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After the Second World War there were more automakers than there are today. From Abarth to Zundapp, the automotive marketplace was a crowded and often bizarre place. Each segment offered a wide range of vehicles, with a range of shapes and build quality that would baffle a modern buyer. In order to keep his company afloat, Ferdinand Porsche sought to enter the sports car market with a car based on the bones of the humble Volkswagen. While these early 356s gave Porsche an unjustified reputation for building upmarket Volkswagens, what they truly did was begin a decades-long pursuit of performance. This is the first in a multi-part series about the history of the Porsche 356.
The Porsche Gmünd 356s
The first car to bear the 356 name was a mid-engined, tube framed sports car, though arguably the production car bore a greater resemblance to the pre-war Porsche 64. The second 356, known as 356/2, created the template which would stay with the model throughout its life: a rear-engined, unitized car with Volkswagen based(and later merely Volkswagen-like) mechanicals. The first 52 Porsche can be distinguished from later 356s by their aluminum construction. The 356 pictured above, which belongs to Jerry Seinfeld, is the fortieth 356 produced and represents the early Gmünd-built Porsches.
These early Gmünd-built cars are the lightest of the 356 family, tipping the scales around 1,400lbs, they produce forty horsepower from their 1.0l flat fours. An aluminum-bodied Gmund car (which still exists) was the Porsche’s first works entry at Le Mans, and a class winner in 1951.
Porsche 356 Pre-A
After leaving Gmünd in 1949, Porsche production relocated to Zuffenhausen, Germany, and entered a partnership with Karosserie Reutter to produce steel-bodied 356s. The earliest steel-bodied cars can be differentiated from later models by their windshields. All pre-A 356s have a peak at the roof’s leading edge, and either a two-piece "split" windshield, or a single piece windshield with a well defined bend at its center line.
Around the time production transitioned from the split-window cars to bent-window models, Porsche made one of their largest steps to date away from VW-mechanicals. In 1952 Porsche abandoned the VW gearbox in favor of an in-house, all-syncro design. The engine, though still VW-based, had a unique offset crank and Porsche-specific heads. In 1951 power outputs jumped from 40 horsepower to 60, and displacement rose from 1100cc to as much as 1500cc.
These early 356s are now some of the most collectible Porsches in history, as they represent the company’s first production car and it’s first motorsport successes.
In our next installment we will cover the well-known A/B/C 356s, and future installments will cover the lesser-known variants.
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