About the author: Betty Jo Turner is a freelance writer specializing in Porsche. For 43 years she was the editor-in-chief of Porsche Panorama, the magazine of the Porsche Club of America, retiring from that position at the end of 2012. She was named a grand marshal of Porsche’s Rennsport Reunion III and has written for Christophorus and other periodicals as well as participated in book projects on the subject of Porsche.
The sleek silver roadster, sitting in the courtyard of its birthplace on June 8, 1948, was a miracle of human ingenuity and determination. A sports car had been born that would change the way the world looks at such automobiles and it had happened in a sawmill complex in rural Austria in the chaotic circumstances of post war Europe. It would be safe to guess that none of the men who were there that day had any idea that in 356-001 they had created the first of a line that would not only endure but thrive nearly seven decades on.
“It was,” as Ferry Porsche told this writer some forty years ago, “only to do something.” The big, fast cars to which he was accustomed had been confiscated during the war and he set about supercharging the Volkswagen cabriolet that was now his daily ride. “I saw that if you have enough power in a small car, it is nicer to drive than if you have a big car which is also overpowered. And it is more fun. On this basic idea we started the first Porsche prototype. To make the car lighter, to have an engine with more horsepower: that was the first two-seater that we made in Carinthia.”
How the team of engineers and craftsmen who built Roadster #1 came to be in the remote outpost of Gmünd, Austria, was the direct result of the massive Allied bombing of Stuttgart where Professor Ferdinand Porsche, the creator of the mighty pre-war Auto Union race cars and subsequently the Volkswagen Beetle, had opened a design office in 1931. By 1938, the company had constructed its own office and shops in the suburb of Zuffenhausen, including all the necessary facilities for designing, building and testing automobiles.
But as the war progressed, Porsche became increasingly concerned about the safety of the company’s archives and equipment. By April 1944 the decision had been made to triplicate design drawings and move at least part of the Porsche brain trust to safer surroundings.
Managing the Move
Ferry Porsche, the 35-year-old son of the professor, managed the move. He divided all the important machine tools into thirds, storing one third at a flying school in Zell am See, Austria, near the family farm. One third remained in Stuttgart and, in the fall of 1944, the final third went to the sawmill in Gmünd where, though circumstances were primitive, there was room for Porsche’s design office and shops.
There in the summer of 1945, only weeks after the German surrender, British officers would discover the remnants of Porsche’s creative assets. With little to do and even less allowed, men of extraordinary engineering skill, including body designer Erwin Komenda and overall technical director Karl Rabe, worked on tractor and other agricultural designs, while Porsche’s craftsmen repaired vehicles and built small parts. Still, it was a beginning. By the end of 1946 there were 222 workers at Gmünd, including 53 executives and engineers; the thing that was needed was work.
With Professor Porsche imprisoned by the French on charges later acknowledged as false, Ferry and his sister Louise set about trying to resurrect the Porsche business. A commission from Italian industrialist Piero Dusio for the design of the Cisitalia Grand Prix car provided desperately needed capital and, in time, the million franc ransom the family paid for the elder Porsche’s release. Ferry and his technical team immediately began work on the Cisitalia project but at the same time they were fermenting the idea of a sports car of their own.
Birth of Project Number 356
On June 11, 1947, the idea was assigned project number 356 and barely a month later the preliminary design work had been completed for the elegant two-seater, so well known to us now, a tube-framed, aluminum-bodied, mid-engine roadster weighing about 1300 pounds. It was powered by a modified 1120-cc VW motor fitted with a single Solex carburetor. Raising the compression ratio of the air-cooled engine and enlarging the intake and exhaust valves increased the output from 25 horsepower to a more robust 35-40.
To accommodate its mid-engine layout, 356-001 required the Porsche engineers to not only flip flop the engine and transaxle, but the rear suspension as well. Otherwise the new car was a brilliant reimagining of basic Volkswagen parts. Within a month of its completion in June 1948, it scored a class victory at a race in Innsbruck.
While the roadster was new, the idea was not. “Long before the Second World War,” said Ferry, “we had the idea to build ourselves a sports car, but we had trouble with the government. There was a law preventing a government-owned factory from selling parts out of its production. After the war this law was no longer in effect and so we made contact with Volkswagen to obtain parts with which to build a sports car. That was, in my mind, the only way to start production with a minimum amount of money.”
These were eventful days for Ferry and his team of engineers. With the plans for a sports car of their own on the drawing boards and the Cisitalia project reaching conclusion, finally the family could look forward to the release of the Professor. The elder Porsche, now 72, was absolved of all guilt but the harsh conditions of his confinement had broken his health. At Gmünd he could offer advice but no longer had the strength to direct design work. Even so, his approval of the work that had been done in his absence galvanized his son.
Even as the prototype roadster was making its debut, a very different 356 was under construction. More suitable for series production, limited though it might be, the 356/2 was planned in both coupe and cabriolet versions. The engine was relocated behind the rear axle, allowing for a new platform chassis configuration with the running gear now positioned in conventional fashion. Porsche would complete some 50 “Gmünd” coupes in Austria, all virtually handmade, before the company began its return to Stuttgart in late 1949.
Komenda’s artful rendering of the coupe body was formed in aluminum over a wooden body buck. Engine specifications as well technical details varied on these seminal 356s, owing to the difficulty of obtaining and moving critically needed parts across the occupation zones of Germany and Austria. This artisanal effort resulted in cars of exceptional quality but produced little in return on investment. It was time to move.
