Porsche 356: We Love It, But Why?

Donald Osborne comments on what gives a car intrinsic value

By any standards, the Porsche marque has established itself as a dominant force in automobiles, in what even by the young standards of the industry is a relatively short time.

The first prototype Porsche, the sleek, elementally clean mid-engine Type 356/1, was completed in June 1948. It would have been surprising to just about anyone who saw it to think that it would be the beginning of a company that would be listed as No. 58 on Forbes magazine’s World’s Most Valuable Brands 2018.

Clearly, Ferry Porsche — the son of engineer Ferdinand Porsche — was on to a winning formula when he and his team transformed, adapted, and reused 75% of the parts of a contemporary Volkswagen to produce a credible performance car.

The basic form of the rear-engine 356/2 that entered production shortly thereafter remained recognizable 17 years later when its last iteration, the 356 SC, was finally replaced by the 901/911. For the uninitiated, the almost relentless pace of development and variations can seem bewildering.

1962 Porsche 356 Carrera 2 Coupe (Photo: Simon Clay ©2015 Courtesy of RM Sotheby’s)

Fortunately, it is not the purpose of this article to shed light on that aspect of the Porsche 356. Rather, let’s look at what has made what seemed to be, at first glance, a really expensive special based on a very simple economy car one of the most desirable collector objects across the world.

At a time when the collecting world is more focused than ever on experiential ownership — a concept similar to that of experiential luxury in travel — having thick comforters, a fireplace, and a nice view is no longer enough to set a vacation destination apart.

Travel today must bring an experience to the traveler that cannot easily be replicated — something truly unique and unrepeatable. For cars, simply owning one to look at has become less compelling than the emotional and physic benefit that might come from actually using it.

So what makes so many people so emotionally attached to the 356? Looking at why it was designed and built the way it was is a clue. From the start, the goals of the company were to bring together the attributes of lightness, simplicity, and durability in a sports car that would be — above all else — usable. The fact that those components were the perfect recipe for a responsive road car that would also be successful as a racer was what made Porsche cars an almost overnight sensation.

1956 Porsche 356 A 1600 Super Speedster by Reutter (Photo: ©2018 Courtesy of RM Sotheby’s)

That duality of purpose — the racer you drive to work during the week and on the track on weekends — was just what two of the most successful automotive marketers ever born needed to make Porsche a household name in the U.S. Visionary importer Max Hoffman and Southern California dealer and racer John von Neumann put Porsche in the forefront of racing in this country in the early Fifties.

Truly a case of “race on Sunday, sell on Monday,” the effect of both professional and talented amateur racers can be seen today in the vintage films of SCCA events of the time, with diminutive Porsche 356s tangling with (and often beating) Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwings, Corvettes, Ferraris, and Jaguars XK120s. It was in this arena that their reputation as giant slayers was born. The rapidly expanding number of racing events during the decade, and coverage of them, helped to bring Porsche into the minds of potential buyers.

The power and influence of the U.S. market was such that the company’s reputation globally was built on its success in America. Here was a sports car that had year-round usability, with a rear engine giving great traction in snow. It wasn’t just another “California sports car,” made for movie stars to pose in — although the fact that it was popular with the film set didn’t hurt. There were even vestigial rear seats that allowed it to be a “family” car, for a few years at least.

Also contributing to the wide appeal of the 356 is its design. Elemental in the way that many of the 1930s scientifically aerodynamic competition cars were, it also is notable for its simplicity. It helps to have a good shape if you keep it in production for more than a decade and a half.

There is also a friendliness about the shape. Even in its most potent competition form, it never seems threatening. There are benefits in the fact that, when driving a collector car today, few if any observers feel resentment or jealousy as it passes by. The almost childlike shape brings a smile to the face.

So firmly did the design lodge in the heart during the 17 years of production that when the 901/911 was introduced, loyal Porschephiles lamented the passing of the classic and familiar style. Little could they imagine that the 901/911 silhouette would still be with us in concept form 53 years after it was first seen.

Furthering the pull of the 356 is that among its many variants can be found performance levels to suit nearly all moods, occasions, temperaments, and personalities. For many years, the early 356 “Pre-A” and “A” languished in the interest and attention of Porsche aficionados and were practically invisible to the wider world.

Why? As raw performance levels rose through the Fifties into the Sixties, there seemed to be far more interest in horsepower than in power-to-weight ratios. While that prototype Type 356/1 produced 35 horsepower, its light weight and slippery shape ensured that it could reach an 83 mile-per-hour top speed.

The lowest-spec 1962 Chevrolet Corvette boasted 240 horsepower from a 327-cubic-inch V-8, and was capable of 120 miles per hour — but it also weighed 3,100 pounds. The top-performing street 1962 Porsche 356 was the Carrera 2. With a complex four-cam flat-4 race-derived engine, it produced only 130 horsepower. But, since it weighed only 2,200 pounds, it could easily reach 124 miles per hour. When the collector car market began to heat up in the late 1980s, attention was focused on the final 356 SC and the most-sporting variants.

Porsche 356 “Outlaw” Photo: Mike Fiala

And of course, who could ever deny the romantic appeal of the Speedster? This, perhaps the most iconic of the 356 line, was completely the creation of Max Hoffman. For the amateur owner-racer whom Hoffman envisioned building Porsche’s reputation, he saw the need for an inexpensive open version to take to the track on the weekend.

It’s not really surprising that what was the “value leader” in the model line has become one of the most expensive and sought-after as a collectible. It possesses all the core attributes that made the 356 stand out when new. That reality is not lost on architect Steven Harris, a dyed-in-the-wool Porsche enthusiast.

Harris owns over 50 Porsches, and more than a dozen are various examples of the 356, including six of the rare and powerful Carrera models. Why the obsession with Porsche, and the 356 in particular? “Growing up in Florida, my uncle had one. I can still remember the smell of it,” Harris says. “I love them today because they are one of the few 1950s cars that still drives well.”

For a man who owns some of the most sophisticated late-model high-performance cars from Stuttgart, that bears further exploration. What does he find so compelling about the way they drive? “It’s their combination of low power and light weight,” Harris explains. “They allow the driver to outmaneuver and outhandle just about any car from the era.”

He also appreciates that people on the street seem to uniformly greet a 356 — and its driver — in a very friendly way. There is little of the envy and resentment that can come with driving a later-model Porsche. That can help make using a 356 a much more enjoyable experience.

Finally, Harris appreciates the way a 356 makes him go out of his way to find just the right roads to bring out the best in it. One of his favorites is Carmel Valley Road from Millers Ranch to Carmel-by-the-Sea. Twisting and winding, with just enough elevation changes to keep it interesting, it’s the perfect match for a car that can be balanced on the throttle at a reasonable but fun speed. It sums up the joy these small but capable cars can bring.