70 years since it took to the road, we look at the story of the very first Porsche
In 1947 Easter fell on April 6th. Three days later Ferry Porsche and his chief engineer Karl Rabe sat down at Gmünd in Austria for a discussion on the subject of a Volkswagen sports car. They did so not as a ʻPorscheʼ but as a ʻVW Two-seater Sports Car ʼ as the relevant records show. At that stage the conspirators saw the creation of such a car as having several purposes. One was to serve as a calling card to help open the door to a renewed design-consultancy relationship with the reviving Volkswagen works at Wolfsburg. A sports model could be an attractive addition to the VW range. Another aim was to create a make-work project for the talented bluecollar staff at Gmünd, which at the beginning of the year numbered 198 guided by some 40 engineers.
ʻWhat shall we do with such a good staff of workers?ʼ was Ferryʼs rhetorical question. Although he had other projects on his books, including designs for Cisitalia in Turin, none required the skills of a 200-strong workforce. Thus, Ferry added, ʻWe decided to build a car with the people we had: some very good engineers and mechanics.ʼ
Inspiration for the building of a Vw-based sports car came from Turin. Although neither Rabe nor Porsche had yet been to Cisitalia, they were fully informed about the way that company was making expensive silk purses from Fiat sowʼs ears.
ʻOne can state quite frankly that the impetus came from Cisitalia,ʼ Ferry Porsche admitted later. ʻAt the time that company was building a small sports car with a Fiat engine. I said to myself: why shouldnʼt we be able to do the same thing with VW parts? Before the war we had already done something similar with the Berlin–rome cars.ʼ One of these claustrophobic coupés, the Type 60K10, was still part of the Porsche fleet.
The Cisitalia paradigmʼs influence was underscored by an Austrian engineer who was close to both projects. ʻIt is certain,ʼ avowed Rudolf Hruska later, ʻthat when Porsche built their own sports car they were very influenced by what Cisitalia did with the Fiat parts.ʼ Just as Dusio built on the basis of the small Fiat, a popular car in Italy and one known well by his engineers, so too did Ferry Porsche choose the Volkswagen as a foundation.
The basic idea of making a sports car was appealing to the younger Porsche. ʻCars like that had been my hobby before the war,ʼ he said. ʻI liked a machine that was speedy, that had good acceleration and roadholding compared with ordinary cars.
ʻDuring the war I drove a supercharged VW convertible with about 50 horsepower, which was a lot of power then. I decided that if you could make a machine which was lighter than that but still had 50 horsepower, it would be very sporty indeed.ʼ
Production was not on the agenda during talks about such a car in the spring of 1947. Rather, Ferry Porsche contemplated a full-scale feasibility study that could also give him something interesting to drive. ʻWe built that car only for experience,ʼ he said afterwards. ʻIt was to see how light we could go and how many VW parts we could use.ʼ Ferry also wanted its design to reflect ʻthe concept of the Auto Union
“THE IMPETUS CAME FROM CISITALIA…”
Grand Prix cars,ʼ the most charismatic autos the Porsche studio had created. This meant an open car with its engine between driver and rear axle.
With the Cisitalia projects absorbing engineering time, the VW Sports effort made slow progress. Not until June of 1947 did it step up a gear. On the 11th of that month the project was officially assigned its Type 356 designation. On July 9th 1947 Erwin Komenda signed off his meticulous drawing of the 356 frame. It showed clear evidence of Cisitaliaʼs influence.
The frame was a multi-tube space-type design, the first in Porsche history. As a means of exploring the ultimate in lightness for the 356 – one of the projectʼs aims – it was ideal. For the tubes, ranging in diameter between 20 and 30mm, Komenda specified either chrome-molybdenum steel – which was adopted – or ʻAero 70ʼ, an alloy of aluminium.
The Type 356ʼs space frame was more elegantly and intelligently structured than those used in the sports Cisitalias. The latter had their frame tubes at the extremities of the body sides through the cockpit area, whose stiffness was diminished as a result. The frame drawn by Komenda carried its lateral truss structures almost straight through from nose to tail, just far enough apart to accommodate two occupants. His reduction in the frameʼs radius of gyration made it significantly stiffer for its weight.
Both ahead of and behind the engine compartment the transverse tubular members rose high, giving the frame maximum stiffness. The tubes were welded into bulkheads of higher-placed tubes at the cowl and behind the seats. Diagonal tubes braced some of its side trusses. To ease installation of the engine, transmission and suspension the rear of the frame was attached at four points by conical joints so that it could be removed completely.
By July 17th Erwin Komenda completed his drawings of the 356ʼs frame, its general layout and several preliminary body shapes. Estimating weights of 77lbs for the frame, 110lbs for the body and 440lbs for the complete power unit and rear axles, he forecast a dry weight of 1220lbs for a roadster on an 82.7-inch wheelbase.
The actual car was a little longer, with an 84.6inch wheelbase, and a little heavier at 1330lbs. This was still very good going compared to the 1532lbs of the parent VW Beetle. The Cisitalia 202 coupé was quoted as 1540 pounds and the MG TC as 1810lbs. In the VW Sportʼs category only Stanguellini claimed less weight at 1100lbs for its sportsracing two-seater. Ferry had met his aim of achieving lightness to produce a lively car.
Integrated with the frame were carriers for the transverse torsion bars of the VW suspension used at both front and rear. This was straightforward at the front, where the Beetleʼs steering was used as well. Cable-operated 9.0-inch brakes were fitted inside 16-inch wheels, among the various components that were adapted from the wartime Type 82
“THE FRAME WAS A MULTI-TUBE SPACE-TYPE…”
Kübelwagen that was used as raw material for the 356.
