Porsche 356

Porsche 356

BUYER’S GUIDE

Porsche 356 Review

The template for Porsche’s sports cars to this day, the 356 combines unmistakable looks with a suitably unique driving experience…

What Is It?

The 356 is where it all started for the brand as we know it, Ferry Porsche’s post-war adaptation of his father’s Volkswagen foundations seemingly carrying that influence in design and mechanical layout. In fact the eventual look and format derived as much from turning the original mid-engined roadster’s engine through 180 degrees to free up rear seat space for a coupe version, this twist of fate meaning the 356 can claim to be the template for both the modern 911 and mid-engined 718 Boxster/Cayman sold today.

Back to the start, though, and after a short run of 50 or so cars built by hand at Porsche’s Gmünd base production shifted to Stuttgart from 1951 onwards, the 356 then continually upgraded until production finally ended in 1966 with the 911 in ascendancy. In that time around 77,000 were built in various coupe, cabriolet and iconic Speedster bodystyles, the 356 quickly leaving its Volkswagen roots behind to set the template not just for an iconic sportscar lineage but also the brand as a whole. With that weighty heritage on its shoulders the 356 is today a desirable and delightful classic, with a price to match.   

Corrosive Areas

Floorpan

Inner and outer sills

Bulkhead

Checklist

  • The range of models, engine types and body styles over the 356’s life is bewildering, but can be broken down into five major stages comprising the early ‘Gmünd’ cars, the Stuttgart-built ‘Pre-A’ series and then the A, B and C generations
  • Body configurations over that time include coupe, cabriolets of various types, Speedster, so-called hardtop cabriolets and even limited production coachbuilt race cars like the GTL-Abarth
  • The earliest cars have distinctive split windscreens, the ones that followed ditching the central spar but retaining a distinctive kink in its place; more modern curved screens came with the 356 A
  • With just 50 or so Gmünd cars built these are hugely valuable collector cars now, Carrera models similarly big-league while Speedsters and cabriolets also command big prices
  • While offered in a huge range of capacities and states of tune most 356s use versions of the twin carb, air-cooled, pushrod flat-four, the Super badge typically denoting the more powerful variants; Carreras featured a much more exotic evolution of the base engine with gear-driven overhead cams and significantly increased power
  • Porsche-designed three-piece crankcase introduced in late 1954 marked a decisive step away from Volkswagen-related mechanical parts
  • Huge range of engines, potential for tuning and interchangeability of parts means many 356s will have deviated from their original specification at some point in their lives, so choose whether you want to prioritise driveability or extra performance over originality
  • If you’re chasing investment potential and value matching numbers provenance you’ll pay accordingly, and need to be absolutely certain the car’s history adds up before committing
  • Whichever route you choose it pays to do your research to help refine your search parameters before taking the time to look at plenty of different cars for a sense of what’s out there, and the relative values
  • Earlier cars appeal for their unadorned looks and direct links to Porsche’s early days, while later C generation 356s may be more driveable thanks to improved comfort, driveability, handling and standard disc brakes – choose which is more important for you early in your selection process!
  • Corrosion is the biggest potential pitfall and cost, so be utterly scrupulous in your inspection of both the car and its history – many will have been through multiple restorations by now so make sure the most recent one is properly documented with a respected specialist
  • Rust can take hold anywhere and any visible corrosion should be a warning about even more dangerous rot within the structure – floorpans, longitudinal chassis rails, bulkheads and suspension mounts are all critical areas so look under carpets and get the car on a ramp for a full inspection
  • Pushrod engines are well-understood and relatively simple mechanically but still expensive to rebuild; significant oil leaks or smoke are significant worries, likewise rough running or lack of power
  • Twin-cam Carrera engines are incredibly complicated and require expert – and expensive – care; if you’re buying a ‘Carrera’ make sure it is what it says it is and not a converted standard car, or an original with a replacement pushrod engine
  • Steering and suspension components can wear prematurely if not correctly lubricated and maintained, even on cars that don’t get driven much – any looseness at the wheel or rattles over bumps should be investigated

How Does It Drive?

