Porsche 356: 'This Beautiful Mechanical Animal'
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Porsche 356: 'This Beautiful Mechanical Animal'

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By DrJohnWright - 09 November 2020

In this century when any budget-priced runabout has a top speed north of 180km/h, it is almost impossible to imagine the excitement with which motoring enthusiasts greeted the Porsche 356, especially in its home country, so ravaged by World War Two and desperately trying to shrug off the Hitler nightmare.

The Porsche 356 is surely one of the purest pieces of automotive sculpture ever.
Image: Porsche Museum, Stuttgart.

Its physical proportions were perfect: very low-slung with a superb width to height ratio and every element of the design was integrated according to Bauhaus principles. Despite having an engine capacity of just 1131cc, it could approach 90 miles per hour and gave fuel economy of 40-plus miles per gallon at high cruising speeds. No other car in the 1948 world was as nimble, agile or delivered such unadulterated driving bliss as the first Porsche.

Writing in the Neue Zeitung, Ernst Hornickel observed:

This is the dream car of old Ferdinand Porsche which now carries his name. All the knowledge that this fortunate manacquired during his life are epitomised in it. The Porsche driver has a new sensation unknown to the ordinary driver…With playful ease he reaches 80-95 miles per hour, a speed range not normally used…The man who manages to unleash the power of this beautiful mechanical animal suddenly becomes imbued with a happy feeling whilst realising that here a genius has brought about a new motoring conception and the vehicle itself has entered a new era.

H.U. Wieselmann (Auto, Motor and Sport) said: ‘the Porsche, all other considerations apart, is the most beautiful series-built car in the world today.’

Famed motoring journalist (and inventor of modern pace notes when navigating for Stirling Moss in the 1955 Mille Miglia) Denis Jenkinson wrote:

Remarkably, all four of us squeezed into the car, Tom and Sandy being determined to do so as they had never been in a Porsche. Michael and Tom sat in the front, both being well over six foot tall, and somehow Sandy and I folded ourselves up into space behind the seats. My lasting impression of that ride down to Eversley in the dark was hearing Tom say quietly, ‘I didn’t realise that London buses ran on Michelin Heavy Duty tyres’. Every time we stopped in the London traffic we seemed to be beside a bus, and all Tom could see when he looked sideways out of the Porsche was the wording on the tyres of the buses, level with his eyes. It made us conscious of just how low the Porsche 356 coupe was.

Of course this new German sports car couldn’t challenge the Jaguar XK120’s top speed to match its name, but the Porsche 356 was bred for sustained high speed cruising. Indeed, in the 1951 Baden-Baden rally, the two factory Porsches lost their tyres at the same time – after exactly 16 hours of full throttle driving. The German tyre industry was forced to develop new rubber that could withstand 93 miles per hour, a speed barely imaginable on the pre-motorway roads of Great Britain.

Pininfarina’s Cisitalia 202 set a new postwar styling trend. This was the first car with front guards rising higher than the bonnet line.
Image: Museo Nazionale dell’Automobile Torino (Pava)

Although Dr Porsche had dreamed – as early as 1935 – of creating a sports car to follow on from his successful Volkswagen, Hitler’s initiation of World War Two changed all priorities for German industry. It seems likely that much of the impetus for the thinking that enabled the Porsche company to morph the Beetle into the 356 was inspired by the Italian example of the Cisitalia 202. In fact, there are several parallels between the Cisitalia and the 356.

I’ll start with some observations about body design. Battista Pininfarina’s Cisitalia 202 appeared in the Eight Automobiles exhibition in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, 29 August to 11 November 1951. The other seven were a 1928 Mercedes-Benz SS, a 1937 Figoni & Falaschi-bodied ‘tear drop’ 1937 Talbot Lago, a 1937 Cord 810, a 1939 Bentley (James Young), a 1941 Lincoln Continental, a 1944 Jeep and a 1948 MG TC. Only the Cisitalia remained in the museum as a permanent exhibit.

The Cisitalia made its first public appearance on Saturday 6 September 1947 at the Milan Trade Fair on the eve of the Italian Grand Prix before sharing first prize at the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa D’Este 12 days later. Battista Pininfarina declared his creation to represent the new ‘Italian Taste’, ‘dictated by functionality’. He contrasted it with American cars which were ‘Easter eggs done up in cellophane’.

The Eight Automobiles catalogue cited the Cisitalia 202 as a work of art: ‘The Cisitalia’s body is slipped over its chassis like a dust jacket over a book.’

So, Pininfarina had offered the first new true postwar design concept. The 202 was the first car in the world where the front guards rose higher than the bonnet, which was only possible because the engine was mounted very low in the frame.

