|Porsche 356 Coupe|
In July 1948 the world caught the first glimpse of the Porsche 356 Roadster. Up until then Ferdinand Porsche had worked for nearly half a century for other manufacturers. Developed by his son, Ferdinand Jr. or Ferry, the small two-seater was the first car to bear the Porsche name. The new Porsche received universal acclaim from journalists and won its class at its very first race. The sport's cars exotic mid-engined spaceframe chassis was however too expensive and complicated for mass-production. Ferry Porsche had already realized this before Porsche #1 was completed and started the development of a less labor intensive production car. Even though the second Porsche was only remotely related to the original, the 356 name was retained.
Just like the original Porsche 356, the '356/2' used many Volkswagen derived bits like the engine and suspension. This is hardly surprising as the Volkswagens was developed by Ferdinand Porsche and his men a few years earlier. The new 356 distinguished itself from its predecessor and the Volkswagen through its custom platform chassis. With the engine moved back to its familiar rear mounted location, the wheelbase could be considerably shortened. The suspension was pretty much carried over from the Volkswagen with trailing arms at the front and swing axles at the rear. The cable operated drum brakes were also pure Volkswagen and would be one of the 356's few weaknesses. They were quickly replaced by Girling sourced hydraulic drums.
Also carried over from the Volkswagen was the air-cooled four cylinder boxer engine. Before it was bolted to the rear of the 356 chassis, it was however considerably modified. In its Volkswagen guise the flat four displaced just over 1100 cc, which was lowered to 1086cc to make the 356 eligible for the popular and highly competitive 1.1 litre racing class. Equipped with high compression heads and twin Carburetors, the Porsche power-plant produced 40 bhp; a full 15 bhp up from the Volkswagen spec. The first rolling chassis was completed during April of 1948 at Porsche's temporary headquarters in Gmünd, Austria. After being extensively tested, the chassis was fitted with a body towards the end of July; just a few weeks after the 356/1 Roadster was revealed.
In stark contrast with the original 356, the first production 356 was fitted with a coupe body. The rational was that a majority of the potential customers were found in the colder climates of central Europe. The coupe's evocative lines were penned by Erwin Komenda and shared lines with 'his' Volkswagen 60K10 competition coupes that were built for the 1939 Berlin to Rome race. He was also inspired by Pinin Farina's work on the Cisitalia 202. Constructed from aluminium, the body shells were very light and also had very favourable drag figures. In 1949 the coupe was joined by a similarly styled cabriolet, most of which were built by Swiss coachbuilder Beutler.
Shortly after the launch of the coupe, Porsche had received sufficient orders to orders for a fifty car production run. Hand-built, the first Porsches were very expensive and they certainly did not make a profit. The 356 was nevertheless the perfect advertising tool for the profitable engineering and consultancy arm of the Porsche company. Towards the end of 1949, the Porsches were allowed to return to Germany and their former headquarters at Stuttgart. Here they could set up a more efficient production line to meet the ever increasing demand. An important step forward was the deal struck with coachbuilder Reutter to build the 356 bodies late in 1949. Despite having produced less than fifty cars in Gmünd, Porsche placed an order for 500 steel body shells as they expected to be able to sell around 100 cars per year.
Very few examples were produced in 1950 as the company moved back to the Stuttgart suburb of Zuffenhausen. To further broaden the appeal of the 356 Ferry Porsche decided to adopt three of the Gmünd built coupes for racing. Extensively lightened, these were labeled 'Sport Leicht', or SL. Two were entered for the 1951 24 Hours of Le Mans. However, an accident during one of the practice session decimated the Porsche entry to just one. The other one completed the race 20th overall and more importantly 1st in class in the hands of French drivers Auguste Veuillet and Edmond Mouche. The two drivers repeated that class victory in the next race. It was the start of a love affair between Porsche and the legendary endurance race that has resulted in innumerable class wins and 16 overall victories for the German manufacturer.
Now fully settled in at their new Stuttgart facilities, Porsche struggled to meet the demand. During 1951 the German manufacturer produced 298 cars; nearly three times more than the original estimate. In the potentially biggest market, the United States, Porsche wasn't quite as successful. The high quality and relatively luxurious 356 was much more expensive than the highly popular British alternative. Iconic importer of European cars Max Hoffman believed that Porsche deserved a chance and proposed the addition of a more rudimentary equipped version of the 356. Porsche reluctantly accepted and commissioned the construction of a series aluminium Roadster bodies at the little known coachbuilder Heuer. Known as the America Roadster, it is believed that just over a dozen were built before Heuer went bankrupt.
Towards the end of 1951 Porsche introduced a larger version of the flat four engine. By increasing the bore to 80mm, the displacement grew in size to 1286cc and with it the power rose to 45 bhp. It was offered alongside the original 1.1 litre engine, which remained in production until 1954. It took a lot more effort to develop the third variation on the four cylinder theme; the '1500.' With the help of crankshaft manufacturer Hirth, the Porsche engineers managed to increase the stroke sufficiently to get to the desired displacement of 1.5 litre. Introduced in the 356 1500 during 1952, the engine produced 55 bhp. Porsche's competition department reworked the 1500 engine with hotter cams and bigger Carburetors, boosting power to 70 bhp. In October of 1952 this engine found its way into a new road car; the 356 Super.
The larger engines made the 356 a much more appealing prospect in the United States. Helped by the great sales tactics of Hoffman, Porsche got an ever grower following in North America. They were extremely popular with amateur racing drivers, who campaigned them with great success. Hoffman had nevertheless not yet given up on the idea of a 'spartan' 356 in the vain of the America Roadster to compete with the British sports cars and also the new Corvette on price. Porsche's answer to Hoffman's requests was the standard Cabriolet based 'Speedster', which featured a very minimalistic interior, a cut-down curved windshield and no folding roof. Cheaper and lighter than the standard Porsches, the Speedster was an immediate hit in the salesroom and also on the racing track.
Even though the 356 and its engines had been constantly updated to meet the latest demands, Porsche felt it was time to completely revamp the model in 1955. Although visually very similar, the '356A' launched at the Frankfurt show in the fall of 1955 was a big step forward. It meant the end of the line of the first Porsche production model that saw the company transform from a modest engineering consultant to a full fledged manufacturer. By the time the 356A took over, nearly 8000 examples of the 356 were produced; quite a few more than the 100 per year of the original prediction.
Article by Wouter Melissen, last updated on May 20, 2009
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