Porsche 356 – From Humble Origins to Sports Car Legend

In the years immediately following World War II, the German automobile design firm of Dr. Ing. h.c.f. Porsche AG was struggling to get back on its feet. The firm was operating out of a temporary shop in Gmünd, Austria, having been driven from its headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany by Allied bombing raids. The war’s devastation upon the firm was further compounded by the imprisonment of the company’s founder, Dr. Ferdinand Porsche (the designer of the Volkswagen Beetle), and several key personnel in a French prison. In order to survive, the Porsche concern had been reduced to building and repairing farm implements, and renovating cars.

Postcard of an early Porsche 356 Closed Coupe.

Postcard of an early Porsche 356 Closed Coupe.

In the midst of these difficulties, Ferdinand Porsche’s son, Dr. Ferry Porsche, set out to get the family firm back on its feet. To accomplish this end, he started work on a sports car based mainly on Volkswagen Beetle components. The end result of this endeavor is largely responsible for making Porsche the thriving automaker that it is today and became a legendary sports car in the process: the Porsche 356.

First built in 1948 and introduced to the public at the Geneva Motor Show in 1949, the Porsche 356 was originally a decidedly humble machine. Built on a steel platform chassis, the 356 used the same rear engine, rear-wheel drive layout as the Beetle. In its initial form, the 356 was powered by a tuned version of Volkswagen’s air-cooled flat-four engine. Displacing 1086 cc (66.3 cubic inches) and equipped with dual carburetors and larger valves, this power plant was good for a rather modest 40 horsepower. The car was equipped with a Volkswagen suspension system, which employed torsion bars with trailing arms on the front and torsion bars with swing axles on the rear. Outwardly, the 356 was clothed with a highly aerodynamic, closed-coupe body. Because steel was scarce in early post-war years, the very first 356s used aluminum body panels, but these were soon replaced by steel body panels.

Trade catalog image of Porsche 356B Speedster, ca. 1959-1963.

Trade catalog image of Porsche 356B Speedster, ca. 1959-1963.

Even though it was modestly powered and cobbled together from Volkswagen parts, the Porsche 356 was blessed with truly sporty performance characteristics. Due to their light weight and excellent aerodynamics, the earliest 356s were capable of a surprisingly-fast claimed top speed of 85 miles per hour. They also possessed excellent road-holding characteristics for their time. The 356 soon acquired a reputation for high performance with sports car enthusiasts and it became a brisk seller. So much so that 356’s sales enabled Porsche to return to its original headquarters in Stuttgart in 1950. By 1955, Porsche had grown into a prosperous small automaker.

Trade catalog image of 1960 Porsche 356B Cabriolet.

Trade catalog image of 1960 Porsche 356B Cabriolet.

The Porsche 356 went on to have a remarkably long production life (1948-1966). Beginning a pattern that it would repeat with later cars, Porsche continuously developed and improved the 356 over the course of its production run. Originally a closed coupe, the 356 later became available with Cabriolet and Speedster bodies. Exterior changes eventually included a single-sheet windshield, a larger rear window, and raised headlights. Technical improvements included larger and more powerful engines and an improved suspension system. Most significantly of all, Volkswagen components were gradually replaced by those designed by Porsche.

Superseded by the Porsche 911, the last Porsche 356 (a 1965 model) rolled off the assembly line in 1966. Approximately 78,000 Porsche 356s were built. Happily, it is believed that around half of these cars remain in existence and surviving examples are highly prized collector’s items today.

Sources

All It Shares with Other Cars – Is the Road: Porsche: Trade Catalogs: 356, ca. 1950-1964, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Covello, Mike, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars, 1946-2002; Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 2002, p. 650-656.

Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile; Volume 2: M-Z; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p.1254-1255.

How Stuff Works – Porsche 356 History

Porsche: Porsche: Trade Catalogs: 356, ca. 1950-1964, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Porsche 356 Registry

Porsche 356B: Porsche: Trade Catalogs: 356, ca. 1950-1964, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Postcard of an Early Porsche 356 Closed Coupe: Porsche: Postcards, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Type 356 Porsche: Porsche: Trade Catalogs: 356, ca. 1950-1964, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

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