Friday September 14, 2018
On 8th June 1948, an Austrian government department officially approved a hand-built two-seater sports car. The aluminium coachwork was mounted on a tubular chassis and power came from a modified Volkswagen engine.
This hand-built roadster, created by Ferry Porsche and Erwin Komenda, founded a brand that was instantly recognisable around the globe when the 356 ceased production in 1966.
The Porsche story commenced in the summer of 1947 with project number 356.49.001. After the end of the Second World War, Ferry Porsche had established a consultancy in the Austrian town of Gmünd in a converted sawmill and had gained a contract with the Italian firm of Cistilla to create a Formula One racer.
However, the firm wished to create its own vehicle and in later life Ferry recalled ‘We designed the car around Volkswagen parts because it was possible to use VW parts’ while pre-war Auto Union racers also inspired the concept of the new sports car.
The bodywork was the creation of Komenda, who was the company’s chief engineer, and the entire car weighed a mere 1,340 lbs. The design uses aluminium due to the shortages of steel in the aftermath of hostilities and such were the many challenges of building the prototype that the spark plugs were smuggled across the border from Germany.
The 356/1, as it came to be known, was shown to the motoring press at the 1948 European Grand Prix in Switzerland. The project car was sold at the cost of 7,000 Swiss Francs to the entrepreneur Rupprecht von Senger on the (Porsche would re-acquire it ten years later), and Randy Leffingwell wrote in his highly enjoyable book Porsche 70 Years: There Is No Substitute how the 356/1 possessed certain impracticalities. ‘It’s tube frame and mid-engine placement left little room for interior storage, and an open car was impractical for Austria’s snowy winters and rainy summers’.
The monies from the sale of the original car would finance the development of the line, and in September of that year, Ferry Porsche signed an agreement with Volkswagen to act as consultants to Wolfsburg’s engineering department while VW would provide components for the 356 as well as permitting access to their sales/service chain. The improved 356/2 appeared at the 1949 Geneva Motor Show in both open and coupe form.
In the following year, the Porsche had steel coachwork and David Scott-Moncrieff of Motor Sport noted that at the Paris Salon there was ‘an extremely pleasant little car on a Volkswagen base. I drove one in Austria. But to ask £1,000 for it with the Jaguar XK 120 priced at £1,988 is sheer lunacy’.
One figure who did not consider this to be lunacy at all was the famed car importer Maximilian E. Hoffman, who regarded the 356/2 as ‘an automotive jewel’. He agreed to market Porsche in the USA.
The company expected to see five cars per year to wealthy American motorists, but Hoffman saw the future more in terms of five cars per week. At $4,500 a Porsche cost rather more than a Cadillac or Lincoln (and was more expensive than its rival from Browns Lane) but by the end of 1951 some 32 models had already found a home in the States.
When the final batch of 356Cs left the factory in March 1966, it would be fair to say that Porsche has come to define the nature of the post-war sports car. Every subsequent model may trace its roots and its mystique to that hand-crafted two-seater made in a converted sawmill 70 years ago.