The First Production Porsche 356

Porsche 356 completed its first Stuttgart car on Good Friday, 1950 and never looked back. Deliveries were underway by April, with the coupe priced at DM9950 (about $2,030). By midyear, sales were 33 a month, versus the eight or nine projected in the Reutter contract. By year’s end, sales totaled 298. Sadly, the great Dr. Ferdinand Porsche died in late January 1951, but he did live long enough to see the rapid progress of the cars and company that bore his name. By the time of his passing, the factory’s claimed output was 60 a month.

Porsche 356 Coupe and Cabriolet
Ferry Porsche and associates pose with a Porsche 356 coupe and cabriolet.

Meantime, Porsches were gradually getting into the hands of non-German testers, who would presumably render the harshest verdicts. But the folks in Zuffenhausen needn’t have worried. Consider this excerpt from Britain’s weekly The Autocar in April 1951: “Even a short run serves to give the characteristic impression of a really well streamlined car. The acceleration above 50 mph is quite beyond what would be expected from the engine size, and is achieved in extraordinary quietness. About 60 mph is available in third gear...It is a rare car these days in which the designer has gone all out for certain qualities...and has accepted certain disadvantages instead of trying to achieve a well-balanced mediocrity...It is not a car for everyone’s taste, but it offers a unique combination of comfort, performance and economy, for which some people will pay a very good price.”

That same month at the Frankfurt Automobile Show, Porsche introduced the 356/1 and 356/3, its first 1,300-cc models. Their new engine -- precisely 1,286cc (78.5 cubic inches) on a bore and stroke of 80.0 × 64 mm (3.14 × 2.52 inches) -- was a bored-out Type 369 with aluminum instead of cast-iron cylinders, chrome plated on their working surfaces for greater durability. The 369’s compression may be disputed, but this Type 506 engine definitely ran 6.5:1. This plus the extra displacement, it was claimed, lifted horsepower to 44 (DIN European) at the same 4200 rpm. Reflecting Porsche’s traditional concern for craftsmanship, each engine was assembled by a single worker, a job that took 25 hours.

More modest compression made the 1,300 engine more amenable to Europe’s low-grade fuel than the 1100 version, yet performance actually improved slightly by about 2-3 mph, to 92 mph all out, according to factory records. Also announced at Frankfurt as across-the-board changes were improved defrosting, an optional tachometer, and the new VW-based suspension, tube shocks, and Lockheed-Ate brakes. In all, the 1300 was a step forward that helped it earn more good marks from the press.

Porsche 356
The first production Porsche 356 looked not-too different from early prototypes.

Volume began taking off in 1951. Porsche completed its 1,000th Stuttgart car on August 28, and that year’s 1,103 total units earned the company a $3 million profit. Though not widely known at the time, Porsches were built in Gmund through March 1951, after which production centered solely in Zuffenhausen.

A small part of 1951 revenue came from the United States, home of hard currency, the bigger-is-better philosophy, and many well-heeled buyers. Much of this sales activity was owed to Max Hoffman, the veritable godfather of postwar America’s import-car business, who in 1950 added Porsche to the select nameplates displayed at his Park Avenue showroom.

Hoffman was dubious at first, perhaps because some customers thought the 356 curious: small and “funny,” yet as costly as a Lincoln. But he had a weakness for Porsches, being Austrian-born and a great admirer of Ferry and his father. Hoffman had brought the VW to America, selling two in 1949 before giving up the franchise -- one of his greatest mistakes, he later admitted. But Hoffman did sell Porsches -- up to 10 a week by 1954. He later acknowledged that sales, and his own opinion of the cars, rose considerably in 1953 when Porsche dumped the VW-based “crashbox” for its own four-speed synchromesh transmission.

Porsche 356, Interior
The Porsche 356's interior did advance significantly from its prototype beginnings.

This gearbox stemmed from a design patented in 1947 and conceived for the GP Cisitalia. Gear synchronization was its most unique feature, accomplished by intermediate servo rings instead of conventional cones. Each pinion had a servo ring revolving with it at equal speed; as a shift was made, the appropriate servo ring matched the clutch ring’s rate of rotation to that of the rear output shaft. The result was quicker shifts, owing to the shorter gear braking/acceleration time. The arrangement was also more compact. Synchromesh was eventually extended to all Porsches, and other carmakers were quick to copy the design of this superior system, including Alfa Romeo, BMW, Ferrari, even Daimler-Benz (beginning with the racing 300SLR of 1952).

Check out the complete story of Porsche cars, including these fabulous models:

Porsche 356

Porsche 911

Porsche 914

Porsche 924, 944, 968

Porsche 928

Porsche 959

Porsche Boxster

Porsche Cayenne

Porsche Cayman

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