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Porsche 356 History

Porsche 356 Prototypes

When Ferry Porsche decided to build a light, supercharged car to rival the VWs he had driven, what ultimately emerged was Project 356. It was a smooth, aerodynamic open two-seater with an 85-inch-wheelbase tubular chassis, air-cooled VW engine, and dry weight of about 1300 pounds. The chassis was a sturdy affair, anchored by bulkheads in the cowl and behind the seats that turned inward at each end to connect by hefty transverse tubes.

Porsche 356/1
The first Porsche prototype, known retrospectively as the 356/1.

The chassis was influenced by the Type 114 and Karl Frohlich’s Auto Union concepts. As the flat-four was amidships, the VW’s rear suspension was reversed so that the transverse torsion bars sat at the back and the trailing arms became leading arms. In theory, this meant wicked oversteer that was reduced by careful attention to weight distribution, which ended up nearly even, and by an ultra-low center of gravity. Front suspension was stock VW, as were steering and the cable-actuated 9-inch-diameter drum brakes. Special Porsche-modified cylinder heads with larger intake valves and ports, plus higher compression (7.0 versus 5.8:1) boosted brake horsepower from 25 (DIN European) stock to near 40 (at 4,000 rpm). Displacement remained at 1131 cc on a 75 × 64 mm bore and stroke.

“We built that car only for experience,” Ferry recalled in 1984. “It was to see how light we could go and how many VW parts we would need.” He and a bright young engineer named Robert Eberan von Eberhorst first tested the running chassis in March 1948 on a natural proving ground not 20 miles from Gmund: the daunting 32-percent grade of the Katshberg Pass. It easily passed every test, confirming that the VW hardware could withstand the most demanding conditions.

Retrospectively known as 356/1, the first prototype Porsche received its aluminum roadster body, designed by longtime Porsche hand Erwin Komenda, in April 1948 and was completed a month later. Smooth and low, with a two-piece unframed windshield, it set the pattern for the future production 356 but had many unique touches.

For example, there were no air grilles in back, and engine access was via a long front-hinged lid instead of a small hatch. Behind the engine was room enough for a spare wheel, six-volt battery, and a small amount of luggage. Inside were a rudimentary semi-contoured seat and the only instrument, a speedometer, though a clock was built into the glovebox at the far right. Up front, the Porsche name was proudly spelled out in letters not unlike those used today.

In all, the 356/1 was attractive, sporty, obviously aerodynamic, and different from anything else on the road. Only one problem surfaced on a shakedown run from Gmund to Zell am See: A rear frame tube bent from pounding the rugged pavement of Grossglockner Pass. With the 356/1 limping into the village, Ferry and his riding engineer fashioned a two-piece metal sleeve to cover the weakened nub, a reinforcement later applied to production 356s. A July showing at Berne in Switzerland earned good reviews from the British and European press. That same month, the 356/1 captured a 1,000-1,200-cc road race in Innsbruck, Austria -- the first of many 356 victories to come.

Porsche 356/1
The 356/1 helped define the shape of Porsches to come.

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

For more information on Porsche and other exciting cars, see:

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