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Time Traveller - Porsche 356

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Porsche’s 356 was way ahead of its time in many ways. We drove what’s reckoned to be the world’s best of the early split-windscreen models to see what all the fuss was about

For Porsche as a manufacturer the immediate post-war years were inextricably linked to the success of Volkswagen. If the VW had not continued in production it is virtually certain that the Porsche concern would have remained a design consultancy to the automotive industry at large, and the magnificent line of sports and racing cars would not have become a household name.

When in 1945 the British Army restarted VW production at Wolfsburg it was more of a morale-building exercise to provide jobs for the vanquished and demoralized German workforce than a commercial venture. By 1948, however, under the direction of the extraordinarily energetic and ambitious Heinz Nordhoff, the miracle of the Beetle was beginning to win the hearts and minds of the world. Ferry Porsche, son of Ferdinand and - due to his father's deteriorating health - now effectively head of the company, negotiated with Nordhoff to honour a pre-war agreement and pay a royalty of 5DM per car for his father's design. In addition, a contract for further consultancy work, the appointment of Porsche KG as the sole importer of VWs into Austria and an agreement to supply parts to allow Porsche to build a sports car of its own were also agreed. In those difficult early years ever-increasing VW production provided Porsche with a vital cash flow.

From the beginning Ferdinand Porsche and Ferry had envisaged spin-offs from the basic VW design, including a sports car bearing their name, but these pre-war ambitions had been thwarted by the political implications of a state-sponsored project providing parts through which a private company could profit. It was only with the announcement in 1938 of the Berlin to Rome race, a propaganda stunt linking the two Axis powers, that Porsche had the opportunity to build a 'hot' VW-based sports car. As war approached, the race was cancelled but three highly streamlined KdF (VW) Rekordwagens were eventually built, and were clearly the progenitors of the 356.

Towards the end of the war the Porsche design bureau was relocated to the village of Gmünd in Austria, close to the Porsche family home. There between 1948 and 1951, working from a converted sawmill, Porsche managed to hand-build around 50 coupés and cabriolets. Designated 356, these cars abandoned the VW chassis in favour of a strong box-section platform made from simple, folded sheet steel panels. The running gear, suspension, wheels, brakes, steering and gearbox were purely VW, while Porsche tweaked the engine with redesigned heads and a Solex carburettor above each bank of cylinders, on twin-port manifolds.

It quickly became evident that Porsche's ambition to become a sports car manufacturer would require better facilities; a return to its old premises in the Stuttgart suburb of Zuffenhausen presented the most feasible option. With money in short supply a mutually beneficial deal was struck with the Reutter Coachworks to supply an initial run of 500 steel bodies. Ferry Porsche considered that this was the total the world market could absorb, spread over several years. Perhaps one of the few things that Ferry got wrong!

In March 1950 production started at Reutter's Zuffenhausen works. Demand for the new Porsche was far greater than expected, with the original quota of 500 cars being reached almost exactly one year later, in March 1951. By March 1954 Porsche had built ten times Ferry's estimate! Over 77,000 356 variants would be made by the time that the model was finally replaced in 1965 by the 911.

It's taken Oslo-domiciled Paul Rui an absurd amount of time, research, dedication and a massive bundle of kroner to defy time and turn the clock back to zero on his stunning example of a 356 from Porsche's first year of Stuttgart production. For Paul, already an expert in the renovation of early VWs, restoring an early Porsche was a natural progression, if much more difficult proposition. Paul is a graphic designer and typographer with an uncompromising eye for detail, so once he had decided to restore his Porsche nothing short of perfect would do. Not content with 'received' knowledge gleaned from books or other restorers, Paul embarked on a series of pilgrimages to Stuttgart and the Porsche factory archives to research exactly when and what changes were made in the first year of production. After half-a-dozen visits and hours spent poring over Porsche internal memorandi it would be fair to say that there probably isn't another soul who knows more about the first 500 Porsches than Paul.

