By on January 12, 2010

i didn't expect to meet you here and now

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.

no bad angles anywhere

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).

timeless profile

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 daily grind behind this wheel takes on a new dimension

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.

a super rear end

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.

the look of love is in those eyes

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.

not the best seat in the house, but the acoustics are good

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.

unoriginal, but highly acceptable

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!

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32 Comments on “Curbside Classic: My All-Time Favorite Car – 1958 Porsche 356A...”

  • avatar

    I am just in love with this car, seriously.  How handsome!

  • avatar

    Though the later iterations of the 356 arguably improved on the car, they didn’t improve on its lines. This one is a beautiful example.

  • avatar

    Oh yes, I’ve owned two 356A’s, a beater ’59 sunroof and a cherry ’56 coupe.  The ’59 was a beater in aesthetics only, as the good Navy doctor I bought it from in San Diego around 1971 ($900!) had gone through the running gear to a fare thee well and what a joy it was to drive. My boss at the time was a 356 enthusiast and told me that this was the only car you’d always take the long way home in. I thought that was hyperbole but he was right. The ’56 on the other hand, while beautiful, didn’t drive nearly as well and I could never relax driving and parking the damn thing. Hopefully there will be a third one someday…

  • avatar

    Gorgeous! This car is also my Holy Grail, a car that has been, and always will be, at the top of my list. It is an example of what a sports car should be. An excercise of simplicity, a car that does things that cars with twice its power can’t because they also typically carry twice its weight. And the fact that it all originated from the “lowly” VW Beetle just makes it that much more delicious. I love the 356, and the early, simple, 911s. Those were what a Porsche should be.

  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    Canadian custom coach builder INTERMECCANICA has been producing excellent replica Porsche 356 Speedsters and Roadsters for more 25 years.

  • avatar

    Nice car! I drove a ’55 or ’56 (round tail light version) in Boston during the mid 1970’s. A great car, but did not hold up well in New England winters.

  • avatar

    Lovely car! I too would love to own one. The closest I’ve come so far in Porsche ownership was a 914 and a 912 (with Sportomatic!)

  • avatar
    Ken Strumpf

    I love the Dagmar reference. I saw Dagmar perform live at the Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey in the early 70’s in a production of L’il Abner. Quite an impressive pair of headlights. Remains in my memory.

  • avatar

    It is a real work of art. I’m amazed it managed the 2.9 drag coef. Nonetheless, it’s clear that a lot of care was put into the design. Very cool that it’s still a daily driver.

  • avatar

    Got the January 2010 Panorama just today and there are three 356s in the for sale in the ads. An $18k restoration project B coupe, an obsessively restored 1952 coupe at the price of new GT3RS and a late (1965) C coupe with 51500 miles on it at under $50K. Are you tempted, Paul?
    The first one I ever saw was more or less permanently parked across the street from my grandparents home in the early 1960s. The owner was the navy chaplain son of my grandparents’ neighbors. The car was dove gray (probably not the right name for the color) and I alone among my friends thought it was quite handsome. The first 356 I rode in, a decade later, was a down to the metal restoration – lotsa coats of lacquer, new rubber gaskets and seals everywhere, new glass and I’m sure many, many other restoration items. Couldn’t afford a Porsche, even used, for a couple more decades.  Maybe some day I’ll find a dove gray C, rust free and runs good. Wife won’t be happy with that, though. Wasn’t happy with a 911, isn’t happy with a Cayman, but, damn, I can’t drive a kitchen remodel.

  • avatar

    When I lived in Montreal there was one particular 356 Roadster that constantly grabbed my attention. It was a concours-restoration, black with a red interior, and I often spotted it in and around the Westmount area. That car was beautiful, and saw the road often enough – it was often parked along Sherbrooke near where I lived, and I spotted it running along the Decarie a few times.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    Yup, they sure are  purty and a tasteful modification  of  the Bug.  X 2  on  repros. IIRC there is also  a shop building  these in Southern CA.

  • avatar

    Stunningly beautiful in it’s simplicity!  The 356 is up there on my list of “drool” cars…but my heart will forever belong to the BMW 2002…make mine a ’73 Tii…round taillights, of course…
    I hope you achieve the dream of ownership of your soulmate one day soon!

  • avatar

    My Dad had a black with red leather ’58 1600 356A.  It was a great car.  Commuted 50 miles each way to NYC every day.  And he probably did take the long way home.  It got up and went and handled like a dream.  He pushed the limit, but the cops left him alone.  It had nearly 300,000 miles on it when he unloaded it for of all things a Pontiac GTO.  The cops weren’t as generous with that one!  Looking back, he had to have had the car crazy gene.

  • avatar

    The Vasek Polak license frames are a nice touch. He was one of the first Porsche dealers, and had a close friendship with Mr. Porsche. They raced together in the old days. Funny how Vasek died  several years ago ,while speeding on the Autobahn in no less a Porsche.