Ferry Porscheʼs goal of emulating the Auto Union with his sports car was met by turning the VW flat-four and its transaxle through 180 degrees in plan view so the engine was ahead of the rear axle, with its transaxle trailing behind. To achieve this the entire rear suspension system was turned around as well. In the resulting layout the hubs of the enclosed swing-axle shafts were guided by a leading arm at each side. Made of thin flexible steel, these arms pivoted from the ends of the transverse torsion bars that sprung the rear axles. Each torsion bar was carried in a tubular steel housing that crossed the extreme rear of the chassis just behind the transmission.
This suspension change placed a point of high stress, the torsion-bar tube, far back near the rear of the frame. The leading-arm design of the rear-suspension geometry meant that when the rear wheels bounced up, or when the car rolled in a turn, the wheels toed outward instead of inward. In theory this reduced their cornering power and tended to increase oversteer — the tendency of the rear end of the car to swing out in a turn. In addition, torque reaction from rearbrake application tended to lift the rear of the car.
No special changes were made to the VW components used in the 356. Its builders werenʼt worried about durability. ʻWe used parts that had already been tested for more than a million kilometres,ʼ smiled Ferry Porsche. ʻWe had a saying: if it held up in the Kübelwagen itʼll certainly hold up in the sports car!ʼ
For performance, however, more was needed than the post-war VWʼS anaemic 25bhp at 3300rpm. Improving the output of this 1131cc flat-four air-cooled engine was a skill at which the Porsche designers were unmatched. To test the chassis and concept of the Type 356, however, the Porsche men satisfied themselves with only modest changes to the Volkswagen engine, which they had throttled down for durability in the original Beetle.
The four ʼs cylinder heads were modified with slightly larger inlet valves and ports. The normal compression ratio of 5.8:1 was bumped up to 7.0:1 – an audacious increase considering the poor quality fuels then available in Austria. Fed at first by a single carburettor and later by twin carburettors, this engine produced 35bhp at 4000 rpm. Although short of the 50 horsepower Ferry mentioned, it was enough to test his concept.
Drive was taken through the standard VW transaxle with its four unsynchronised gears. No change was made to the standard axle ratio of 4:43:1 in spite of the much higher topspeed potential of the 356. More speed came from revving the engine to 4000 instead of 3000rpm, the one-third increase raising the theoretical maximum from 60 to 90mph. With windscreen in place its actual top speed was 84mph. Since the box was now at the extreme rear, a lengthy linkage to its floor-mounted lever was needed.
Though planned in principle in mid-1947 – chief Porsche designer Karl Rabe was working on a one-fifth-scale drawing at Gmünd in Austria on July 24th – the mid-engined Type 356 roadster was only progressed as and when the necessary skills were available. In July of that year and again in November meetings took place with the British occupation officials in Klagenfurt who would have to bless Porscheʼs creation of an automobile, lest it be thought a new secret weapon. Inspection of the 356ʼs completed tubular space frame took place on January 18th 1948.
After the frame was ready, final assembly proceeded
quickly. On the 5th of February the bare chassis was ready for the road. Naturally Ferry, one of the most experienced evaluators of automobiles in Europe, was first to try it out. On several of his outings with the bodyless car Ferry was accompanied by former Auto Union engineer Robert Eberan von Eberhorst. At first silent, shaking his head, Eberan then said, admiringly, ʻThatʼs really something. And all that from Volkswagen parts!ʼ
Now, however, a body was needed. Giving priority to Ferryʼs target of lightness ahead of the ultimate in low drag, Komenda penned a relatively narrow car. It was 60.6 inches wide with fully open wheel arches at front and rear. He thought the all-enveloping coachwork of the pre-war Type 60K10 unsuitable for the VW Sports, a roadster in the Italian style.
Ubiquitous VW headlamps determined the slope of the 356ʼs front fenders, between which the front deck plunged above its cargo of two spare wheels in an echo of Komendaʼs last pre-war sportscar designs. At the rear the fenders rose above the deck in a suggestion of finning. Locations for fuel fillers were picked out on the front fenders adjoining the cowl; the design showed a 10.6-gallon fuel tank on the right-hand side.
These were the themes of initial body-design drawings 356.00.104 and 105 of July 1947. Not until almost half a year later, in January of 1948, did Komenda revisit the ʻVW TwoSeater Sports Car ʼ as his new drawings were labelled. Although the general outline remained unchanged, in design 106 he widened the body to 65.2 inches, increasing its overhang of the wheelhouses and adding cockpit width. He changed the doors as well. While previous designs had small apertures that acknowledged the obstruction caused by the space frame, the doors were now wider and deeper. The space frame was still there but occupants would have to step over it.
A final design, number 107, eliminated the raised rear fenders. They now sloped gently rearward. The rear wheelhouse openings were lowered to cover the upper portions of the wheels, an aesthetic change that accompanied the lowering of the fender surfaces. Not to have done so would have made the fender form weaklooking in profile. For the first time horizontal decorative strips became a ʻmoustacheʼ for the roadster ʼs nose.
The body was hammered out by star craftsman Friedrich Weber. Though Ferry Porsche later wrote that Weber needed ʻa bit over two months to build that first body—not exactly a record time for a skilled artisan,ʼ the actual timing indicates that he built it in a day or two more than three weeks.
Soon after the roadster ʼs completion, on the 28th of April Ferry invited his father to join him for a run south from Gmünd toward Spittal, during which the 356 suffered a frame breakage. After repairs, works manager Otto Husslein took it for a shakedown run on the first of May. That Otto had something to learn about sports-car driving was shown by the dents in its tail that had to be repaired after his return.
On the 13th of May, the roadster was undercoated in yellow, weighed and turned over to Ferry for further evaluation. A week later it was commandeered by Ferdinand