Pre-A at Villa d'Este Concorso on Lake Como, Italy
Ferdinand Porsche was a prolific car designer and engineer, having planned many cars for other makers before beginning his own company, the first product of which was the 356. A pretty, if plain little sports car, utilising much of the thinking which went into the Volkswagen Beetle, the 356 turned out to be a runaway success.
Few people know that the Porsche marque began making its cars not in Germany, but in Gmund, Austria. Equally today, many Porsches are built in factories in Austria and Finland... 356 production moved to the suburb of Zuffenhausen in Stuttgart, Germany in 1950, where the factory has remained ever since.
The life of the 356 spanned 1948 to 1965, with a vast array of versions offered. So many versions were made that only a true fanatic would know them all. There were several fundamental versions over the years and a few different body styles offered. Let's try to pick our way through the model's development, in basic terms.
PRE-A 1948-55. The earliest cars, both Gmund and Zuffenhausen built, are referred to as Pre-A cars. These are pretty desirable today. Easiest way to identify these cars is the 2-piece windscreen, and from 1951 a single-piece flat screen with a bend in the middle. Three engine sizes were available - 1100, 1300 and 1500cc, each with correspondingly more performance. Power ranged from 40 to 70 horsepower. But the 356 was light, so even an 1100 engine gave reasonable performance (for the era). These cars had old fashioned lever-arm shock absorbers and no synchromesh... so pretty basic to drive. Coupe and convertible bodies were offered. 7627 were made.
356A 1956-59. Here Porsche hit its stride. While the differences were all minor, they added up to a much improved car, which had international appeal - and sales matched. A curved windscreen and updated dashboard were the major visual changes, but moving the bumpers up slightly from the bottom of the bodywork made a significant stylistic improvement. A hardtop became available for the Cabrio. Suspension and steering were improved. But the big news was a new 1600cc engine with options of increased power. The 1300 hung in there too for a while, just for the German market. The Carrera name appeared for high performance 4-cam versions, but these are very rare. 21,045 356As were made.
356B 1960-63. The bumpers were moved up again, bonnet reprofiled, headlights raised, quarter windows fitted to the doors and the rear window was enlarged. Two new body styles arrived - a notchback coupe and Roadster. An addition to the engine line-up was the Super 90 (90bhp). Sales continued to increase. 30,963 were built.
356C 1963-65. Last of the line. The 356 was getting long in the tooth by now, but the C brought with it 4-wheel disc brakes, new ZF steering, with flat hubcaps as the visual identifying feature. A raft of name changes saw the old Super now sold as the 1600C, the old 1600S, Super 75 and Super 90 became the 1600SC (with a 5bhp boost). The 130bhp Carrera 2 version continued to the end, but only 506 were made of B and C versions combined. Total 356C production was 16,668 cars.
Speedster. Worth describing as a separate model. Made to satisfy the request of US Porsche distributor Max Hoffman, the stripped-down convertible was made from 1954-1958. The cut-down windscreen gave a rakish look. Light weight (no side windows, for example, helped), and uprated engines gave spirited performance. The Speedster is the iconic collector's model in the 356 range and many companies make fibreglass replicas to this day. Only 4858 were built (by Porsche).
DRIVING A 356
Don't expect big performance and you won't be disappointed. A 356 isn't a powerhouse car, even with the trickiest engine.
However, it is a well balanced car, with sharp responses and a delicate precision about the driving experience. Remember, that the newest 356s are now over fifty years old, and they weren't the most advanced car of their time either.
On the absolute limit, the swing axles and rear engine can be a lethal combination, but rarely these days does a 356 owner really push their car hard. But the steering is pin sharp and feedback is excellent, so a decent driver can get a really good result when pushing a 356 along. The font of the car can bob up and down but that becomes a characteristic that's easy to live with.
In typical Porsche tradition, the brakes offer little feel of progression, but are nevertheless very effective.
Rare notchback coupe
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
By now, virtually all 356s have been restored. That opens up a big question: How well restored? As 356s are fairly high value vehicles, most recent restorations will have been done to a high standard - a reflection of the finished car's value. Older restorations may not have been so careful.
The biggest problem area is rust in the structure. Floors rust badly in all 365s and while usually repaired, a potential buyer must check how well this work has been done. This really means getting a car up on a hoist and taking a look - preferably by a Porsche specialist. The investment in their time could save a fortune. The battery box at the nose of the car can also be a rust trap.
Mechanically 356s are pretty robust. Early 356 engines (pre 1958) shared quite a lot with Volkswagens, and some cars have had VW engine swaps in years gone by when a 356 wasn't as valuable.
Other areas such as brakes and suspension are not really any different to what you need to be looking at on any 50+ year old car.
TO BUY OR NOT TO BUY?
A 356 can be a very rewarding car. Aside from the fact that values shot upwards worldwide during 2015/16, there is a great deal of pleasure to be gained from a 356. They are simple cars yet provide great feedback and fun on the road. The original build quality was to a very high standard and they can be very reliable cars. But it's the Porsche name and unique styling of the 356 which attracts most buyers. Provided you're not looking for a fast car, and check carefully for the dreaded rust issues, a 356 can be a pretty safe buy.
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