  • avatar

    I always had a thing for the 356/1.  As there is only the one in existence, I know I shall never own it unless I discover my backyard is full of 12lb diamonds and can buy Porsche GmbH, who still own it.

  • avatar

    He may have designed some wonderful cars [and this is certainly one of them] but the student of Ford, employee of Hitler and friend of the  SS wasn’t held on “trumped up” war crimes charges in France. He was held for having used forced labour at Wolfsburg to produce VWs and though the French didn’t treat him nicely let alone fairly, in 1945 sensitivities were still fragile.

    • 0 avatar

      While it doesn’t absolve him and we shouldn’t use relativism too much here, it’s worth noting that industry was very tightly administered by the government, and Porsche’s manufacturing in what became the city of Wolfsburg was exclusively for war machinery.
      Every German company that survived the war on its own or as a castoff of a fascist conglomerate is haunted by their history, but we’re fortunate that the paternal punishment of the Morgenthau plan was abandoned and Ludwig Erhard was eventually given free reign.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Keep in mind that Porsche refused to ever salute Hitler or call him anything but “Herr Hitler”. The only reason he got away with that was because Hitler wanted him so badly. Porsche designed the VW, but didn’t own it, control it, or do the hiring.

  • avatar
    Mark MacInnis

    Beautiful design and the genesis for every great car Porsche ever built.

  • avatar

    My German car guy, Marc Feinstein, owner of German Performance Service in Boston, says he’d NEVER drive his Porsche (I think it’s a ’63, and you can see it on ttac here in the winter, because of the salt. (I highly recommend to Boston owners of German cars to take them to Marc for repairs. He’s in Brighton, close to the Harvard Business School.) He was shocked that this thing is being driven daily this time of year. I told him I didn’t think they put salt on the roads in Eugene, and that the winters are very mild. Am I right about the salt, or rather the lack thereof?

  • avatar

    With a little research, I found an exact duplicate of this car for you!

    Same car, same color, even same hubcaps (even though you don’t want them).

  • avatar
    George in Georgia

    When I was in college, back in the early ’60s, a good friend had a Speedster of about that vintage.  As I recall it had round tail light.s  As luck would have it, he lost his license and “hired” me at a nominal fee to drive him to his part time job which was – drum roll please – resetting speedos on used cars.  Yes!  It was still quasi-legal then.  I would almost have paid him!  The car was a revelation to a kid who’d only driven Plymouths.  As you wrote, small, light, agile and exciting.  Sometimes too exciting, as when I did an unintentional 360 on a wet road.  The windshield was so low that it was like driving in a sleeping bag and the top had a tear that made it more comfortable with the top down. I was spoiled.
    My first car was a ’65 Corvair Monza convertible, the closest I could come to a Porsche.  Any Porsche I could reasonably afford then or later would have been a real beater.  So it goes….

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Right, no salt used here. Otherwise the owner wouldn’t have done it. It hardly ever snows in town; once every couple of years or so. But it does up in the hills and of course the mountains. The only thing used is a gritty volcanic sand.

    David Dennis; Thanks for dashing my hopes. I knew they were getting up there, but…

    • 0 avatar

      Glad you like my car. It is the original Super engine but has been uprated to Super 90 specs. It will run with a 2.0 911 no problem. The hubcaps are later repros but the super did have the nipple hubcaps. The moons were on the Normals (according to Gary Emory) The V Polak frame was a gift from Gary Emory.Rest assured no Fibreglass here! Keep driving them!!!

  • avatar

    Are you sure this is original and not a replica?

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      The Intermeccanica replicas are fiberglass bodies of the Speedster and virtually identical Convertible D; there are no replicas of the coupe to my knowledge. Anyway, I had a good enough look and talk with the owner to know this was the real McCoy.

  • avatar
    Pat Patterson

    The question is, coming from someone who used to drive up to Vasek Polak’s Porsche dealership in Hermosa, once a month in the 60’s just to look.  Where the heck did he get the license plate frame?  I had a ’59 356 with a B motor but a wife with extemely creaky knees.  So the car was sold and eventually the wife left.  All in all not a very happy outcome.

  • avatar
    Oregon Sage

    Very nice.
    I sold my Triumph Thruxton to a guy in that neighborhood a couple years ago, which led to the discovery of Clay’s Smokehouse.  Check if out next time your on Division; I recommend it highly, which I rarely do.

  • avatar

     Nice article, brother Paul! Joe’s 1500N took him and me to Woodstock in ’69, shortly after a ring and bearing job in his father’s garage. Fortunately the seats leaned back enough to doze during the first wet night just outside of Bethel, NY. A while later, on a trip to DC, his hood flew open on the Baltimore-Washington Expressway and made a structural mess of the cowl that the hinges attached to. Joe went back to school in Boston that fall and I lost track of him and that car.

  • avatar
    Pat Patterson

    Paul-There are at least two companies that I know of that make the 356 in a coupe.  Here’s one of them.

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