Museum Classic: 1954 Porsche 356 1500 Super – Honoris Tatra

This is our last return trip to the Toyota Megaweb History Garage (for 2020, anyway), but it’s a crucial one. Just next to the recently-covered Alfa Spider, and looking even more like a life-size toy than the Italian car, was this green Porsche 356 “Pre-A,” as they call it. Guess that makes it just a “Porsche 356,” but the 356A sort of became the definitive model of the breed, so folks like to emphasize the lack of alpha in this one’s numeric. Call it what you will, it’s far more interesting to me than any of the letter-series 356 that succeeded it.

The first Porsche was the deepest. By which I mean the Porsche family, circa 1945, was neck-deep in it. Yet old Dr Ferdinand, after a couple of years in French prisons, helped create something (based on his little State-funded creation of the late ‘30s) that would turn his family’s legacy around: the Porsche 356. Success ensued and the Porsche name became enshrined in glory, its shady past forgiven, or even forgotten. Not that any of this was planned, but it’s still one of the best riches-to-oily-rags-to-mega-riches stories ever told.

The 356 was therefore a passing of the baton from the patriarch, Dr. Ing. h.c. Ferdinand Porsche, to a new generation of Ferdinand Porsches (or Piëch, as the case may be). In effect, the design was pretty much entirely overseen by his son Ferry, who had been released from prison much earlier than Ferdinand and Anton Piëch. Ferdinand eventually made his way back to Gmünd in the autumn of 1947, even as the first 356 prototype was being made. He had little direct input in the 356, but did give it his full blessing and helped securing VW’s collaboration in the project, as well as getting Porsche to become Austria’s VW distributor. The first cars were made by hand in Austria, though some cabriolet bodies were made in Switzerland, from late 1948 to early 1950. Word-of-mouth spread about the “VW sport,” as some still called it, and orders started pouring in.

Gmünd was not a practical place to manufacture cars though, so production had to move to Stuttgart in 1950. Right next door to Porsche’s small Zuffenhausen works was the much larger Karosserie Reutter, whose occupation of clothing Mercedes, Wanderer and BMW chassis was coming to a close. Out of a clear blue sky came the 356, which allowed Reutter to stay in business for another decade, before inevitably being taken over by Porsche.

The Reutter cars had a slightly altered body: the windshield stayed split but became wider and lower, the vent windows were deleted and the beltline was higher. Bodies were changed to steel and lost their slightly busy nose trim, but the engine was still a placid (yet souped-up) 1100cc VW flat-4 producing 40hp. Turn signals replaced the semaphores and an oil temperature gauge was added to the dash, but the fuel gauge was still not deemed necessary. The VW’s hydraulic brakes were also added to the mix, though these were substituted for Porsche-specific items by 1951 – the year Ferdinand senior died, aged 75.

Next came the inevitable increase in displacement. The 1.3 litre engine arrived mid-1951, followed a few months later by the 1488cc our feature car has, though initially the 1.5 litre engine was only available in 55hp “Normal” guise; the twin-carb Super, available by MY 1953, delivered 70hp. This reinforcement in terms of horsepower was coupled, crucially, with much better Lockheed brakes and a Porsche-designed all-synchromesh 4-speed gearbox. The 356/1500 was the first Porsche to break the 100mph barrier.

In 1952, the windshield became a one-piece unit, timidly bringing the car into the ‘50s. This quirky bent windshield, traded for a completely new curved one on the 356 A in 1955, is to me one of this car’s most endearing and interesting features. It keeps the 356’s original shape intact, yet brings an undeniable benefit to the driver (I assume, having never driven a car with a split windshield).

Our feature car, strangely enough, is missing its front “Porsche” script, but has the correct small hood handle, which fits the car better than the big crested item seen on later models. Up to 1955, Porsches did not have a badge or logo. That was created at the behest of US importer Max Hoffmann, who was selling about 10 of these a week (i.e. half the production), so he was pretty influential on the company. I don’t really care for the Porsche crest. It’s too complex graphically and means nothing except “Stuttgart” symbolically. I would have preferred a red disk with “Porsche” written in long thin white letters. You know, like the Tatra emblem…

The interior has an appropriately Mitteleuropean feel to it. Big steering wheel, ivory-coloured Bakelite knobs, metal dash, that gorgeous radio – it all looks like a miniature Mercedes, or a better EMW. Germanic interiors became synonymous with black and staid from the late ‘60s onwards, but in the ‘50s, there was still a touch of fun in there, amongst all the seriousness and flawless workmanship.

Looking at it through a particularly partisan and admittedly vainglorious lens, in essence this 356 is about as close to a T600 coupé as it gets. The Beetle DNA is evident, which means the Tatra genes are in there too, arguably. Maybe the Tatra version would have had a bit more of a rear fin and a longer wheelbase, making it more of a four-seater than the Porsche.

Kind of like this, actually… The Porsche design is sleeker and smaller, but then the Tatra has a 2-litre engine. Pity they only made a couple of these two-door specials for rallies.

Fundamentally, the 356’s technical, esthetic and aerodynamic choices are similar to those that Hans Ledwinka might have devised, had the Tatra works been located a couple hundred miles to the south. Porsche and Ledwinka were subjects of the Austro-Hungrian Empire until their 40s, lest we forget. The borders and nationalities we think of now were abstract to them. Tatra and Porsche, in essence, hail from the same country, which happened to be on the losing side in more ways than one.

Just like Ferdinand Porsche’s doctorate honoris causa, bestowed upon him in 1916 by the Vienna Institute of Technology for his achievements at Lohner and Austro-Daimler, I feel his last great oeuvre might be considered an honorary Tatra. OK, maybe that’s pushing it a bit. But if the Beetle can be considered a “Baby T87,” surely this very closely derived beauty might be admitted into the family as well.


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Automobile Quarterly Vintage Review: The Porsche Speedster, Part 1. & Part 2., by Geelongvic

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On-The-Go Outtake: 1956 Porsche 356A – Cool As Vanilla Ice (Cream), by Jim Klein

Curbside Classic: 1965 Porsche 356SC, by Aaron65

Vintage SCI Review: 1956 Porsche Speedster 1600 – “…One of the most significant technical accomplishments of our time”, by PN

CC Outtake: Porsche 356C – Air Cooled Pleasures Can’t Always Wait Until Summer, by PN

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