Curbside Classic: 1958 Porsche 356A – My Automotive Soul Mate

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The other day I dropped in at the Sports Car Shop, and there was a blue 356C on the showroom floor. I opened the door, and slid in over the high sill, to sit behind the wheel for a spell. I have never felt more at home and at one in a car; it’s as if it were an extension of myself, like slipping on a second body. This is me! This is the car I would have designed and built for myself. Of course, my feelings of familiarity and being at home weren’t new; they stem from the fact that I’ve had a gigantic crush on the 356 since I was a wee lad. I’ve sat and ridden in a few over the decades; the VW Beetles I owned were cheap surrogates. And now I’m ready, willing and able for the real thing. I would have written a check for $25-30k on the spot for it.

I asked the proprietor how much; he said it wasn’t for sale; it was having some work done. I asked how much  the owner had paid for it, given its slightly dinged and patinated paint and all-round original (but cared-for) condition. “$80,000. They’ve more than doubled in the past couple of years.”  Every dream (car) has a price, and this one may now continue be a dream. Which I’m ok with too. One doesn’t have to own something in order to truly love it.

This 356 CC was originally posted at the other site six years ago, after finding it at the curb. It seems like the right time to post it here now (with some enhancements and more images), given that my 356 love was once again re-kindled and burns hotter than ever, if that’s possible.

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 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…no leering, please.

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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.

 

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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.

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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).

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That combination of qualities defines the vision that Ferdinand Porsche had for the car that would ultimately bear his name and the family coat of arms: 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.

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As pretty much any casual student of Porsche knows, Ferdinand (right) didn’t actually build the first 356 in 1948; that was left to son Ferry (left) while the old man was being held in jail by the French on trumped-up war crime charges and forced to consult on the development of the VW-similar Renault 4CV.

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But the first true “Porsche”, the mother of them all, was built by Porsche almost ten years earlier, the KdF 60K10 or Porsche Type 64. It was a radical design based on the then-new KdF car (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.

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The original KdF engine produced only 25hp, and even the finely-tuned race version could make all of 45 hp or so. In order to achieve the speeds required (90 mph), Porsche’s body designer Erwin Komenda penned 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 1938, but it took almost ten more years to put it into production.

1948 Porsche 356 Nr.1 Roadster; top car design rating and specifications

The first post-war 1948 Porsche, 356-1, was actually a mid-engine roadster, in a format that Porsche sports racing cars (RSK) would reprise some ten year later. The Beetle’s drive train was flipped on end, and all of the other mechanical components were VW parts, which were not easy to come by in 1948.

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But for a number of good reasons, a more pragmatic rear-engine configuration was chosen for the 356/2, the first of the long line of 356s that would go into production. Also penned by Erwin Komenda, the rear engine allowed the 356 to be more than just a “sports car”; it was really a sporty, high-speed touring car, and one that could seat up to five, with a bench front seat and a couple of rear seats.

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Yes, a bench front seat. That’s what the early 356s came with, and it was an available option pretty much right to the end. Why?

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In that post-war time, if you could afford a Porsche in Europe, it was going to be your primary family car. Here’s Ferry Porsche with his, along with his sons. It was the Porsche family car. Which helps explain what a Porsche really was: never a harsh-riding, uncomfortable and compromised ‘Sports car” as typically found in England. the Porsche was always designed to be the master of all circumstances, regardless of whether that was a steep Alpine road, the Autobahn, or a race track.

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Or even boar hunting. And just about the only classic sports car I wouldn’t have qualms driving 15 miles up a gravel Forest service road to a trail head.

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Those first 356s were cobbled together in an old lumber mill in the mountains of Austria (Gmund) 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.

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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.

Of course by this time all of the VW-sourced components had been steadily replaced by Porsche’s own. Engine size increased from 1100cc to 13oo, 1500 and ultimately 1600cc, foreshadowing the VW engine’s evolution. Porsche 356s, except for the very rare four-cam Carerra, were designed to be always adequately (and reliably) powered, but were never highly-tuned and highly-strung.

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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 unified body/framework structure (not like the VW’s platform frame) 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.

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But despite its storied racing successes, the 356 never lost its ability to be a perfectly practical, comfortable daily driver. And it explains why even today, a 356 does not feel like most old cars. Its rigidity and supple suspension are a stark contrast to almost all vintage sports cars.  That is the ultimate genius of this car.

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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. In its first attempt at LeMans in 1951, an early 356 100 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.

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In Baltimore in the late sixties, my brother’s friend had a clapped out 356A, very (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.

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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.

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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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Update: As much as I love the purity of the 356/356A, with its low bumpers and original headlight position, the blue 356C I sat in has its practical advantages too. By the last years of its long run, the 356 benefited from numerous improvements, including its suspension, four wheel disc brakes, and more powerful engines.

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And its revised interior is even more appealing. It’s both intimate yet surprisingly room. Like the VW Beetle, headroom is generous, not what one would expect. Visibility is better than might be expected too. the large but handsome steering wheel is right where it should be. As is everything else. It’s like slipping on your favorite well-worn shoes or slipper.

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Although I’ve never driven one, I just know what it would feel like to drive. I’ve driven VWs, and I’ve been imagining driving a 356 for almost sixty years; plenty of time to form a good virtual idea. I’m an experienced 356 “driver”. Will it ever happen for real? Who knows; some passions are best left to the imagination forever; the attraction is always greatest to what we don’t have. Plus there’s no maintenance and repairs.