The chassis over which this body beautiful had been slipped belonged to the Fiat 1100. Equipped with a Weber carburettor and a much higher state of tune, the engine produced some 55 brake horsepower – hardly shattering, but the Cisitalia 202 weighed just 700kg.

The 202 enjoyed great success in motorsport. Tazio Nuvolari placed second to Biondetti (supercharged 2.9-litre Alfa Romeo) in the general classification in the 1947 Mille Miglia. In November 1946, Commendatore Piero Dusio, managing director and part owner of Cisitalia decided to create a Grand Prix car and commissioned Ferdinand Porsche’s office with the job (Porsche was registered as a company in 1948 by Ferdinand’s son Ferry with its headquarters in Austria). Dr Porsche was still imprisoned in France for alleged war crimes and Ferry took on the project. Dr Porsche was released (acquitted) on 5 August 1947 and approved the plans two days later.

Cisitalia actually placed four orders with Porsche: the GP car (‘Porsche Type 360’), a 1.5-litre sports racing car (‘Porsche Type 170’), a small tractor (‘Porsche Type 323’) and a water turbine (‘Porsche Type 385’). All four were to come to market under the Cisitalia brand name and Type 360 was the first priority:

When Ferdinand Porsche had opened his design studio at the end of 1930, he had told his draughtsmen to number all their design projects and to start with number 7. He did this as he thought that no outside firm from whom he was seeking work would want a project designated ‘design project number 1’. Starting at number 7 would suggest to people that the firm of ‘Dr ing hc Ferdinand Porsche GmbH, Konstruktionsburo für Motoren and Fahrzeugbau’ (design office for engine and motor vehicle construction) was already well established. (Denis Jenkinson, Porsche Past and Present.)

Unfortunately, Cisitalia found itself facing insolvency and none of the projects proceeded. The last production cars of the early 1950s were not of Porsche design.

It seems evident that the Porsche office’s involvement with Cisitalia played a decisive role in the planning of the 356, which made its public debut in cabriolet guise in 1948. Ferry Porsche began work on ‘Type 356’ at the time of receiving the first orders from Cisitalia. The starting point was the pre-war idea of a sports car based on the Volkswagen but powered by a 1.5-litre engine. Ferry Porsche had already cultivated a taste for small cars with very high performance.

On 17 September 1948, Porsche signed a new contract with Volkswagen, by which stage it was evident that the office’s Cisitalia programs were doomed. The agreement meant Porsche could not design a car for another company should such a vehicle be a competitor for the Volkswagen.

‘The Cisitalia’s body is slipped over its chassis like a dust jacket over a book.’ (New York Museum of Modern Art, Eight Automobiles)
Image: Marco 56 flickr.com

Ferry Porsche was doubtless impressed with Cisitalia’s approach to developing the 202. The tuned version of a simple 1.1-litre Fiat engine endowed the little coupe with vigorous performance. It was easy to see how the Volkswagen engine of remarkably similar capacity could do the same kind of job provided the Type 356 could be made sufficiently light.

It is probable that Erwin Komenda began his design work on Type 356 before the Cisitalia 202 had appeared in public. Regardless, his approach was deeply rooted in Bauhaus tradition which was very much in keeping with Battista Pininfarina’s emphasis on pure functionality.

Because the engine was located in the rear, there was no problem whatsoever in keeping the bonnet line low (barely higher than the front guards). But what makes the 356 look so much more modern than the Cisitalia 202 is its width to height ratio. The Italian car stood 49.2 inches 1250mm (49.2 inches) tall but was just 1470mm (57.9 inches) wide. By contrast the Porsche stood slightly taller at 1300mm but spanned 1660mm. It is also longer (3870mm versus 3780), which has the effect of further lowering its visual centre of gravity.

To get the best grasp on the absolute modernity of the Porsche 356 in the very late 1940s, imagine one parked alongside a sit-up-and-beg Ford Anglia! Also, the contrast with the Jaguar XK120 is instructive. Where the Jaguar is voluptuous in its curves, there is an essentially pre-war look to key design elements, notably the front guards and the coupe roof. The interior is much narrower than the car itself (note the difference between the 120/140 and the 1957 XK150). It stood almost four inches higher than the 356. By comparison, the Porsche with its utterly simple shape must have looked like something that had just dropped in from outer space.

In terms of its essential shape, the 356 underwent comparatively few changes during a production life upwards of a decade and a half. Perhaps the only other car that began life in the 1950s – remembering that the 356 began trickling onto roads right at the end of the 1940s – and has aged so graciously is the Citroën Diesse.

The first prototype 356 was registered in Austria on 8 June 1948. It weighed 585kg. This car was then entered in a race in Innsbruck and won its class: start as you mean to continue…

By mid-1950, Porsche had produced just 50 examples. The earliest 356s had aluminium bodies and were built in Austria. In March 1950 production was transferred to Zuffenhausen, Germany and the bodies were now made of steel. The early aluminium cars retrospectively became known as ‘prototypes’.

