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The Cult of the Porsche 356

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From early Pre-A models to the last of the line 356C, there's something special about the first Porsches - even though each is very different in character.

Porsche. A word synonymous with engineering excellence and purity as well as motor sport and victory. Porsche is the most recognised sports car name besides Ferrari. Amazingly, even today, when you combine 356 with Porsche, people tend to smile and nod in response, although the last new 356 was manufactured some 44 years ago.

Porsche had been involved in design and engineering work with Volkswagen prior to World War Two and, following an introduction from fellow Austrian Karl (before he became Carlo) Abarth, Porsche teamed up with Italian industrialist Piero Dusio from Turin to begin the development of an affordable sports car. Dusio had made his fortune selling boots to the Italian Army during WW2 and was doing very well with his Cisitalia racing cars. Cleverly based on proven and inexpensive Fiat underpinnings, these cars were effective and profitable: a notion not lost on Porsche.

Late in 1947, as Ferry put it simply: ‘We decided to build cars with the people we had, some very good engineers and mechanics.’ Porsche followed Dusio’s lead and turned to Volkswagen as a foundation for a less costly sports car. After the war, with the help of enthusiastic British Army officers, Volkswagens began rolling off the line. By 1946 some 10,000 VWs had been produced. Their engineering effectiveness had been proven and Porsche saw a pragmatic opportunity. In 1947 Porsche and Karl Rabe began planning an open two-seater around VW components. On June 11 the project officially began as ‘Type 356’.

Based at the Gmund Porsche works in Austria, the first 356 roadsters consisted of a light and stiff spaceframe with a VW-based engine mounted behind the passenger department and driving the rear wheels. This was a true mid-engine configuration, with the engine ahead of the driveshafts and the gearbox behind. The VW 1311cc flat-four pushrod engine produced a measly 25bhp but Porsche soon upped that to 40bhp.

In 1948 the 356/2 coupé saw the engine swung around and hung out over the rear wheels à la Volkswagen Beetle because of handling problems and the need for more space in the coupé body.

In 1948 an order was placed for 50 of the 356/2 chassis and the first 10 coupés by two Swiss enthusiasts, R von Senger and B Blank. Porsche was in business.

Porsche cars trickled out of Gmund in small numbers and by 1951 it had delivered only about 60 cars, not the 150 projected. The aluminium bodies were constructed by men who had previously hand-made Porsche prototypes with hammers and artistry. As Ferry Porsche explained, ‘We had one real artist, Friedrich Weber, who could make every part of the body in half the time the others could. But he would often fail to come in on Monday because he’d been so drunk over the weekend. Nevertheless, he more than caught up with the others during the rest of the week!’

Obviously this could not continue and Porsche soon established its operation in Zuffenhausen, a suburb of Stuttgart, and by the end of 1950 the total output was 298 cars, some 33 per month. These steel-bodied cars differed from those built in Gmund: they were smoother and rounder and beginning to bear the quintessential Porsche look. Motor racing was very much part of the ethos and in 1951 a streamlined 356 won its class and placed 20th overall at Le Mans. But the real Porsche 356, as we know it today, was launched at the Paris Salon in 1951, offering a 100mph top speed.

So from the salons of Paris and the German automotive Mecca of Stuttgart we travel to the unlikely village of Halstead, set deep in the rural heartland of Essex, England. Lost down interminable hedge-lined country roads you come across Maxted-Page & Prill Limited, which looks more like a horse stud than a specialist Porsche operation. Within the green barns tucked away on the six acres of property you will find some of the most important classic and exotic Porsches in the land, from sports prototype racers to this ensemble of exquisite 356s.

With Lee Maxted-Page controlling the sales operation, Andrew Prill is the Porsche engineering specialist renowned throughout the world as a leader in his field. A Porsche perfectionist, Prill restores, develops, maintains and races a wide selection of Porsches. Talking to Maxted-Page and Prill you soon learn how the classic Porsche scene has changed since contributor Delwyn Mallett bought his first Porsche in 1969. As with most classic cars in the 1960s and ’70s, early Porsches were simply old cars and usually rusty to boot. They were very expensive when new (more than Jaguars of the time) but soon became ravaged by the weather, the drivers and mechanical decline. Bought by enthusiasts, they were cheaply restored and kept running on a shoestring. But things started to change when their beauty, engineering and ability began to shine through.