Unfortunately, Porsche’s Zuffenhausen facility was occupied by the United States Army which was using it as a truck depot. Temporizing until they could regain their property, Porsche rented assembly shop space from the Reutter coachworks. It was a beneficial move for both companies, since the Reutter space was just across the street from Porsche’s occupied offices and, more importantly, Reutter had been contracted to supply 356 bodies for the fledgling manufacturer.
These would be fashioned of steel rather than aluminum, in part because of cost but also because making the change would eliminate the production bottleneck of hand-forming aluminum. Furthermore, Komenda once again massaged the form of the 356, giving it a slightly more aerodynamic shape with changes to the roof line and front windshield. Though the 356 would undergo continuous evolution, Komenda had now established the design basics that would hold throughout its life span.
As production started in 1950, the Porsche men projected that they could sell perhaps as many as 500 356s over a period of five years, producing eight or nine per month. These numbers were a serious underestimate of the demand for the new car. The 500th German-built 356 rolled off the line on March 21, 1951; five months later 1000 had been constructed. In all, Porsche would build 76,313 356 models by the time production ceased in 1965.
“Made by Hand”
Though the build process in Stuttgart was a world away from the primitive conditions of Gmünd, much individual craftsmanship went into each 356. Some estimate that a third or more of the 356s ever built still exist, half century old survivors of an era when “Made by Hand” was both an advertising slogan and a realistic assessment of the workmanship invested in each car. They are rare by definition, but some are rarer than others.
Among the rarest are a group of Gmünd coupes left over when Porsche moved from Austria back to Germany. Set aside when production of steel bodied 356s began, seven of these lightweight aluminum coupes were repurposed as race cars. Three such 356 SLs were prepared for Le Mans in 1951, but in a double stroke of bad luck two were damaged in road accidents before the race. Nevertheless, Porsche scored a win in the 1100-cc class, marking its first major competition victory. The following year all three 356SL coupes, repaired and ready to go, made the start, once again taking the class win.
In 1952 U.S. importer Max Hoffman brought three SL coupes to America, selling one to California entrepreneur John von Neumann. The charismatic von Neumann cut the top off the coupe creating a sleek red roadster that gave Porsche its first victory on this continent at Torrey Pines in July 1952.
The same year, production began on a small, enigmatic series of cars never officially cataloged by Porsche but always known as America Roadsters. As the name implies, they were aimed at the U.S. market and driven successfully in competition by Phil Walters, Briggs Cunningham, Jack McAfee, Von Neumann and others.
A graceful aluminum open two-seater based on the 356 cabriolet chassis, the America Roadster featured a low curved door line and fully cut out wheel wells front and rear. Motive force was provided by the Type 528 1500 Super, the most powerful engine the factory had to offer in 1952. Intended for racing in an era when enthusiastic amateurs raced what they drove to the track, the America Roadster could be field stripped for competition. Bodies were built by Erich Heuer at Weiden near Nürnburg.
Heuer, the West German branch of Dresden’s Gläser Karosserie, was already building 356 cabriolet bodies for Porsche to supplement Reutter production, but the financial logistics didn’t add up. Heuer produced only 16 or 17 America Roadsters before the company declared bankrupcy. The last was as mysterious as the first and unique in several ways. Chassis #12371 is steel-bodied with a fixed windshield and conventional 356 wheel arches. The reason for the shift to steel can only be guessed at. Did Heuer simply run out of aluminum or was 12371 a proposal for a different kind of race car?
Whatever the details of its form, the America Roadster did satisfy its primary purpose which was to supply the American demand for a race-worthy Porsche. It was an idea so well received that it was quickly reincarnated in a way that would facilitate ease of production and a competitive price. Out of its ashes came the Speedster, one of the best-loved Porsches of all time. Basically a cut-down version of the 356 cabriolet, designed to minimize production costs, the Speedster had a low, raked windshield, bucket seats, a minimalist top and spartan interior. Starting with 1500-cc engines and moving steadily upward in horsepower, it was an instant hit.
The Rarest of the Rare
From 1954 through 1958, the Speedster was the instrument of choice for both racers and open-air motoring enthusiasts, particularly in the United States. Even though production officially ceased in 1958, Porsche managed to build 31 cars in 1959, all in the ultimate Speedster configuration as lightweight GT models. The rarest of that rare group were Speedster Carrera GTs, fitted with the Type 692/3 version of the Fuhrmann four-cam engine producing 141 SAE horsepower. They were driven with dominant success by men like Harry Blanchard and “King Carrera” himself, Bruce Jennings.
While Carrera designations, signaling top-of-the-line 356s powered by four-cam engines, continued through 1965, two 356 model designations disappeared almost as quickly as they emerged. To satisfy Hoffman, who was convinced that Americans preferred to buy automobiles with names rather than numbers, Porsche badged its 1955 coupes and cabriolets coming to the United States as “Continental” with the name in script on the front fenders. When Ford Motor Company claimed prior rights, Porsche agreed to cease using “Continental” on its 1956 models. Because Reutter had already drilled holes on a few of sets of fenders, “European” replaced the Continental nomenclature briefly but Porsche thereafter stuck to the austere type names and numbers it established in Germany.
In 1965, 17 years after Roadster #1 rolled out of the assembly hall in Gmünd, 356 production ceased. In less than two decades, the Porsche 356 acquired a worldwide fan base which has yet to fade. Parenthetically, the year before the end came, we bought our SC coupe and looked with a partisan eye on the advent of the 911. Not as rare as a Gmünd coupe, America Roadster, Speedster or Carrera of any year or type, it has been a faithful mount lo these fifty years since. Porsche’s original concept of what a sports car should be.
A version of this story was originally written for the Amelia Island Concours 2016 program. It is reprinted here with their permission.