#0031 - Porsche 356-A Speedster, 1959
Photographed: York Heritage Trust Concours d'Elegance, 2008. Owner: Eric Wahlberg
Speedster, From Drop-Top to No-Top: The whole aesthetic seems aimed at fun—while the 356 is a car that delivers a unique flavor of motoring enjoyment, it's easy to forget that it began as a frugal exercise, a car built on ideas of touring economy in the form of big things in a small package. The 356 was conceived as a hard running touring car that would be light on petrol and light on driving effort. To say it was much like the early Volkswagen is an understatement, as the first 356 variants borrowed numerous components, and were of the same basic open plan with the motor tucked behind the rear wheels. The plan itself was different, however, with the Porsche being the shorter of the two. Both the Volkswagen and Porsche took this design from Hans Ledwinka and his Czechoslovakian Tatra cars, which finally became settled legal matter after the War. But the Porsche, though perhaps less refined than the Tatra, was much easier on the eyes and, most importantly, more engaging to drive.
Today, the 356-A is considered the first complete Porsche for the world market; earlier models are often referred to as "pre-A" cars, all of which exhibit Porsche's attempts to sort the car's unconventional engineering. Among many variants, the Speedster emerged as a response to two American market trends. First, the market asked for a 356 that was ready to be taken to the competition level. In particular, a no-top car was preferable, both for the weight saving and for the style. Second, the market was seeing an increase in British roadsters, particularly from Austin-Healey, which were cutting into market share significantly. A stripped-down 356-A with catchy Speedster script on the flank envigorated the brand, making roadsters like this the Porsche to have. As for the weight saving: Given the lack of accoutrements in a standard 356-A, there's not much equipment to shed, and so Speedsters do without unecessary things such as windows just to improve the power to weight ratio that little bit more.
Humble Beginnings: The first Porsche 356 cars were powered by handbuilt versions of the Volkswagen 1.1 litre horizontally opposed, air-cooled 4-cylinder motor. The Porsche built motor was longer legged and far more robust than the Volkswagen unit. Like all subsequent contraptions, save for the quad-cam versions found in the Carrera and 2000 GT, the motor was driven by pushrods. While the valvetrain seems a bit conventional, the 356 motor was constantly under development and today has something of a mystique about its Swiss-watch precision. Those first motors laid a mere 40 horsepower at the rear wheels, but by the time the Speedster came around, power increased about 75%, depending on the year and specific car. Capacity, however, had only risen to a meager 1.6 litre.
A strong point of the 356 is the gearbox. Porsche was quick to improve upon the Volkswagen transaxle by fitting their own synchromesh box as early as 1951. This was to be something of a hallmark for Porsche, that their synchromesh boxes worked so well for so long. Almost thirty years later, the 200-plus mile per hour 917 Le Mans car was fitted with synchros—this, as opposed to Ferrari's rock hard box in the 512, which featured a lock out to prevent mis-shifts when coming down through the gears. Porsche had a strikingly different approach to driving than Ferrari, and as the 356 shows us, it wasn't adopted at a glance, but developed from the very start.
Featured Car: A few details identify the 356-A Speedster, of which this example is a Type II. First, the front and rear hoop guards comprise perhaps the prettiest bumper treatment of any 356. I believe this treatment is specific to the Type II cars, whereas the 356-A Type I has just the lower shelf style bumper along with the two vertical posts. Second, the vertical slats over the headlamps protect against flying stones, but do so in an ornate fashion that is about to become archaic, replaced by plastics, among other things. The headlamp slats may be specific to the 1958 model year, but don't quote me on that until I get a few more sources. Speedster badging identifies the attitude of the driver as much as that of the car—in other words, your date best bring along some weather gear in case of rain. Of course, these cars were almost always delivered from Stuttgart to California; very few went to Britain, for instance.
Power in the car pictured here is likely around the 60 bhp mark, although the Super 1600 that debuted around this time would improve that figure to 75 bhp. Of course, Carrera versions like the one pictured here were well on their way to doubling the output of the Super 1600 thanks to an entirely different motor. On a standard 356-A, air is taken through a pair of Zenith carburetors, while the Super 1600 uses Solex. Sixty miles per hour will happen after about fourteen seconds, but remember that this is a stripped out economy touring car—albeit a sporting one—and it is happiest when on a twisty B-road where the light package, dialed-in oversteer, and smooth gearbox have a chance to engage the driver.
Meanwhile, the transaxle casing, clutch assembly, steering assembly, springs for the pushrods, pistons, bearings, oil cooler, and door locks were all updated for the 1958 356-A, all of which was a matter of course for Porsche. The philosophy was simple: Perfect the design, rather than start afresh. This particular ethic created an anomaly in the automotive world, where the breed actually improved by a steady measure from year to year. Contrast this phenomenon with the Datsun 240-Z—a car that was best in its original form, then grew progressively corrupt with each subsequent wave of changes—and one must wonder why more auto manufacturers didn't take note of Porsche's success.
The 356 is a strong refute of the 'next-best-thing,' lasting more than fifteen years in production, and ending with almost 80,000 built. Perhaps we can do more to explain exactly where the 356 fits as a transportation concept, (yes, we can be that scholarly and boring with this one), but for the moment, just looking at a Speedster conjures the romance of what a sporting car should be. It says fun, but without pretention, certainly less so than a Ferrari or Aston Martin. After all, most any late '50s land yacht from the United States was quicker to sixty than this little car, yet this was one of the few widely available vehicles of the day that could provide a thrilling drive on public roads, and a quick lap time on the race track. Driving a 356 is about what it can do, not what it looks like it can do.
Thoroughbred & Classic Cars, September 1996, All-Time Greats, Porsche 356, by Tony Dron, Pages 56-63
Christie's International Motor Cars - Pebble Beach Auction Catalogue, 1999, pages 124-125
Octane: Issue 73, July 2009, Clash of the Titans, by Mark Hales, pages 50-62
How Stuff Works.com: Offers a nice history of the Porsche 356 throughout its long life.
Supercars.net: Always a go-to site.
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