‘The name Porsche ranks up there with Ferrari,’ says Lee Maxted-Page. ‘Think of the values of 1950s and ’60s Ferraris compared with those of Porsches. To my mind Porsches are undervalued. Certainly they are smaller cars, but they are light and they offer simplicity, purity and function. In their day they were highly competent machines with great motor racing successes, including Le Mans, the Mille Miglia, the tough Liège-Rome-Liège and the Carrera Panamericana. And they remain great to use in today’s motoring conditions.’

‘Denis Jenkinson drove his Porsche 356 all over Europe when following and reporting on the Grands Prix and he loved it,’ says Andy Prill. ‘On one trip the engine fell out, so he tied it up with rope and got the car home.’

Looking at the quartet of 356s assembled here it is clear that standards have risen dramatically since the days when they were cheap cars. Now every Porsche 356 is regarded as an icon. A beautiful engineering statement to be cherished. ‘These cars are bought with the heart, not the head,’ says Maxted-Page – which probably means they are more expensive than you might think…

And that’s the reality check. Porsche 356s rust with more enthusiasm than elderly Alfasuds. The intricate monocoque is clothed in coachbuilt steel body panels and all those lovely compound curves are hand fettled and filled with lead. In the 1950s and ’60s rust protection was not really something to get inthe way of production.

‘Yes, 356s are expensive to restore and in many cases we have to take a step back with a car, unpick the bad bodges of the past and start again. Parts areavailable but they are expensive and restoration is labour intensive,’ says Maxted-Page.

And with his usual forthrightness Prill adds, ‘Porsche Classic in Germany is not what it once was. It does not encourage the production of spares and parts and seems to be more concerned with controlling supply and prices. But the upshot of this is that specialists in America, German and Italy remanufacture parts and continue engineering development. Just don’t buy anything from China. In our experience it’s rubbish!’

Unsurprisingly the purest and ‘most 356’-looking Porsche featured here is the 1953 pre-A. Finished in German racing silver, the minimal and curvaceous little car is gorgeous. It appears dinky, with its industrial minimalism softened by its rounded coachwork so redolent of the 1950s. Small on the outside, the pre-A fits the brief of offering space for two ample Germans and their luggage. While it has fairly crude front trailing arm and swing axle rear suspension it does offer independent springing, allied to a light weight of just 850kg and 60bhp of power from the Super spec pushrod engine.

The Pre-A was the 356 that really put Porsche on the automotive map in Europe and America. This was the model that separated Porsche from its Volkswagen roots, with the Porsche-designed three-piece crankcase, alloy barrels and semi-hemispherical cylinder heads. Porsche was evolving into a future icon.

Some mutter that Porsche enthusiasts are a bit retentive and get all strung out about their car’s originality, matching engine numbers and the ticking of the Kardex boxes. So we are very comfortable bringing you this race-proven pre-A example to explode that myth. Road legal and a total blast on the country lanes, this little 356 is indicative of what the Porsche historic racing fraternity is capable of. This is a highly competitive racing car but it meets strict FIA standards so it is period correct, the sort of racer Porsche would have constructed in the 1950s.

In fact, this example was supplied new to a Mr Abouchakra in Beirut and was raced by Robert Nagar in Haifa in 1955/’56, so its current guise as an historic racer is fully justified.

Apart from being stripped of its bumpers (they are probably somewhere in Jerusalem) and riding a bit lower on its Avon CR6ZZ tyres, the pre-A’s exterior appearance is standard. Climb inside and you are impeded by the firm racing seat, while an ample roll hoop is behind you. The engine remains the correct 1500cc but with development Prill has upped the power to 130bhp!

On the lanes it’s a rush. The 356 feels like a limpet stuck to the road. It does not corner, it darts. It seems to shrink as forward vision becomes a computer game. Linking it through the corners, Prill does his best to leave stomachs behind at every twist and squirt. No wonder this 356 was in the team that won the Index of Performance and overall team prize at the 2006 Le Mans Classic.

