This Week in Motorhead History: The First Porsche
Today, Porsche, like virtually every auto manufacturer, offers a broad product line consisting of sports cars, sedans, and SUVs. Of course, it’s also known for a history of race cars, as well. The vehicles are luxurious, expensive, and heavily skewed toward high performance, and they are a far cry from the lightweight, air-cooled, rear-engine sports car upon which Porsche built its reputation. But it is that distinctive and iconic sports car that we highlight this week, because it was over 70 years ago that the Porsche 356 – generally considered to the be first Porsche automobile – was introduced to the world.
Porsche the company had been around for quite a while before it entered the business of building cars. Founded in Stuttgart by Ferdinand Porsche in 1931, Porsche GmbH was an engineering and consulting firm catering to the automobile industry. Most “car guys” know that Porsche was a key player in the development of the original Volkswagen Beetle, but less well-known is Porsche’s design work for the German government in the years leading up to and during World War II. In fact, Ferdinand Porsche was charged with war crimes following the war, although the charges were never prosecuted and were largely baseless rather than substantive.
It was Ferdinand’s son, Ferry, who decided that the company ought to build its own cars, and it was Ferry Porsche and his staff that designed the Porsche 356 in the years following the war. The first cars bearing the 356 moniker were built in Austria beginning in 1948. These were mid-engine cars (like today’s Boxster), and only just over 50 were built through 1949. At the 1949 Geneva Auto Show a revised 356, with a rear-mounted engine, made its public debut on March 17, 68 years ago this week. It is this car that is widely recognized as the first series-production Porsche, and it is the car that put Porsche on the map of the world’s automakers.
In 1950 production moved to Zuffenhausen, a suburb of Stuttgart, and the factory output rose. Sports car enthusiasts began to take note of the lightweight and nimble handling of the 356, and in the United States, New York-based importer Max Hoffman, who just the prior year had imported the first Volkswagen Beetles into America, began to import Porsches as well.
By 1958, some 10,000 Porsche 356s had been built and sold, and by 1965, the final year for 356 production, more than 77,000 had been sold worldwide. The car’s evolutionary successor, the 911, was first produced in 1964, and the rest, as has been said, is history.
Just as the 911 was an evolution of the original 356, so is today’s 911. Today’s 911 is a much larger car, with a liquid-cooled engine and more “grand tourer” than lithe sports car, but it is nonetheless an obvious descendant of the 356. It is on the foundation of the 356, a car first cobbled together from Volkswagen parts and inspiration, a car first introduced to the public on March 17, 1948, that Porsche stands today.
Photos courtesy Porsche Cars North America