1948 Porsche Gmund coupe
1948 Porsche “Gmund” coupe. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

The lineage of Porsche cars began long before the first prototype appeared in 1948. It originated with the People’s Car, eventually the Volkswagen Beetle, which German chancellor Adolf Hitler commissioned the Porsche design office to develop in the early 1930s.

Although he didn’t graduate from engineering school, Ferdinand Porsche was a brilliant engineer. He was born in 1875 in Bohemia, Austria, the son of a metal worker. After leaving school at age 16, he apprenticed with a Vienna electrical company. In the evenings, although not formally registered, he attended engineering lectures at the university in Vienna. Years later he was delighted to receive an honorary doctorate from the Technical University of Vienna.

In 1898 an intense interest in the newly emerging automobile prompted young Ferdinand to join the Lohner company, a manufacturer of electric cars. By 1900 Porsche had designed his first car, the Lohner-Porsche, powered by electric motors in the front wheel hubs. It won a grand prize at the Paris International Exhibition that year.

Porsche’s career progressed quickly. He became chief engineer at Austro-Daimler by 1906, then moved on to Daimler-Benz, and Steyr. In 1930 Porsche opened his own consulting engineering business in Stuttgart. His shop designed everything from racing cars to military tanks, but his most enduring legacy would be the Volkswagen Beetle. The first prototype was completed in 1935.

In failing health after the Second World War, Porsche yearned to see a car bearing his name. His eldest son, Ferdinand, known as Ferry, who had joined Porsche fresh from a Bosch engineering apprenticeship, was now running the company. Although Ferdinand was a consultant and adviser, his health was failing, and it was largely Ferry and associate Karl Rabe who created the first Porsche prototype car in the summer of 1948.

It was a roadster which drew heavily on Volkswagen’s design and components. It used the VW’s four-wheel independent torsion bar suspension, brakes, steering and non-synchromesh transmission. The 1,131 cc VW horizontally-opposed four-cylinder, air-cooled engine’s compression was raised to 7.0:1, and two carburetors were fitted, raising horsepower to 40 from the Beetle’s humble 25. The layout varied significantly from Volkswagen’s in one important aspect, however: the engine was ahead of the rear axle, not behind it.

Tests of Porsche Number 1 encouraged Ferry and crew to build a second car in the fall of 1948. It was an aerodynamic coupe with the engine now behind the rear axle as in the VW. This provided luggage space behind the seat, or room for an occasional small passenger or two.

With completion of the second Porsche the company struck an important deal with Volkswagen. In return for access to VW parts, and its expanding sales network, Porsche agreed not to design a car for any Volkswagen competitor. Also, VW could use Porsche patents if it paid a royalty, and tiny Porsche had the benefit of VW’s service and distribution system.

Porsche 356 production began in the winter of 1948-49 in an old sawmill in the Austrian village of Gmund. It was designated the 356 because that was the Porsche shop’s project number. But Ferry later admitted that it wasn’t their 356th project. To give the impression that their new little business was doing well, the Porsche design office’s first consulting job had been given number seven. Porsche number one was really project 350.

Initial production was 50 cars, all coupes except six. The Porsche 356 was introduced at the Geneva Motor Show in the spring of 1949, and full-scale production, now moved to Zuffenhausen on the outskirts of Stuttgart, Germany, started at that time.

The 1,131 cc VW engine was reduced to 1,086 cc by way of a 1.5 mm smaller cylinder bore. This brought it within the 1,100 cc racing class. In 1951 the 1100 would be joined by the 1300 (1,286 cc) and the 1500 (1,488 cc).

The Porsche 356 was an instant success. At a time when sports cars were characterized by uncivilized weather protection, a harsh ride, and generally noisy and heavy operation, the Porsche was like a little limousine.

The doors closed with a satisfying clunk and the cabin was snug and comfortable. While not silent, it was at least quieter than the traditional open sports roadster. The controls were light and convenient, and ride comfort with the four-wheel independent suspension was excellent for a sports cars.

To prove it in competition a factory sponsored car was entered in the 1951 Le Mans, France 24-hour endurance race. Although new and untried, it proved its durability and performance by winning the 1,100 cc class, and coming in 20th over-all out of a field of 56, of whom 30 finished. Beaten only by cars with much larger engines, it was the beginning of an outstanding competition career for Porsche.

The 356 was a sensation when it arrived in North America. Road & Track magazine (11/52) tested a 1500 and called it “The car of Tomorrow.” They compared it to flying a small plane. It gave excellent performance, accelerating from zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 13.8 seconds, and reaching a top speed of 166 km/h (103.4 mph.)

The Porsche 356 went through many variations of the original model, and stayed in production until succeeded by the 911 model in 1963. More than 76,000 356s were built and it is a valuable collectible today.

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