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Porsche 356: The little sports car that started a dynasty

Driving.ca logo Driving.ca 2018-07-11 Brian Harper

a red car driving on a road© Provided by Driving.ca BERN, Switzerland – The quartet of 356 models from the Porsche Museum parked outside the doors of the Hotel Schweizerhof in Bern was impossibly cute, causing passersby young and old alike to stop and gawk, take photos and generally smile at the shiny, little rear-engine jellybeans.

Yet the four 356 sports cars do much more than fill that period of Porsche’s history, through founder Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, between his pre-war Volkswagen Beetle design and the now-legendary and enduring 911 in 1963 — especially with this being the company’s 70th anniversary.

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It all started in 1948 in Gmund, Austria with what the company now calls Porsche 356-001, but was then referred to as the VW Sport (Type 356), a sports car with a tubular frame and lightweight metal body, the mid-mounted engine, along with transmission, rear axle, front axle, steering, wheels and brakes, all originating from Volkswagen.

Switzerland looms large in the Porsche’s history, everything from financial support from Swiss businessmen that helped keep the small and struggling company afloat during the difficult post-war years to the debut of the “Sport 356/1” on July 4, 1948 at the Bern Grand Prix at Circuit Bremgarten. And, on July 7, the first review of a Porsche appeared in Swiss magazine Automobil-Revue.

That afternoon in Bern saw us, a small international group of auto writers, jumping in and out of the four lightweight, four-cylinder 356s on a route that took us south from the Swiss capital — until the German road signs became French — and then back again. On winding country backroads through pastoral valleys (with the frequent clanking of cowbells and the often heady aroma of Eau de Bovine assaulting our senses), small farming villages and centuries-old towns with cobblestone streets, we got a feel for the sports cars that launched Porsche’s reputation. Despite the fact they were all 356s, each, through age, mechanical and powertrain differentiation, displayed distinct personalities.

The oldest car of the four was also the prettiest, a 1956 356 A 1600 S Coupé in a particularly striking shade of deep green. With its 1.6-litre, air-cooled four-banger pushing out an (these days) infinitesimal 60 horsepower, the 850-kilogram coupe had its work cut out for it to maintain speed, especially on hillier road sections, requiring frequent downshifts of the four-speed manual. An almost-delicate gear lever and a long and wide throw made for what old timers call “mop in pail” shifting. Throwing in an extra measure of sphincter tightening, especially on downhill sections, was what seemed an almost complete lack of brakes, the four-wheel drum units were softer than SpongeBob SquarePants. But, the wee beastie tried its damndest to please, despite its closest-to-a-Beetle driving dynamics.

A clear favourite among most of the assembled was the 1958 356 A 1600 Super Speedster, a spartan, über-lightweight convertible that wasn’t particularly popular in Europe but had great sales success in the United States. Tipping the scales at just 760 kg, lightening measures included non-reclining race bucket seats and no side windows in the doors. The 1.6L flat four put out a respectable 75 hp. Steering, as with all the 356s driven, had an inch or two of play on centre, but otherwise carved corners with precision, helped by an anti-roll bar up front. Best of all, the brakes, still drums all around, were far more effective in slowing the car.

The 1962 356 B 2000 GS Carrera 2 Cabriolet is an ultra-rare model, with a stratospheric valuation to go with it — about $1.2-million if it ever came to market. The reason: Though Porsche built some 31,400 356 Bs between 1959 and 1963, just 310 were Carrera 2s and, of those, only 34 were convertibles. Carrera 2s were fitted with a 2.0L four-cam race engine developed by Porsche engineer Ernst Furhmann. Putting out 130 hp in the Cabriolet, other Carrera 2 versions were good for 160 to 170 hp, making them the fastest road-legal Porsches at the time. The cars also became the first road-going Porsches to have four-wheel disc brakes, which were developed from the Type 804 F1 race car. The only trouble with the Fuhrmann engine is that it is happiest at higher revs; it tended to stumble a bit at lower rpm and in heavier traffic. Otherwise, taking it up to 5,500 rpm created a din from the back that deafened while also raising the hairs on the back of one’s neck.

The final ride of the day was in a 1963 356 B 1600 Super 90 Coupe, the final year for the Bs — the C model that replaced it for the 1964 model year lasted until April 1965, when production of the 356 ended. This car was fitted with the most powerful version of the 1.6L pushrod four-cylinder — 90 hp (hence the Super 90 designation. Other models put out 60 and 75 hp). As one of the later Bs, this was easier to drive than the others, tighter and more comfortable with a few more features. (It should be noted, though, that none of the cars are particularly comfy for taller drivers. The large-diameter steering wheels — no power steering or tilt/telescoping function — meant I drove splay-legged most of the time.)

The next morning, July 4, 70 years to the day the 356-001 was unveiled at was once the site of the Bern Grand Prix, Porsche pulled the covers off its now-priceless museum piece. (The car, which was sold shortly after its construction, was re-acquired by Porsche in 1958). The experience was slightly surreal; the warming sun drying the damp tarmac had the evaporating moisture sending up wispy clouds.

Nothing remains of the forested and very dangerous 7.3-km Circuit Bremgarten itself; there are no markers of commemoration — other than a private plaque placed at the corner where famed Italian driver Achille Varzi crashed and died during a practice several days prior to the 1948 debut of 356-001. The track is now a park, primarily used by cyclists and runners, but today we’ve reunited it with the 001.

Two-seater, open-cockpit 356-001 is elegantly simple with its lightweight, torpedo-shaped aluminium body and mid-engine layout, the 1,131-cc four-cylinder putting out just 35 hp. But, weighing just 585 kg, 001, contends the Porsche Museum, is “exceptionally nimble and feisty” with a top speed of 135 km/h (less so its reported acceleration, 23 seconds to reach 100 km/h). Not that any portion of this feistiness could be explored; my brief foray in the car lasted less than a kilometre, in first gear only, with a museum technician in the shotgun seat (he had the good grace to duck out of sight when photographs were being taken). This was completely understandable, really, given 001’s provenance. I couldn’t have driven much further anyway as the cabin was extremely tight and the seats fixed; my long legs were bent in a most painful fashion.

Other than a brief and very unfair thought that, by today’s standards, the 356s driven are vastly underpowered compared with any of Porsche’s current crop of models, the time spent behind the wheel of each was exceedingly pleasant — a gentle reminder of a simpler period. And of a then-struggling company, headed by a mechanical genius, that used very ordinary, existing technology to produce some very extraordinary sports cars.

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