The 1959 Convertible D is the next 356 in chronological order. This is effectively a 356A convertible as opposed to a Speedster, as covered by Mallett elsewhere. The Convertible D, the D standing for Drauz the coachbuilder, was built only in 1959 (the Speedster ran from 1956 to ’58) and just 1300 or so were constructed, so it’s worth around £75,000. Although running on wider tyres, with stripped bumpers and a rear luggage rack, it is no Outlaw and is indicative of a standard 356A.

In comparison with the fast and furious Pre-A racer, this Convertible D is gentler and more relaxed. Start it up and the unmistakable sound emanating from its twin exhausts is pure Volkswagen Beetle. The chugga-chugga idle does not match its elegant looks but rev the engine and things quickly smooth out. On the move it reveals those early Porsche delights of a butter-soft clutch, light gearshift and finger-tip steering via that lovely wheel. Brakes are not of any great consequence because this car feels best when driven gently. Through the lanes you notice its gutsy torque delivery and easy nature but it also strikes you as being very much a car of the 1950s. California or the South of France is its natural habitat, even though the owner has fitted sporting bucket seats.

But turn the wick up and let the D carry some speed and the Porsche nature shines through. The pliant suspension allows some roll but not too much. The low-revving engine disguises its output because it has low-end torque and, helped by the light weight, you are soon whizzing along and maximising the 1600cc’s 60bhp to the full. A glance at the speedometer belies the sensation of easy movement. With an extra 40bhp – readily available from Prill’s workshop – this little convertible could join the ranks of giant killer.

And that brings us to the burgundy red example, the 356 Carrera 2 GT. This 356 really deserves that ‘giant killer’ soubriquet. Built in 1963 using a T-6 356B bodyshell, this fabulous Porsche is a factory road racer. With aluminium bonnet, doors and rear lid, minimal bumpers, Perspex side and rear screens, stripped interior, roll hoop and Porsche-designed annular disc brakes, this lean Carrera weighs just 849kg ready for the road, making it lighter than the pre-A racer.

This is amazing because stuffed under its rear lid is a more technically advanced, bigger and much heavier two-litre, fourcam engine designed initially for pure racing application by Ernst Fuhrmann. Only 310 were constructed and this is just one of 14 right-hand-drive factory-built racers, so it is valued at over £350,000. The Carrera lump in GT specification pushes out a claimed 170bhp when fitted with the virtually open sports exhaust so it should be quick.

On its first racing outing at the Targa Florio in 1961 a Carrera almost won, with another placed second. The Carrera photographed here is a works car with a racing history that includes the Spa 1000km. Today it is enthusiastically campaigned by its owner in historic rallies and events. But because Carreras are so rare and valuable it is true to say they are very different to pushrod engined Porsche 356s. Amongst Porscheophiles the four-cam Carrera engine is regarded as a fragile and temperamental hand grenade, ready to go bang at any opportunity.

‘Not necessarily so,’ says Prill. ‘They do take a lot of time to set up and to get the ignition timed correctly but once done we check the valves at every major service and they run just fine. Sadly, they got a bad reputation when the cars were cheap and not maintained properly.’

But the engines alone are worth between £50,000 and £90,000 each, so most well-heeled owners take the view it is prudent to leave the original on the bench and run a substitute for events where FIA regs are not required.

Although Prill thinks Carrera owners worry too much about the delicacy of their four-cams, he has developed a substitute engine for general running: a two-litre twin-sparkplug pushrod 356 engine. This is not as out of order as it initially might seem because Porsche itself supplied a number of Carreras with pushrod engines: the Speedster and 1600GTs, for club racers and other impecunious types. Purists might not like the idea but the owners want a knocking-about engine and the 150bhp twin-spark special that Prill provides for around £16,000 seems reasonable insurance. Which is why one has been fitted to this car.

Time to give the Carrera a run. The car is immaculate but low key. It doesn’t really look like a racing car, although the large exposed filler cap slap in the middle of the bonnet is a clue. As are the beautifully wrought wheels with exposed lug nuts. The bucket seats with corduroy inserts are snug and the wood-rimmed steering wheel looks odd in a racing car but it is the same as fitted to a 904, so there! Ensure both coil switches are pulled on and start the engine. It springs into life in half a swing of the crank and settles at a busy idle. The throttle response is cracking and the gearshift linkage is taut. The Carrera moves off on its ample torque as this engine is set up for rallying, where low-end shove is required.

