Motoring Trailblazers - Porsche 356

Sat 21st Sep 2019

The world of motoring is hurtling headlong into a bright new future of all-electric, automated, connected technology - and Marty McFly is not behind the wheel! But what were the cars that were ‘back to the future’ of years gone by?

There have been many different trailblazing motors which were seen by the critics to be ahead of their time, and in this series, we will investigate and showcase many of the best in class.

Porsche 356
Widely regarded as Porsche’s first real venture into the world of motoring, the 356 was the Austrian company’s early forerunner.

The company had previously worked with Volkswagen on the Beetle, as well as producing cars for motorsport and while Ferdinand Porsche Snr is the founding father of the German company, it was actually Porsche Snr’s son, Ferdinand ‘Ferry’ Porsche who after founding the Austrian Porsche company with his sister, Louise, developed the No.1, which proved to be the 356 prototype.

Owing much to its distant relative, the Beetle, the 356 employed a four-cylinder, air-cooled, rear-engine, rear-wheel drive car. But the 356 broke new ground in the development of gearbox technology with the use of the patented ‘Split-Ring Synchromesh’, which though developed by Porsche Snr in 1947 for racing cars of the 1940s, wasn’t put into a production car until the 356 incorporated the tech in 1952.

What might you ask makes synchromesh so special? Well prior to the 356, double-declutching was the order of the day, which made manual gearboxes a little clunky.

The Austrian company continued to develop ‘prototype’ 356s through the late 1940s and 1950s, developing an ethos that suggested that small, powerful cars were the way forward. It was a philosophy which had suited young Ferry, who said: “I had always driven very speedy cars. I had an Alfa Romeo, also a BMW and others. ….By the end of the war I had a Volkswagen Cabriolet with a supercharged engine and that was the basic idea. I saw that if you had enough power in a small car it is nicer to drive than if you have a big car which is also overpowered. And it is more fun. On this basic idea we started the first Porsche prototype. To make the car lighter, to have an engine with more horsepower…that was the first two-seater that we built in Carinthia.”

It was the 356 which saw the developed the famed Carrera engine, and after almost 20 years development the production run ended after 76,000 were sold, passing on the baton to the 901, later to be the 911.