When Octane was invited for a drive in Paul's Porsche there were a mere 62km on the (rebuilt, and reset to zero) odometer, and as chassis 5355 sat shimmering and breathtakingly beautiful in its pale Radium Green metallic paint, it was hard, for a moment, not to believe that we had been transported back to Verk 1, Augustenstrasse 82, on the day that it was wheeled out. In 1950 there was little that could be compared with it; almost totally without embellishment, the 356 depends on the harmony of wind-cheating curves for its impact. Despite its inherent mechanical and dynamic limitations, you can easily see why the first Porsche so quickly endeared itself to the cognoscenti.

The doors produce a satisfying thunk as they close and wind noise is virtually absent at speed due to the combination of excellent aerodynamics, good sealing and Porsche's almost fetishistic obsession with the accuracy of its panel gaps. The 356 was built for comfort and long journeys, with wide, deeply padded, leather-covered seats set low in the extraordinarily roomy cabin.

A new sensation for the period was the lack of bonnet ahead. With no engine to cover, the lid drops from sight and the front aspect starts, and stops, at the base of the windscreen, much like the view from a modern car. The dash can only be described as Spartan, albeit in a Bauhaus kind of way. A speedo and matching clock make up the two main dials, with a smaller oil temperature gauge alongside. No revcounter and no fuel gauge! The clock would be replaced by a revcounter in 1951 but owners had to rely on the reserve fuel-cock and a wooden dipstick for several years to come. It took a long time for the Brits to warm to the little Porsche. In an age when the sporting motorist aspired to a dial-laden dash hewn from a mahogany plank, it is perhaps easy to see why.

As always with a 356 the six-volt starter 'hangs' for a moment before the engine catches and springs into surprisingly loud life. The single-pipe Eberspächer silencer met with much criticism from owners, as silencing was not one of its better features, but from the cabin the exhaust note is not particularly intrusive and the thrum from the motor is pleasingly light aircraft-like.

Depress the cable-operated clutch, reach out for the slightly-too-far-away gearlever and prepare yourself for the weakest link in the VW ancestry - the crash gearbox. With no synchromesh on any of the ratios the 'box is a disappointment both in respect of gear-whine and embarrassing, not-quite-got-it-right-that-time grating. Although a certain amount of satisfaction can be gained from mastering noiseless up and down changes, contemporary reviewers, and customers, were unanimous in saying that the new Porsche deserved a better 'box. Porsche's own groundbreaking and much copied synchro box arrived in late '52. As compensation, the light steering is a delight and the ride is as smooth as a modern's.

The only area where Paul was forced to deviate from the as-delivered 1950 spec is with a slight increase in the engine capacity, where the original 1086cc has grown to 1286cc. Porsche announced the larger-capacity motor in 1951 and, as the increase was achieved simply by fitting bigger-bore Mahle alloy barrels and pistons, many owners opted to have their engines upgraded.

This move not only increased performance but also saved weight where it mattered most - behind the back axle. A combination of rear weight bias, skinny 16in wheels and tyres, no anti-roll bars, lever-action back shocks and swing-axles resulted in dramatic and often terminal lift-off oversteer. German drivers coined the word wischen to describe the approved cornering style. Phonetically this suggests that one made a wish before approaching a difficult corner but in fact it translates as 'wiping' - hanging the tail out, accompanied by a lot of compensatory sawing at the steering wheel! Enter a bend too fast, and you'll certainly be wishing as you wischen.

To describe the Porsche 356 as a special-bodied Volkswagen is not to condemn it for its humble origins but rather to emphasize what an exceptional design Professor Porsche's KdF car was, and the potential that was waiting to be unleashed from its basic components. In every respect the 356 is the model that, if circumstances had allowed, Porsche could have built and sold in 1939. If this car had hit the road then it would have been nothing short of sensational. As it was, in 1950 it was still remarkable.

In September 1950 Professor Ferdinand Porsche celebrated his 75th birthday at a ceremony in Solitude, close to Stuttgart. New Porsches from across Europe converged to mark the occasion. In November of the same year Ferdinand, with Ferry, visited the by-then thriving VW factory, the construction of which he had overseen before the war. On the night of his return the Professor suffered a stroke. He died a month after Paul's car was completed, on January 30, 1951.


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