Prior to World War II Porsche designed and built three Type 64 cars for a 1939 Berlin to Rome race that was cancelled. In 1948 the mid-engine, tubular chassis 356 prototype called "No. 1" was completed. This led to some debate as to the "first" Porsche automobile, but the 356 is considered by Porsche to be its first production model.
The 356 was created by Ferdinand "Ferry" Porsche (son of Dr. Ing. Ferdinand Porsche, founder of the company). Like its cousin, the Volkswagen Beetle (which Ferdinand Porsche Senior had designed), the 356 was a four-cylinder, air-cooled, rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive car utilizing unitized pan and body construction. While the 356's body was an original design by Porsche employee Erwin Komenda, its mechanicals (including engine, suspension and chassis) were derived from the Volkswagen. The first 356 was road certified in Austria on June 8, 1948, and used many Volkswagen parts for manufacturing economy. Quickly though, Porsche re-engineered and refined the car with a focus on performance. By the late '50s many fewer parts were shared between Volkswagen and Porsche. The early 356 automobile bodies produced at Gmünd were handcrafted in aluminum, but when production moved to Zuffenhausen, Germany in 1950, models produced there were steel-bodied.
Little noticed at its inception, the first 356s sold primarily in Austria and Germany. It took Porsche two years, starting with the first prototype in 1948, to manufacture the first 50 automobiles. By the early 1950s the 356 had gained some renown among enthusiasts on both sides of the Atlantic for its aerodynamics, handling, and excellent build quality. It was common for owners to race the car as well as drive it on the street. Increasing success with its racing and road cars brought Porsche orders for over 10,000 units in 1964, and by the time 356 production ended in 1965 approximately 76,000 had been produced.
The basic design of the 356 remained the same throughout its lifespan, with evolutionary, functional improvements rather than annual superficial styling changes. Nevertheless a variety of models in both coupe and convertible forms were produced from 1948 through 1965.
Cabriolet models (convertibles) were offered from the start, and in the early 1950s sometimes comprised over 50% of total production. One of the most desirable collector models is the 356 "Speedster", introduced in late 1954 after Max Hoffman, the sole US importer of Porsches, advised the company that a lower-cost, somewhat spartan open-top version could sell well in the American market. With its low, raked windscreen (which could be removed for weekend racing), bucket seats and minimal folding top, the Speedster was an instant hit, especially in Southern California. Production of the Speedster peaked at 1,171 cars in 1957 and then started to decline. It was replaced in late 1958 by the "Convertible D" model. It featured a taller, more practical windshield, [allowing improved headroom with the top erected], roll-up glass side-windows and more comfortable seats. The following year the 356B "Roadster" convertible replaced the D model but the sports car market's love affair with top-down motoring was fading; soft-top 356 model sales declined significantly in the early 60s. Today these early four-cylinder models are highly coveted by collectors and enthusiasts worldwide.
To distinguish among the major revisions of the model, 356's are generally classified into a few major groups. 356 coupes and "cabriolets" (soft-top) built through 1954 are readily identifiable by their split (1948 to 1952) or bent (centre-creased, 1953 to 1954) windscreens. In 1955, with numerous small but significant changes, the 356A was introduced. Its internal factory designation, "Type 1," gave rise to its nickname "T1" among enthusiasts. In early 1957 a second revision of the 356A was produced, known as Type 2 (or T2). In late 1959 more significant styling and technical refinements gave rise to the 356B (a T5 body type)
The mid 1962 356B model was changed to the T6 body type (twin engine lid grilles, an external fuel filler in the right front wing/fender and larger windows). A unique "Karmann Hardtop" or "Notchback" 356B model was produced in 1961 and 1962. The 1961 production run was essentially a cabriolet body with the optional steel cabriolet hardtop welded in place. The 1962 line (T6 production) was a very different design in that the new T6 notchback coupe body did not start life as a cabriolet, but with its own production design—In essence, part cabriolet rear end design, part T6 coupe windshield frame, unique hard top. Both years of these unique cars have taken the name “Karmann Notchback”.
The last revision of the 356 was the 356C introduced for the 1964 model year. It featured disc brakes all round, as well as an option for the most powerful pushrod engine Porsche had ever produced, the 95 hp (71 kW) "SC." 356 production peaked at 14,151 cars in 1964, the year that its successor, the new 911, was introduced to the US market (it was introduced slightly earlier in Europe). The company continued to sell the 356C in North America through 1965 as demand for the model remained quite strong in the early days of the heavier and more 'civilized' 911. The last ten 356's (cabriolets) were assembled for the Dutch police force in March 1966 as 1965 models.
The 356's four-cylinder pushrod engine was later re-introduced in Porsche's "entry-level" 912 model, offered between 1965 and 1969 as response to customer complaints that the new 911 (at nearly twice the price of the 356) was too expensive. Although in some ways the 912 did reprise the 356's specifications, it would not be accurate to say the 912 was successor to the 356; when the decision was made to replace the 356, the 911 was the only car intended to carry the Porsche name forward. Rather the 912 was an afterthought intended to supply the lower-priced end of the market, which the expensive, complex but faster and heavier 911 could not do.
The car was built of a unibody construction which has made restoration difficult for cars which were kept in rust-prone climates.
Like the other most famous of Dr. Porsche's designs, the Volkswagen Beetle, the Porsche 356 had a rear-mounted air-cooled pushrod OHV flat-4 engine.
The 356 has always been popular with the motor press. In 2004, Sports Car International ranked the 356C tenth on their list of Top Sports Cars of the 1960s. Today, the Porsche 356 is a highly regarded collector car. The Porsche 356 Carrera (with its special DOHC racing engine), Super 90 and Speedster models are today among the most desirable 356 models. Few 356 Carreras were produced and these often bring well over $250,000 at auction. A fully restored 356 Carrera Speedster (of which only about 140 were ever made) will sell for around $300,000 at auction.
The original selling price of a late 1950s Porsche was around US$4,000, which was also the price of a new Cadillac; today they regularly bring between US$20,000 to well over US$100,000 at auction.
Thousands of owners worldwide maintain the 356 tradition, preserving their cars and driving them regularly. The US-based 356 Registry is the largest American club.
According to Autozeitung magazine, a new generation of Porsche 356 will be produced in 2013.
356 in racing
The Porsche 356, close to stock or highly modified, has enjoyed much success in rallying, the 24 hours of Le Mans, the 1000 km Buenos Aires, the Mille Miglia, the Targa Florio, the Carrera Panamericana, as well as many other important car racing events.
Several Porsche 356s were stripped down in weight, and were modified in order to have better performance and handling for these races. A few notable examples include the Porsche 356 SL, and the Porsche 356A Carrera GT.
In the early 1960s Porsche collaborated with Abarth and built the Porsche 356B Carrera GTL Abarth coupé, which enjoyed some success in motor sports.