Demand for the unique car caught Porsche management by surprise. Early cars had a 1.1-litre Volkswagen engine tuned up to 40 brake horsepower. Top speed was about 84. The brakes were standard issue VW. In late 1950 a 1.3-litre engine gave 44 brake horsepower and the 356 became a true 90 mile-an-hour car. Better brakes were fitted. A 1.5-litre engine soon became optional, allowing a maximum speed in the high 90s.

With its lightly tuned engine and covered wheels, the 1951 1100cc-class-winning Porsche 356 could just touch 100 miles per hour down the Mulsanne Straight.
Image: FlatSixes.com

That same year, a special version of the 356 won the 1100cc class at Le Mans and finished 19th outright. This was a silver-grey alloy-bodied coupe with a lightly tuned engine developing 44 brake horsepower. The front and rear wheels were fully enclosed. There was a high final drive and it could just reach 100 miles per hour down the Mulsanne Straight.

In 1952, the split windscreen was replaced by a one-piece ‘bent’ (in the middle) unit that fitted the same aperture.

There was bigger news in 1953. The 1100 engine was dropped from the range and the 1.3-litre was made standard. Porsche announced the 550 Spyder, a model designed specifically for motorsport but sales did not commence until 1955. The Spyder boasted a quad-cam engine designed by Ernst Fuhrmann. This unit (design project number 547) was soon known as the ‘4-cam engine’ and began life with a capacity of 1.5 litres. When Hans Hermann finished third outright in the Carrera Panamericana Mexico behind much larger-engined sports cars in 1954, the engine became known as the Carrera (Spanish for race).

Porsche continued to field works entries in the 24 Hours of Le Mans during the production life of the 356 but by 1953 the effort was concentrated on the 550. In 1952, a 356 again won the 1100cc class. Just 17 cars finished the race that year with the 356 in eleventh position.

From front-on, the 356 looks even more modern than the radical Cisitalia 202. This is a 1959 356A 1600 Super.
Image: retromotive.com.au (Retromotive magazine)

The Carrera engine was soon made available in the Speedster and the coupe. Officially, the latter was the ‘356A/1500GS with 547/1 engine’, it soon became the 356 Carrera. Capacity climbed first to 1.6 litres and then to the full two litres. Top speeds approached 130 miles per hour.

The 356 was always available in convertible guise. From late 1954 US customers could choose the Speedster, a stripped-down open version with minimal folding roof and a low, raked and removable windscreen. This was the brainchild of importer Max Hoffman in response to American demand for a cheaper variant. It was very popular in California and also on the (cooler) East Coast. Unsurprisingly, Speedsters are now highly coveted.

In 1958 the Speedster was replaced by a new convertible with wind-up windows, more headroom and more comfortable seats. By the early 1960s sales of 356 cabriolets had slowed to a trickle.

Unpretentious engine bay gives a good clue to the starting point of the 356 design!
Image: retromotive.com.au (Retromotive magazine)

Compared with the multiple generations of its 911 successor, the evolution of the 356 is easy to unpack. There were pushrod and dual overhead camshaft engines as already discussed. Throughout a life span of some 17 years, styling revisions were minor and, arguably, the 1965 356C was less visually different from its 1948 forebear than any other mid-1960s car was to its equivalent from the late 1940s, including the Volkswagen itself.

Simple but beautiful: fascia of a 1959 356A (last of the A series).
Image: retromotive.com.au (Retromotive magazine)

The 356A arrived in late 1955 with a curved windscreen. Then, four years later, the 356 received its first major facelift to become the 356B. In mid-1962 came a minor revision, the most significant elements of which were a larger rear window and twin engine grille covers. Two years later, disc brakes were fitted and the name was changed to 356C. The C also offered Porsche’s most powerful pushrod engine yet, with all of 95 brake horsepower!

Long before the end of the 1950s, the name ‘Porsche’ conveyed a wealth of meaning.
Image: retromotive.com.au (Retromotive magazine)

In a curious item of automotive trivia, Porsche seemed to follow Peugeot in a couple of respects. Like the 203 and the 403, the 356 remained in production after its successor went on sale; imagine the FJ Holden, continuing in the market once the avant-garde FE, had been released! The 911 was first shown at the 1963 Frankfurt Show as the Porsche 901. But Peugeot had taken out a patent on all three-digit automotive model names with a zero in the centre and Porsche changed its designation to 911. The four-cylinder 912 was powered by a pushrod 356 engine and may be regarded as the true successor to the fabulous little sports car which had its origins in Dr Ferdinand Porsche’s Volkswagen.

This lovely unmolested 1964 356C won the Survivor Class at the 2020 Noosa Classic Car Show.
Image: Dr John Wright