The 356 may be far more than a Beetle in fancy bodywork but you should still be realistic in your expectations for performance, on the basis many have well under 100PS (74kW) to play with and early ones could have as little as half that. Zero to 60 times in the teens and top speeds around 100mph on a good day don’t sound too impressive in a modern context but a good 356 should prove just how meaningless numbers are for quantifying a driving experience.

The four-cylinder engine may not be as exotic as the six of a 911 either but it’s still smooth and characterful, with a distinctive sound of its own. The slippery aerodynamics mean a 356 is impressively fast and refined on a cruise as well, while a properly sorted one should have the kind of precision to the controls we associate with later Porsches, albeit with the clear-headed minimalism of a true original.

Quirks like offset, floor-hinged pedals and a long-throw gearshift (synchronised after 1953) add to the vibe rather than detract, and a properly set up 356 should be an absolute delight.

What’s Good?

‘Unique’ is a much over-used description but, truly, there’s nothing out there that looks like a Porsche, and in the 356 we have the origins of that distinctive shape in its purest form. Earlier models with their smaller bumpers and unadorned bodywork are perhaps the most elegant, the coupe establishing that iconic profile the 911 lives by to this day while the various cabriolets and Speedsters have an effortless Californian cool alluding to summer road trips in the sunshine.

While originality is increasingly valued, the 356 also responds well to tasteful customisation and modding, be that inspired by the motorsport vibe of the Carrera variants, minimalist versions stripped of bumpers and chrome or even ‘outlaw’ low riders or restomods with seriously feisty engine upgrades. A broad church, then. But at its heart a 356 remains unmistakeable, no matter how original or otherwise.

What’s Bad?

For the uninitiated the Porsche scene can appear intimidatingly complicated, tribal and teeming with self-appointed experts claiming their voice is the only one worth hearing. Add to that a bewildering array of model types, the detail model year updates for the purists to obsess over, plus the seemingly endless variations on engine capacity and states of tune to choose from, and the path to a perfect 356 can look baffling.

Add to that the interchangeability of parts and you really need to know what you’re looking for – and looking at – before making a big financial commitment. You also have to factor in that even the youngest cars are now nearly 60 years old, so finding a truly rust free one is going to be near impossible, while restoring a rotten one to an appropriate standard could prove ruinous. There’s no such thing as a cheap 356 any more, either. Very much buyer beware, especially given the emotional draw and risk of heart overtaking head.

Which Model To Chose?

Rarity and proximity to Porsche’s origin story means ‘Gmünd’ 356s are the preserve of truly elite collectors, split or ‘bent’ screen ‘Pre-A’ models similarly coveted for their originality. If you’re after one of the faster 356s the appeal of the Carrera models is clear, but they’re also hugely expensive and the specialist care required for the exotic engines rules them out for most real-world buyers.

That leaves the rest of us pondering ‘regular’ pushrod engined A, B and C models. Bodystyle will be down to preference but the iconic looks of the Speedster come at a cost, with cabriolets (distinguished by the taller, ‘framed’ windscreen) not far behind. All things relative coupes are more attainable, and for design and driving purity look very attractive indeed. For the cleaner styling a 356 A coupe would seem a very appealing choice, the B and C offering progressively more power, driveability and luxury.

Overall, having settled on your preferred shape the common advice across all variants would be to buy the best you can afford with a solid history verifying its condition and provenance.

Specifications – Porsche 356 A 1600 Super

 

Engine

1.6-litre four-cylinder, petrol

Power

75PS (55kW) @ 5,000rpm

Torque

117Nm (86lb ft) @3,700rpm

Transmission

Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive

Kerb weight

850kg

0-62mph

14.5 seconds

Top speed

109mph

Production dates

1948-1966 (all models)

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