GRR

The origins of Porsche – born in an Austrian shed

20th May 2018
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

It may be 70 years since the first car to be called a Porsche was produced, but its roots go back further even than that, and you only need to look at that car – the 356/1 prototype – to know it. Its engine, suspension, brakes and steering, all its major moving components, came either straight from the Volkswagen Beetle that Dr Ferdinand Porsche had designed before the war, or were adapted from that design.

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This should be no surprise: in 1948 Porsche was a tiny concern operating out of a collection of wooden huts on the site of a former sawmill in Gmund, Austria. Since the war, the recently-released Ferdinand, and his son Ferry had done consultancy work for Italian race car manufacturer Cisitalia and it was there that the idea of a simple, light, two-seat sportscar was born. The so-called Cisitalia 370 never got built, but it sowed a seed in the mind of the Porsches, with Ferry running the business with his elderly and ailing father in consultation. 

The result was the 356, mention of which appears on drawings in 1947 but which ran for the first time in spring of 1948. And the astonishing thing is that if you look at a picture of the 356/1, and a new Porsche 911, they could only have come from the same family. It created a design language that, uniquely, endures to this day unless you include deliberately retro brands like Morgan.

That first car still exists and lives in the Porsche museum, and while its chassis and Erwin Komenda-styled body were unique, its running gear differed from that of Volkswagen Type 1 (better known as the Beetle) only in the fact that the output of its 1.1-litre, flat-four engine had been tickled up from 25bhp to something closer to 40bhp. The only other major change was that the motor had been turned through 180 degrees so that it sat directly behind the driver in the same mid-engined configuration as the Auto Union and Cisitalia racing cars Ferdinand had designed, and not slung out behind the rear wheels, a la Beetle. This is also the car that won its class in a local race in Austria, notching up Porsche’s first racing success.

Unsurprisingly, the car was massively well received, but by the time production versions started to find their way to customers in 1949, for reasons of cost and the need to provide some luggage space, the engine had reverted to its original location. And it was one of these early cars that was the first Porsche ever to take part at Le Mans, where entered by the French importer in 1951, it rather set the tone for things to come. Despite having just 46bhp and a top speed of 100mph, the car could lap at an average of almost 87mph, won its class and smashed the record for the least time spent in the pits during the 24 hours.

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Over the 17 years in which it was produced, the 356 evolved considerably and in four distinct series. The coupe and convertible were joined in 1954 by highly desirable Speedster model, while the engine expanded ever outwards. Its capacity grew from 1.1-litres to 1.3, 1.5 and eventually 1.6-litres where it produced 95bhp in the 356SC right at the end of its life, well over double the output of the original. But even that was dwarfed by the fiendishly complex four-cam racing ‘Carrera’ engines that became available as an option from 1955, the ultimate 2-litre version producing 130bhp in road-going specification and a top speed close to 130mph. 

But whichever 356 you drove, you’d never mistake it for anything else. All have that inimitable click and clatter of the air-cooled flat four, all are very light to steer and slow to change gear. Their handling inspires confidence too, thanks to their accurate turn in and outstanding traction, so it is as well to remember if an early Porsche 911 can be criticised for being a little tricky at times, the comment applies at least equally to the 356. It’s fitted with swing-arm rear suspension that works as well when your foot is on the throttle, as it feels inclined to wave around if you’re ever so rash as to find yourself needing to slow down and change direction at the time same time. People always talk about the ‘slow in, fast out’ approach to driving a 911 safely and fast, but it was the 356 that first required the technique. 

Indeed, so much of the 911’s character was owed to the car it eventually replaced. Yes, the 911 had six cylinders (if you except the four-pot 912), slightly less treacherous trailing-arm rear suspension and vestigial rear seats, but the chief determinants of its character and reputation – the air cooled, flat-formation engine, its location behind the rear wheels and the ultra-short wheelbase that results, were all inherited from the 356. It was the success of the 356 that convinced Ferry Porsche that a faster, more sophisticated and comfortable car could not only sell for more money, but if it were sufficiently versatile to work as an occasional recreation, an everyday car or even a pure racer, Porsche might be able to sell more of them too. And in that regard as so many others, he was entirely correct.

Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, we can now see that the 356, and even the 911 it begat, only prepared the ground for the Porsche company of today. For while the 911 endures and the 356 has been reimagined in both open and closed form as the Boxster and Cayman, the sales of all these cars combined are small fry indeed compared to the number of SUVs Porsche produces in the 21st Century. But therein lies the virtuous circle that is key to understanding what is today, the most profitable car company on earth. Yes, it is true that it is the Cayenne and Macan that are the big money makers, but so is it also true that without the credibility, engineering reputation and brand image Porsche acquired over decades of just building 356s and 911s, those SUVs would never have sold in the first place. And to think it all started with a single car built in some wooden sheds in Austria, and all well within the lifespan of the average European person.

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