My love and lust for cars is vast; I can (and do daily) rhapsodize about everything from giant dagmar-breasted yank tanks to pre-pubescent EV micro-cars. And I would gladly have affairs with (almost) any of them. But for some of us, there is one car that is the one, our automotive soul mate. You’re staring at mine, so watch it! Because even if this utterly perfect, exactly-according-to-my-specifications (except for the non-original hub caps) 356A daily driver doesn’t belong to me, we’re inextricably intertwined, and will reunite on another plane. Now that may turn out to just be the internet via this Curbside Classic, but since I’ve been carrying the 356 in my heart and head for over fifty years, that’s progress. But I have nagging doubts that I can do my true love justice in a blog post. I almost regret finding this Porsche; I don’t have the time (or ability) to write a book of love poems.
But sure enough, last Saturday in Portland, there it was sitting on Division near about 35th in its exquisite perfection. This is not just any 356; it’s exactly the vintage (A series, from ’55-’59), body style, and condition that I’ve been carefully constructing, driving and loving in my head for over fifty years. And to top it off, this is a genuine daily driver. The owner has had it for twelve years and was out shopping with his daughter, who rides next to him in the car seat. He says it’s great in the snow! Of course it is. And of course a 356 is the only true-blood forty-year-old sports car one would even consider using as a daily driver. That alone speaks volumes about the Porsche (and me).
That combination of qualities defines the vision that Ferdinand Porsche had for the car that would ultimately bear his name: a practical, durable, comfortable, efficient and speedy conveyance whose design followed the necessity of overcoming the limitations of its VW donor sedan as well as reflecting the sensibilities of its time and place.
As pretty much any casual student of Porsche knows, Ferdinand didn’t actually build the first 356 in 1948; that was left to son Ferry while the old man was being held by the French on trumped-up war crime charges and forced to consult on the development of the VW-similar Renault 4CV. But the first true “Porsche”, the mother of them all, was built almost ten years earlier, the VW Type 60K10. It was a radical design based on the then-new VW Beetle to compete in the 1939 Berlin-Rome race. And it encompassed the key design parameters that turned a prosaic and poky sedan into a giant-killer.
The original Beetle engine produced only 25hp, and even the finely tuned race version could make all of 45 hp. So in order to achieve the speeds required, Erwin Komenda designed a hyper-aerodynamic body to sit on the VW chassis. The race was called off because of the eruption of war, but one of the three 60K10 coupes served as Porsche’s personal car during the war years, easily barreling down the autobahn at well over over 85 mph. The triumph of aerodynamics, light weight (1200 lbs), a supple four-wheel independent suspension, and a reliable, efficient small engine was undeniable. The parameters for the future 356 were set in 1939, but it took almost ten more years to put it into production.
Those first 356s were cobbled together in an old lumber mill in the mountains of Austria using all-VW components; after a few years the fledgling company moved back to Stuttgart and slowly began to replace the purchased Wolfsburg parts with their own. By the time the 356A appeared in 1955, the evolution of a VW-based “kit” car to a mature sports car was complete. The production coupe’s measured aerodynamic Cd of .29 is right up there with the best of today’s wind-tunnel tuned designs. Combined with a low frontal area, 356s like this one cruise happily at ninety or more despite its 70hp, and getting 30 mpg while doing so. The 356 represents the ideal of accomplishing more with less; one that speaks strongly to to me.
The Porsche was radically different from the sports cars of the time that relied on hard suspensions to vainly overcome the flexibility of their frames. The Porsche body/framework structure was extremely rigid, allowing the rather softly independently-sprung wheels to work effectively, whether on a rough road or the racetrack. As such, it is the most influential sports car ever, and inspired the work that Lotus and others later took up in their quest for chassis perfection. But despite its storied racing successes, the 356 never lost its ability to be a perfectly practical, comfortable daily driver. That is the ultimate genius of this car.
Growing up as kid in Austria in the fifties, the Porsche name should have had the prefix “Saint” attached to it. The very first race the original 356-1 ever entered was in Innsbruck in 1948, and it handily won its class. We would go to the sports car races at the airport and be amazed to see the little jelly-beans with their distinctive engine howl nip and tuck their way between big bellowing Austin Healeys and Jags. David and Goliath, an archetype that always inspires.
In Baltimore in the late sixties, my brother’s friend had a clapped out 356A (un)like this one. They could be had for next to nothing at the time, if you could live with some rust. I have vivid memories of squeezing into that back seat, which was pretty remarkable given how small the 356 is and how big I was getting to be. It put me inches away from its howling fan and mechanical symphony. No wonder I owned a succession of Beetles; they were the next best thing for staving off the Porsche addiction.
I’m repeating myself, but this particular 356 is like waking up in the day dream I’ve been having all my life. It’s just so damn perfect. I didn’t ask if it actually has the original 1600 Super engine; I wouldn’t blame him if not. The Super had a very complicated built-up Hirth roller-bearing crank that has certain high-cost risks associated with it. The 60 hp “Normal”, and the subsequent Super 90 engine of the later 356B and C used a much more practical plain-bearing crank. I’d have a Super 90 in “my” 356A, but with the correct hub caps, please! Those handsome caps with the Porsche logo on their nipples came from a B; the A used the plain baby-moon style. But if that’s the extent of this car’s digressions from utter perfection, I can live with that. Could I ever!