parts from an early '50s Porsche was adaptable to later models. The body went through no less than four generations, the details of which avid aficionados are able to recite like a religious mantra.

The Beginnings

During the 1930s, Dr. Porsche and his staff were busy; his small engineering cadre first created the KdF, later to be known as the VW. Porsche also penned the Mercedes-Benz 130/150 rear engine economy series, as well as the awesome mid-engined Auto Union P-Wagen Grand Prix and hill climb racers.
Even earlier, fully a half century before launching his own nameplate, the incredibly foresighted Ferdinand Porsche had developed an electric vehicle for Austria's Lohner. Featuring technology that still seems cutting edge 100 years later, it had individual motors for each wheel and hybrid propulsion systems.
At Mercedes in 1923, he was ahead of the industry once again with the Sascha, an 1100cc vehicle that featured an aluminum-case engine and 4-wheel brakes.

Gmünd Cars (1948 - '51)

On June 8, 1948, the Erwin Komenda - designed Porsche 356-001 made its debut, based on a tubular frame, with torsion bar suspension, cable operated drum brakes and low-slung, light-weight aerodynamic bodywork. 001 featured an engine mounted amidships with the gearbox mounted behind, while succeeding production versions would differ dramatically in their chassis layout. As was the case with its VW forebear, the first Porsche was, by today's standards, a spartan proposition. Even items now considered to be basic sports/GT equipment, such as a fuel gauge and tachometer, were missing from the vehicle. But it obviously had what was necessary to handle and run strongly, with an 80 mph top speed. Just five weeks after 001 was completed, the car scored a class win at Innsbruck, the beginning of a grand marque history in motor racing.
Drawings for the production 356 were completed before the prototype was finished. Both coupe and cabriolet were unique and different from anything that had preceded them in the sports car world. The engines were located in the "wrong" place; they were air-cooled, there was no radiator grille and the fenders and headlamps blended into the body. Advanced and unconventional, there wasn't a car like it anywhere, except for the Volkswagen. The public's reaction was favorable.
The first production models were each unique in detail and built by hand. Approximately 50 were completed in Gmünd, a few cabriolets in Switzerland and even a few in Vienna. When production moved to Stuttgart in 1950 (Gmünd cars continued in production until March, 1951), the process of constant incremental improvement that had begun at Gmünd continued, even though the Porsche platform would remain based on VW components for a few more years.

Pre-A 356 (1950-'55)

The Type 356 made its motor show debut at Geneva in the spring of 1949. The 1086cc engine retained the same 73.5mm X 64mm oversquare bore and stroke of the VW, but was fitted with a pair of downdraft Solex 26VFJ carburetors. This displacement allowed Porsche to compete in the 1100cc class in international events.
At Stuttgart, aside from the change from aluminum to steel bodies sourced from nearby Reutter, the earliest changes addressed performance and handling. Redesigned aluminum cylinder heads increased power, giving Porsche cars a livelier response than those from VW. Every system was scrutinized constantly, with improvements made on a running basis rather than waiting for an annual model change. Starting with the all-steel production cars, hydraulic brakes became standard, first supplied by Lockheed in England, soon followed by direct sourcing from VW.
In 1951, Porsche's range of engines was expanded to include 1300 (1286cc) and 1500 (1488cc) displacements, although the 1500 engine did not become generally available to the public until the early spring of 1952. Output had increased from the original 1100cc model's nominal 40 hp to 44 hp and 60 hp respectively. A tachometer appeared as standard equipment on the 1500 model, but Porsche buyers had to order a fuel level gauge as an option. Midyear, a change in bumper design for US models came about, minimally improving protection against parking damage, while further marking Porsche's efforts to adapt to the marketplace.
Initially, the new 1500cc engines featured low friction, roller bearing cranks and were rated at 60 hp. A year later, this 1500 "Normal" model was modified using a plain bearing crank and power was reduced to 55 hp. At the same time, it was joined by a 70 hp 1500 "Super," which featured the sophisticated (read expensive) "built-up" Hirth roller bearing crankshaft. Higher compression and more aggressive cam profiles, as well as larger Solex 40 carburetors were also included in the 1500 "Super" specifications list.
While a good year for business, 1951 ended on a note of sadness; Ferdinand Porsche died before having the opportunity to see his nameplate achieve its ultimate stardom. Fortunately, Ferry Porsche, who for some time had been in charge of virtually every company function, from engineering and production to marketing and forward planning, took more positive control. He prioritized the establishment of a competition department and expansion of external markets, the United States in particular. It could be said that these two areas became the focus of Ferry Porsche's activities for the rest of the 1950s.
Perhaps the most significant 1952 development was the debut of Porsche's famous 4-speed synchromesh transmission. Vastly superior to its VW-based crash box predecessor and also better than other contemporary solutions, this patented technology was licensed to other manufacturers and became a vital source of profits for many years to follow. This, along with royalties from each VW Beetle sold, facilitated rapid growth of Porsche's engineering consulting services to the automotive industry worldwide, activities that continue to the present time.
In April of 1952, the two-piece windscreen was replaced by a "bent" one-piece item, marking for Porsche what would be considered a major styling change. Brakes were also upgraded that October by replacing the former cast-iron drums with larger alloy units, the fronts' radially finned for improved heat dissipation.
When operations moved to Stuttgart, it marked the beginning of a close working relationship with the nearby Reutter coachworks - to become the main supplier of Porsche bodies for nearly two decades, before being annexed into the Porsche organization. It didn't take discerning auto enthusiasts very long to realize that these Reutter-bodied Porsches were built to a higher standard than could be found on vehicles from most competing nameplates. Reutter's exemplary workmanship was evident in the quality of components and in overall fit-and-finish. Porsche styling, while not everyone's cup of tea, drew strong support from avid admirers of its aerodynamic efficiency, a remarkable .296 coefficient of drag - still remarkable and an unknown fact until the '80s when an early car was tested in the wind tunnel.

