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.