Porsche rose from the ashes of World War II and soon began building the sports car that paved the way forward for many future successes.
With all the fuss kicked up by Porsche's diehard purist fan base over some of the new cars in their lineup, it's sometimes easy to forget that Porsche built anything other than the 911 before the late Nineties. But Porsche had plenty of models other than the 911, and that includes its very first model, the 356. Although a predecessor to the 356 had been built by Ferdinand Porsche in the Thirties, this was largely the work of his son, Ferry Porsche. The 356 was very nearly a much older car.
Porsche had built the Type 60K10, a prototype racing machine based on the VW Beetle, back in 1939. Three of them were completed with the aim of competing in a race from Berlin to Rome in September of '39. The race never took place, as a result of the outbreak of WWII, and toward the end of the war, Porsche relocated the company's facilities to Gmiid, Austria to prevent them from being destroyed by Allied bombing. These new facilities, consisting of a converted sawmill, were primitive, and far from ideal for volume production. Adding to these setbacks, Ferdinand Porsche was arrested by the French at the end of the war on charges of war crimes.
The French did not hold Porsche for very long, as it was ultimately decided that he had really just been building cars, but the task of designing the first production car to wear a Porsche badge still fell mainly to Herr Doktor's son Ferry. The 356 ended up using a number of components from the Volkswagen Beetle, including the suspension and engine architecture. This was done partly as a cost issue, partly as a way to ease the manufacturing burden at the cramped Gmiid facilities and partly because the Beetle genuinely did have a pretty advanced suspension setup for the day.
The first production 356 rolled off the line in 1948, and just 50 units were built in Gmiid before Porsche moved back to Germany. The engine was an air-cooled pushrod four-cylinder boxer engine. The 1.1-liter unit was lifted from the Beetle, but while the VW version produced 25 horsepower, Porsche wrong 40hp out of the little engine for the 356. That isn't a lot of power, but the 356 weighed just 1,300lbs. Ferdinand Porsche had always been adamant that power-to-weight was more important than outright power, and the 356 was actually a perfectly respectable sports car for the late Forties, capable of reaching a top speed of 90mph.
The interior was nice but simple, and despite this and the VW parts, the 356 was not a cheap car. The hardtop came in at $3,750 (about $34k today) and the convertible at $4,250 ($39k today). This was about the same as a Cadillac in 1948, and it was a lot to ask for a Beetle-powered flying bathtub. Nonetheless, the 356 would prove to be popular, and more and more powerful engines were used over the years, including a 2.0-liter unit that produced 130 horsepower. By the time production ceased in 1965, about 76,000 units had been produced, quite a large number for an expensive sports car at the time.
Thanks to famed Porsche importer Max Hoffman (himself born in Austria), the US has been the most important market for Porsche right from the beginning. In fact, the 356 Speedster, a stripped-out and track-ready version of the car, was built solely because Hoffman had suggested it to the company. Today, the oldest known production Porsche sits not in a museum in Germany, but just a few miles from where I'm sitting, in the ownership of C. A. Stoddard of Novelty, Ohio. There were a number of evolutions to the 356 over its lifetime, but these were largely mechanical, and the exterior styling remained largely the same throughout the car's lifetime.
A second generation of sorts was produced from 1962 to 1965, which is easiest distinguished from the previous generation by the two engine lid grilles instead of one. That isn't much of a change, and despite the increase in power over the years, the 356 was fairly obsolete by the mid Sixties. The 911 was unveiled in 1963 and went into production in 1965, and in doing so replaced the 356. However, part of the 356 would live on for a few more years. Porsche initially got complaints that the 911, briefly the only model offered by the company, was too expensive.
At nearly double the price of the 356, it is a lot to ask of the brand faithful to suddenly start paying so much more for their Porsches, and Porsche built the 912 to satisfy them. This was essentially a 911 with a 356 engine, but this too created problems. Once complaints started coming in from 911 owners that their more expensive cars looked the same as cheap 912 models, Porsche discontinued the low-end model. Though it had a rocky start, the 356 was a very clear evolutionary step between the Beetle and the 911, and today it still enjoys a loyal following of collectors.