Porsche’s iconic 356 was first built in 1948, with much of its engine, transmission and most of its running gear sourced from the VW Beetle. But with its tuned engine, lower center of gravity and aerodynamic resistance as well as its unique and stiffer unitized body construction, the 356 proved just how advanced and effective Ferdinand Porsche’s Beetle was, even ten years on.
There may well have been a handful of Porsches imported to the US prior to 1952, but that’s the year it arrived properly, thanks to Max Hoffman. And it instantly created a sensation among those in the know; the 356 was something altogether different. Its superb solidity, quality, fully-independent suspension, light steering, efficiency, handling and performance (104 mph), despite its modest 1488 cc engine and 65 hp (DIN net) simply had no precedent. Road & Track waxed eloquently, and said “this is the car of tomorrow”. Well, compared to what Detroit was building in 1952, that’s hardly hyperbole.
R&T points out that all during the war, magazines kept predicting that the cars of the post war era would be radically new streamliners, along the lines of the ill-fated Tucker, with rear engines or FWD, fully-independent suspensions, and other advanced technologies. Well, that didn’t exactly happen; even the “all new” post war cars were anything but radical or new. And here comes the Porsche, with its highly aerodynamic body and all the other elements we’ve already pointed out. The result was a sports/touring car that yielded superb performance for the times, with an observed top speed of 107 mph, effortless cruising at 75-80, 27-35 mpg, and an exemplary ride over all surfaces.
Dr. Porsche’s short stroke VW engine design, amplified in the Porsche, gave a sensation of gliding at 70 mph, as the engine’s piston speeds were barely half of what might be a typical maximum. What a contrast to the noisy, rough, overworked, easily-overheated small-bore, long-stroke British roadsters that had come to define sports cars at the time.
The 356 was also available in 1100 and 1300 cc versions; the 1500 was the top dog at the time, equivalent to the “S” versions in years to come. That included chrome-bore alloy cylinders and the very expensive but highly efficient Hirth roller-bearing crankshaft. The little air cooled boxer tucked in tight against the rear axle, minimizing the rear weight (46/54 F/R weight ratio) bias substantially, . “the car manifested none of the ‘dangerous’ handling characteristics so often attributed to rear-engined cars…the Porsche seems to behave perfectly on the road”.
The exceptionally light and quick (2.2 turns lock-to-lock) steering was a revelation, requiring a much lighter touch than the testers were used to.
The interior accommodations were superior too, with comfortable reclining bucket seats and high quality materials “marvelous on long trips“. The transmission was still a non-synchromesh type “but quite simple to operate“. Porsche’s superb syncromesh transmission would soon take care of that one issue.
Americans quickly embraced the 356 along with its poorer older sibling, the Beetle, and both would find phenomenal success in the US. Here’s where it started, and with lots of good reasons.
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