Ori­gins: driv­ing the 356

That Porsche feel­ing? It started here

CAR (UK) - - Contents - Words James Tay­lor | Pho­tog­ra­phy John Wy­cher­ley

wHY DO PEO­PLE get so pas­sion­ate about Porsches? Could be the seven decades of her­itage, or the rock-solid en­gi­neer­ing, the in­stantly recog­nis­able styling, or the re­in­forced tro­phy cab­i­nets groan­ing un­der the weight of all those Le Mans wins. But above all, it’s how the cars feel to drive. The com­pany may make the bulk of its rev­enue from SUVs these days, but they still han­dle like cars half their height. And when the elec­tric Porsches on the draw­ing boards and CAD screens in Stuttgart reach show­rooms, you’d put money on them still driv­ing like proper Porsches, too.

Like many great mar­ques – Fer­rari and Enzo, Lo­tus and Chap­man – Porsche was built by the pas­sion of one man; or in this case, one fam­ily. And the story re­ally gets go­ing with the 356 in 1948. This was Porsche-the-com­pany’s first proper pro­duc­tion car, mas­ter­minded by Fer­di­nand Porsche’s son Ferry. It was funded partly via li­cence fees from sales of the Fer­di­nand Porsche-de­signed Volk­swa­gen Type 60 – bet­ter known as the Beetle – and re­mained in pro­duc­tion un­til 1965, two years af­ter the 911’s ar­rival.

The Beetle genes are ev­i­dent in the 356’s rear-mounted, air­cooled boxer en­gine and tor­sion-bar sus­pen­sion, and early ver­sions bor­rowed a few other Beetle bits, too. A, B and C up­grades re­fined the 356 through­out its life, as power climbed from 40 to 95bhp. This car is a 1958 356A. Among the head­line changes when the A launched in 1955 were a curved wind­screen in place of a split screen, the avail­abil­ity of a big­ger 1600cc en­gine, and var­i­ous sus­pen­sion and in­te­rior up­grades.

This one’s a par­tic­u­larly rare brew: it was orig­i­nally ex­ported to Aus­tralia, mak­ing it a sought-af­ter right-hand-drive 356. The colour was spe­cially mixed for Oz, a gor­geous not-quite­green, not-quite-cream hue, like a cup of pep­per­mint tea some­one’s ac­ci­den­tally poured milk into.

Show­ing just 7000 miles from new and fresh from a me­chan­i­cal and body restora­tion co-or­di­nated by Porsche Cen­tre Leeds, it’s prop­erly mint too, as if it’s driven through a con­ve­nient tear in the space-time fab­ric from Zuf­fen­hausen in 1958 straight to a quiet road near Kielder For­est, 2018.

In­side, it’s a retrophile’s dream. If clas­sic-style fridges, toast­ers and ra­dios are your thing, you’ll be in de­sign heaven. The ra­dio it­self, a Blaupunkt with neat plas­tic switches, was an­other up­grade in­tro­duced for the 356A. I daren’t switch it on: if it were play­ing any­thing newer than Buddy Holly or the Everly Broth­ers the il­lu­sion would be shat­tered. Like mod­ern Porsches, qual­ity feels top-drawer, and the de­tails are lovely: the per­fo­rated head­lin­ing, the ul­tra-comfy spring­ing sys­tem in the seats. And the smell… If you could bot­tle that aroma of leather, plas­tics and gen­eral essence-of-old-car, you would. The car’s pre­vi­ous owner also com­mis­sioned a set of tan leather lug­gage to match the sets orig­i­nally avail­able in the ’50s. Charm­ing doesn’t be­gin to cover it.

Twist and pull the chromed choke lever out­wards, turn the key and the en­gine put­ters into life and set­tles to a smooth, throbby idle. An­other twist of a chromed han­dle re­leases the park­ing brake, buried far un­der the dash. You do a lot of stretch­ing in a 356. The pedals are off­set to the left, so you drive with your torso at 12 o’clock, your legs at 10 o’clock. Push the spongy, long-travel clutch into the floor, tak­ing care not to catch the sole of your left shoe against your right – the pedals are close – tickle the throt­tle and pull away. There’s such a long throw to the spindly gear lever it feels like you need to reach un­der the dash for first gear, and into the back seat for sec­ond. There’s a sim­i­lar dis­tance be­tween each ra­tio – shift up too early and the en­gine be­gins to strug­gle. Time it right, though, and it’s im­mensely sat­is­fy­ing.

The more time you spend in a 356 and tune your­self into it, the more you fall un­der its spell. The steer­ing is light, and sur­pris­ingly ac­cu­rate. Some old cars de­mand you saw at the wheel like Sean Con­nery in that Dr No car chase, but the 356 goes ex­actly where you point it. The thin-rimmed wheel, big enough to al­most skim the top of your thighs, gets heav­ier as a cor­ner goes on, but re­mains full of feel.

THE MORE YOU TUNE YOUR­SELF INTO A PORSCHE 356, THE MORE YOU FALL UN­DER ITS SPELL

Does a Porsche 356 feel fast to­day? Not so much. Ru­mour has it Steve McQueen fit­ted a foot switch to his 356 to kill the num­ber plate lights so the po­lice couldn’t iden­tify him hus­tling the car around the hills at night, but a mod­ern po­lice car could prob­a­bly read the 356’s chas­sis num­ber by torch­light with­out break­ing a sweat. Hills are a chal­lenge. You need to an­tic­i­pate them to make the most of the 59bhp avail­able, and you might have to re­sort to first gear for par­tic­u­larly steep climbs – re­mem­ber­ing that there’s no syn­chro­mesh on first, so you must first be sta­tion­ary to select it.

Long-winded gearshift apart, all the touch-points feel great. Even the win­dow winders feel slick, and the brack­ets, hinges and shut­lines ap­pear al­most at the stan­dard of a mod­ern car when you lift the bon­net to fill the front-mounted tank. (It’s best to use reg­u­lar un­leaded – it’s bet­ter qual­ity than the fuel it sipped in pe­riod, and if you fill up on su­per and you might get flames from the ex­hausts…)

Jump be­hind the wheel of a Porsche 356 and you can ab­so­lutely see and feel the very spe­cial DNA still at play in Porsches to­day, and not just the 911. The Porsche road car story started here, and – thank­fully – the 356’s in­flu­ence shows no sign of wan­ing any time soon.

With thanks to the Porsche Clas­sic Part­ner, Porsche Cen­tre Leeds for the use of the 356, which is for sale

JT takes all mea­sures nec­es­sary to com­bat un­der­steer

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