US Market Pioneer

Austrian-born entrepreneur Max Hoffman became Porsche's first US importer and distributor and was instrumental in establishing a dealer network for the little-known marque. His influence also was felt at Stuttgart, where Hoffman exercised his considerable clout to persuade the factory to build versions that he believed would improve sales in the US.
Most notable among these was the Speedster, first introduced in 1954. Hoffman was convinced by his friend John von Neumann that dealers needed a sportier, more spartan car, both as a price leader and as an SCCA sports car racing production class contender. He got Ferry to go along, even though Ferry was less than enthusiastic about the idea. While in some instances Hoffman's role as a product development puppeteer may have become exaggerated by the passage of time, he really does deserve credit as the prime mover behind the Speedster, which continued in production until 1959.
Three years before the Speedster introduction, another minimal roadster appeared on the scene. In appearance, the America Roadsters were close to Porsche's original prototype. They featured a rear-engine configuration and a Vee windshield, as well as a silhouette that was reminiscent of that seminal 1948 design. Fewer than 20 of these lightweight America Roadsters were produced during late 1951 and into 1952, all but one of which were powered by the 1500S engine. And, all of these, save one, were shipped to and distributed by Hoffman.

The 356 Gets An "A" (1956 - '59)

All 356s underwent a uniform evolution when an alpha suffix was added to the 356 model number in September, 1955, for the 1956 model year. Though the uninitiated may have a hard time making the distinction between this and the cars that came before and after, these changes went beyond mere engineering evolution. The originally supplied 3.25 X 16-inch wheels were replaced by 4.5 X 15-inch wheels, enabling a larger contact patch with the road surface. Suspension changes included "softer" torsion bars supplemented by the front anti-roll bar found on 1955 models. Available power systems were upgraded and now included 1300cc and 1600cc pushrod-engined coupe and cabriolet models, plus the newly introduced Speedster body style.
They were joined by the incredible Carrera 1500, described as expensive, but worth the money...every penny of it. The Carrera put the 4-cam engine, inspired by that of the 550 Spyder, in a road-going model. Winning performance in SCCA sports car racing became available directly off the showroom floor. Rated at 100 hp. the Carrera GS motor, as it was called, also received a roller bearing Hirth crankshaft, adding considerably to maintenance costs on top of the purchase price premium. When Hirth decided not to continue to produce the complex crankshaft, Porsche was forced to use a one-piece crankshaft and plain bearings in 1959. The 1500 was superseded by a 1600cc version of the 4-cam engine at that time. The combination of Speedster and 4-cam engine was the sizzle that sold the steak - the other 99 percent of the 356A production total.
Despite the success of the Speedster, the Stuttgart management recognized that better weather protection and a taller windshield would be appreciated by an even greater number of potential buyers.
With Reutter already operating at capacity, Carrosserie Drauz at Heilbronn was tapped in late 1958 to produce the Convertible D, as the Speedster successor was named. Wind up windows replaced the Speedster's claustrophobic side curtains, completing the gentrification process. A removable hardtop had been available for the cabriolet since 1958.
The Porsche line had matured, and so had the company infrastructure. When one considers that Porsche's annual production reached 7000 units for the first time in 1959, the depth and quality of Porsche's management and its commitment to racing seems quite remarkable. It took a dozen years to produce the first 40,000 Porsche cars, but it would take only half that time to produce the second 40,000.
Experience gained over the previous seven years dictated a number of changes that by themselves might have been deemed relatively unimpressive, but whose cumulative effect made the 356A a more sophisticated, ergonomically more satisfying vehicle.
Perhaps the most notable visual change was a more modern, smoothly curved windshield. Inside, drivers were kept informed as to the cars' vital signs by three large round gauges. Self-canceling turn signals, a treadle-actuated windshield washer and adjustable heating controls were provided. A leather-like material covered the upper dashboard that included a cigarette lighter as standard equipment. Interior trim was upgraded, while still remaining durable. A dash mounted twist - release parking brake lever replaced the earlier, ratcheting design.
Recognizing that American drivers often parked their Porsches in the proximity of larger domestic vehicles with higher bumpers, from mid-1956, 356As destined for the USA came with chromed tubular steel over-riders added atop the front and rear bumpers. Larger teardrop-shaped tail lamps replaced the "double dot" in mid-1957, a design that had been used since the early 1953. Slimmer, more attractive seats were fitted from 1958 models on. The Carrera GS engine was a temporary casualty after 1959, although the uprated GT version was still offered to special customers.