Keep the throttle down and hang onto the gear and the 356 takes off. Snatch second and it winds up again, so it’s straight into third, then top. The engine is a powerhouse but the chassis copes with ease. This Carrera is in a different league. Whilst its road-rallying spec suspension is softer than the Pre-A racer’s, the Carrera is significantly faster on real roads. This is because of the amazing engine that produces 100bhp at just 3000 revs and tops out at a fat 150bhp at just over 5500rpm. This low-end grunt means the little car reacts instantaneously to the throttle.

As soon as 3000rpm is breached the gruff and noisy engine – all 356s are noisy, this one and the stripped-out racer especially so – starts to get serious. The open Sebring exhaust starts to sing and you can hear the air being sucked down the velocity stacks start to go supersonic. Over four thou’ the sound is loud and hearty. At five thou’ it is fantastic! Running on sticky Avons the Carrera attacks the bends, feeling more planted and pliant than the Pre-A racer; and with more power and torque in hand, with effective disc brakes and road-tuned suspension, it would eventually drive away…

As is typical of a good 356, the Carrera GT feels tight and hard. Nothing rattles and the car feels all of a piece. The suspension is fairly pliant but the car’s industrial design does not countenance any softness. Porsche’s single-mindedness is illustrated by the deletion of the glovebox lid for lightness, for goodness’ sake.

Sure, this Carrera GT has its original, valuable four-cam sitting under a bench, but the daily-driving two-litre twin spark is a fine substitute that can be revved to the limit and enjoyed to the full without concern.

The last in our line-up is the 356C. This was the final iteration, the ultimate evolution of the air-cooled flat-four pushrod-engined car that was to be replaced by the 911. And the 356SC Cabriolet here is the ultimate C. It has the hotter SC engine, up from 75bhp to 95bhp thanks to cams and carbs, and the Cabriolet soft top adds hugely to its desirability. This Porsche is a California import and has clearly led a cosseted life. Looking perfect, it will sell for the asking price of £75,500, a sum to give 356 enthusiasts of the past palpitations.

These later cars are not as pretty as the curvy early A models. They have higher lights, bigger bumpers and larger glass areas to meet American legislation of the period. But they also have the most powerful (standard) engine options and disc brakes all round, as well as 15 years of Porsche development and evolution behind them.

This ivory and tan-upholstered SC Cab looks fabulous. Almost too fabulous, in fact, and it’s probably in the camp of being a girl’s car (can one write that these days?), along with the Mercedes 230SL. It was the car of choice for Jacqueline Bisset in Bullitt so maybe that’s where the idea springs from. The SC’s interior is luxurious by 356 standards, with plump chairs and a fully stocked dashboard. The double-lined proper hood is neatly hidden under a tight-fitting tonneau and the big steering wheel gleams with chrome and busy detail.

The Cab romps off down the lanes and you are immediately struck by its feeling of real development. It is much more finessed than the previous cars. The controls remain light but seem more oiled and refined in movement. The early cars do have a bit of a VW feel to them but the SC is more Mercedes. The engine is quiet, the steering is fluid and free of kickback. The disc brakes are firm, the suspension is wonderfully absorbing and damped and the handling is friendly and benign.

This last-of-the-line 356 is a super roadgoing tourer. Less sporting than the earlier car, perhaps, but certainly an indication of its manufacturer’s effective development and evolution. Amazingly it is the most accomplished car of this line-up. Not the fastest, not the most evocative but the best in real driving conditions and the ultimate expression of the 356 genre.

The Porsche 356 is a cult car. The 356 world is more than just the cars: it’s the people, the events, the competition, the racing. Owning a 356, you join an international group of individuals who appreciate engineering excellence in single-minded sports cars. With this selection of 356s, ranging from a highly developed historic racer to a rally weapon and two gorgeous road cars, we have at least sketched over the wide Porsche 356 canvas.

Which is the most desirable? Fortunately these four are so entirely different the choice has to be yours, depending on what you want to do. The Octane choice would be the slightly tired, ordinary-looking 356A coupé neglected at the side of Prill’s workshop. With a T-Cut and one of his feisty two-litre twin-spark engines slotted into the rear, it would make a sensational road rocket…

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