The Definitive Sports Car
Porsche is unquestionably one of the most successful brands in sports car racing stretching over a span of 60+ years. The Porsche 356 was Porsche’s first production car, with regular production starting in 1950 and culminating in 1965, 2 years after the 1963 launch of its replacement, the 911. The German company’s 356 was a lightweight, air-cooled 4 cylinder, rear-engined, rear-wheel-drive sports car, developed as both a coupe and cabriolet.
The 356 was designed by Ferdinand “Ferry” Porsche with a number of the engineering details originally sourced from Volkswagen, a car designed by his father, Ferdinand Porsche senior. The 356 was first “born” in 1948, with the first 50 cars being essentially hand-built “prototypes”, slowly refining the engineering that created one of the finest sports cars of its day. In the early years, the 356 reflected the Porsches’ belief in the perfectibility of a given design, assuming it was good to begin with.
The first Porsche 356 had a top speed of 135 km/h or 84 mph. It had a rear-mounted modified 1.1-litre Volkswagen engine developing 35 bhp at 4000 rpm as well as some mechanical components initially sourced from Volkswagen, but with the chassis and body both brand new designs. As the 356 evolved, engineering constantly improved and though considered expensive, was highly praised for its aerodynamics, handling, and excellent build quality.
Even with the advent of mechanization and various assembly line processes, the Porsche 356s were assembled by hand. Each engine and transaxle was built by one person. Craftsmen finished the bodies using traditional coach building techniques including body lead, wooden paddles, and body files.
Ferry Porsche felt that functionality was important, even for sports cars. This led to the development of the rear located engine, straying away from the initial mid-engine prototypes. He felt their cars should be built taking into consideration normal automotive functions, allowing for good passenger and luggage space, all weather conditions and be economical to run. Because of this philosophy, it was not uncommon for 356 owners to enjoy their cars on the street, then race them on the track, as well.
Success on the track and drivability on the street eventually brought annual sales to over 10,000 in 1964 and topping 76,000 during its illustrious production run. At the end of its production in 1965, Porsche 356 models were being produced exclusively for the American market.
Finally, Sport Car International placed the 356C within the top ten on its Top Sports Cars of the 1960s list. Pretty good for a car whose conception began in the late 1940s!
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