Give Me A "B" (1960 - '63)

By the 1960 model year, sufficient cumulative changes were ready to warrant replacing the 356A with 356B. The "B" differed greatly in appearance from the 356A. Again, catering to the increasingly important United States market, bumpers were raised about four inches... admittedly to the consternation, even condemnation of many "purist" enthusiasts. The 356B was the first coupe to feature a front vent window like the cabriolets. A new type 741 transmission was used with a different shifter. Brakes were marginally improved.
Model designations were retitled; 1600 B Normal, Super and Super 90, the latter replacing the prior model's Carrera. All used the T-5 body. For a while, the potent, 1600cc competition Carrera GT engine continued, and nominal output was boosted from 110 hp to 115 hp. An even more potent 135 hp version of the 4-cam engine was available in the Italian bodied Abarth GTL racer. In 1962, the 4-cam engine reappeared, this time in 2-liter form as the Carrera 2. At this point, the 1600 Normal was rated at 60 hp at 4500 rpm, the 1600 Super at 75 hp at 5000 rpm and the Super 90, living up to its name, at 90 hp at 5500 rpm. Compression ratios were 7.5, 8.5 and 9.0:1 respectively.
Similarly, a fixed hardtop body became available from Karmann for the 356B in 1961, while production of the Roadster, the Convertible D's successor, moved to Carrosserie d'Ieteren in Belgium. Control over coachwork production was further rationalized on March 1, 1964 by the absorption of Reutter's body manufacturing facilities. Reutter then became Recaro and concentrated on the manufacture of car seats.
Updates came again in the form of a new body shell - the T-6 - for the 1962 model year, or second-generation 356B. It was distinguished by twin engine grilles for improved cooling, a larger front luggage compartment opening, larger windshield and rear window and an external fuel filler door, preventing contamination of luggage with accidentally spilled gas, as well as enabling more convenient and quicker refueling. There was also an air intake on the cowl.
Development of Professor Fuhrmann's 4-cam engine continued. In 1962, the Carrera name was reintroduced as top of the 356B model range; by this time the 4-cam engine had been expanded to two liters. It would be available through the 1964 model year, bearing a 356C model designation in that final version.
Between 1961 and 1964, only 436 2 - liter Carrera engines were produced, not all of which found their way into completed vehicles; a few were fitted to even more limited production models like the Abarth Carrera and the 2000 GS/GT competition cars of 1963. The prototype Carrera 2 was a 356B cabriolet originally built for Ferry Porsche with a 1.6-liter 4-cam engine, and fitted with the first 587/1 engine in 1961.
The Carrera 2 became the top-of-the-line customer model, and was available as a coupe or cabriolet. It was Ferry Porsche's personal choice for transportation, even when traveling with a chauffeur.

3S6C - Ultimate Version of the Classic (1964 - '65)

In keeping with the company's constant quest for improvements, disc brakes were added to the specifications sheet for the 356C that made its debut in 1963 as a 1964 model. The disc brakes were a big improvement and required a slightly different design wheel that was fitted with a flatter hubcap. Only the wheels and badging differentiate a 356C from a second-generation B. since both use the T-6 body.
All 1964 versions were designated 356C, and, apart from the Carrera 2, justtwo engine choices were offered - while the low-powered 60 hp "Normal" engine was dropped. The 1600C engine developed 75 hp at 5200 rpm, while the SC version, with higher compression, hotter cam, alloy cylinder barrels and bigger carburetors, pumped out 95 hp at 5800 rpm. The SC's top speed was about 115 mph.
Capitalizing on more than a decade and a half of development and refinement, the 356 C was the final distillation of what might once have been referred to as a "hot-rod" VW. It is noteworthy that the sometimes evil handling that characterized early Porsches, due to their rear weight bias and rudimentary swing-axle suspension, had been tamed somewhat. The evolution of Porsche excellence continued its march into the future.
From 1950, when series production commenced at Stuttgart with 250 cars produced, volume increased steadily, topping 5000 units for the 1957 model year. In 1964 that number was doubled to more than 10,000 cars, and while ten 356 cabriolets were built in 1966 for special Porsche "friends," the focus by then really had been redirected toward a successor that would prove even more successful and long-running. The remaining vestige of the 356 series was its 4-cylinder boxer engine that was rated at 90 hp. more than double the power of original 356 in 1948. This engine was installed in the 911's more modestly-priced sibling, the 912, which was produced until 1969 and reappeared briefly in the '70s.
Production of the 356 wound down gently in 1965, with Karmann building its last car at Osnabruck on January 2, while the last car left the Ruetter factory on April 28. The last 356, a white cabriolet, was produced at the Zuffenhausen works in mid-September.

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