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Porsche 356 History

Porsche Carrera Origins

Natural progression now brings us to the first of the immortal Porsche Carreras, the ultimate 356. Introduced with the A-Series in late 1955, it combined a supremely capable basic design with an advanced engine developed expressly for racing. The result was a true “giant killer” that achieved through elegant, efficient engineering what rivals could manage only through sheer bulk.

Porsche Carerra
The ultimate incarnation of the Porsche 356 line was the original Porsche Carerra.

The late Dean Batchelor recorded that the Carrera engine originated in 1952: “Ferry Porsche and his team of engineers had wondered what the potential of the air-cooled four-cylinder boxer engine might be, and Dr. (later Prof.) Ernst Fuhrmann was told to find out. A figure of 70 horsepower per liter [was mentioned] and Fuhrmann’s calculations indicated [it] was possible -- with four camshafts instead of the single camshaft and pushrod/rocker-arm valve actuation.

“The Fuhrmann design followed the basic configuration of the standard Porsche engine but differed in almost every detail. It had four camshafts (two per side, called double overhead or dohc), twin ignition, dual twin-choke Solex carburetors, dry-sump lubrication, and roller bearings on both mains and rods.

“Fuhrmann’s new design was tested on Maundy Thursday, 1953. It was a happy day for several reasons: It was three years to the day after the first Stuttgart-built Porsche...and the new [1,498-cc] engine produced 112 hp at 6,400 rpm on the first test...74 hp per liter.”

The four-cam was developed mainly for the racing Type 550 Spyder, but in March 1954, as Batchelor recorded, a developmental unit “was installed in [Ferry] Porsche’s personal car, Ferdinand, to evaluate the engine/chassis combination...” A year later, a similar engine was tried in another of Ferry’s cars, a gray cabrio. The enthusiasm of Porsche personnel was unanimous, but only Fuhrmann had seen the possibilities early on.

The model name honored the Carrera Panamericana, the famed Mexican Road Race where Type 550s had distinguished themselves in 1953-54. The first roadgoing Carrera was internally designated 1500GS, the letters signifying “Grand Sport.” Normal 356s already had plenty of that; the Carrera simply delivered more.

Porsche Carerra
Gold script outside and a four-cam engine inside distinguished a Porsche Carerra.

Differences between the production four-cam engine (officially 547/1) and its competition counterpart were few. Compression was initially lowered from 9.5:1 to 8.7:1 but was soon restored to 9.0:1. Also, the twin distributor drives were placed at the opposite ends of the intake cams for easier access. On its ‘55 Frankfurt debut, the Carrera packed a rated 100 DIN horsepower European (115 SAE gross) at 6,200 rpm (versus 110 horsepower for the racing version). The engine was such an easy-revver, though, that it could be routinely taken to 7,000-7,500 rpm without harm.

Though the 356 chassis could handle this extra power without major change, Porsche took its typically thorough approach and gave the Carrera wider tires (5.90s), an 8,000-rpm tachometer, and a 180-mph speedometer. External clues were limited to discreet gold namescript on front fenders and engine lid, making this a “Q-car” par excellence. Because their engine was slightly heavier, Carreras weighed about 100 pounds more than equivalent 356As.

Again per Porsche practice, the quadcam was sold in all three body styles, Speedster included. Fuhrmann accurately described the Carrera as “a detuned version [of the Spyder] providing extra performance for high speed, Gran Turismo competition, with more power than the pushrod engine could produce.”

Critic John Bentley timed the gray prototype at under nine seconds 0-60 mph and less than 20 seconds 0-100 mph. He was disappointed that the extra weight in back made handling even more squirrely than on his 356 coupe, but the production Carrera benefited from the suspension upgrades accorded the 356A.

Porsche Carerra
Porsche's optional removable hardtop was available on the 120-mph Carerra.

Road & Track noted that these “do not appear important in detail [but] have made a considerable improvement in the handling. In addition, the Carreras appear to be coming through with about 1° of negative camber at the rear wheels, with no load. This and the larger 5.90-inch section road-racing tires give as close to neutral steering as is conceivable. With the tremendous power available, a burst of throttle in a corner (in the correct gear) will give oversteer, just as it does with any machine of comparable power-to-weight ratio [18.5 lbs/horsepower for the test coupe]. High-speed stability at over 100 mph in a cross wind still leaves something to be desired in our opinion, but this applies to almost any well-streamlined coupe with [a] preponderance of weight on the rear wheels. In any event, the steering is accurate and quick and requires only common sense and alert attention at over the magic century mark.”

Jesse Alexander largely concurred, after driving a Carrera Speedster for Sports Cars Illustrated, but observed that the “use of factory-recommended tire pressures seems to be the answer for making a Porsche handle satisfactorily...”

Both magazines used similar words to sum up the Carrera. “Without a doubt, this was one of the most interesting cars we have ever tested,” said R&T. “It completed the vigorous performance tests as if it were out for a Sunday drive...” Some Sunday drive: 0-60 mph in 11.5 seconds, the standing quarter-mile in 17.7, and a top speed of just over 120 mph.

But automotive excitement is rarely cheap, and the Carrera delivered in the U.S. for a minimum $5,995. On the other hand, R&T stated, “the price doesn’t seem quite so steep” considering the Carrera’s performance, its “fool-proof, if not ultra-rapid” gearbox and “tremendously powerful” brakes.

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:

  • Consumer Guide Porsche new car prices and reviews
  • Consumer Guide Porsche used car prices and reviews
  • Consumer Guide Premium performance car prices and reviews
  • Ferrari: Learn about hundreds of road and racing Ferraris.
  • Muscle Cars: Check out 1960s and '70s American muscle cars.