The Porsche 356 is a sports car which was first produced by Austrian company Porsche Konstruktionen GesmbH (1948–1949), and then by German company Dr. Ing. h. c. F. Porsche GmbH (1950–1965). It was Porsche's first production automobile. Earlier cars designed by the Austrian company include Cisitalia Grand Prix race car, the Volkswagen Beetle, and Auto Union Grand Prix cars.
The 356 is a lightweight and nimble-handling, rear-engine, rear-wheel drive, two-door available both in hardtop coupé and open configurations. Engineering innovations continued during the years of manufacture, contributing to its motorsports success and popularity. Production started in 1948 at Gmünd, Austria, where approximately 50 cars were built. In 1950 the factory relocated to Zuffenhausen, Germany, and general production of the 356 continued until April 1965, well after the replacement model 911 made its autumn 1963 debut. Of the 76,000 originally produced, approximately half survive.
The original price in 1948 for the 356 coupe was US$3,750. The 356 cabriolet cost US$4,250.
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 Ferdinand Porsche, founder of the German company), who founded the Austrian company with his sister, Louise. Like its cousin, the Volkswagen Beetle (which Ferdinand Porsche Sr. had designed), the 356 is a four-cylinder, air-cooled, rear-engine, rear-wheel drive car with unitized pan and body construction. The chassis was a completely new design as was the 356's body which was designed by Porsche employee Erwin Komenda, while certain mechanical components including the engine case and some suspension components were based on and initially sourced from Volkswagen. Ferry Porsche described the thinking behind the development of the 356 in an interview with the editor of Panorama, the PCA magazine, in September 1972. "...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 (Gmünd)".
The first 356 was road certified in Austria on June 8, 1948, and was entered in a race in Innsbruck where it won its class. Porsche re-engineered and refined the car with a focus on performance. Fewer and fewer parts were shared between Volkswagen and Porsche as the 1950s progressed. 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. The aluminium bodied cars from that very small company are what are now referred to as "prototypes". Porsche contracted Reutter to build the steel bodies and eventually bought the Reutter company in 1963. The Reutter company retained the seat manufacturing part of the business and changed its name to "Recaro".
Little noticed at its inception, mostly by a small number of auto racing enthusiasts, the first 356's 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 1950's the 356 had gained some renown among enthusiasts on both sides of the Atlantic for its aerodynamics, handling, and excellent build quality. The class win at Le Mans in 1951 was a factor. It was common for owners to race the car as well as drive them on the streets. They introduced the four-cam racing "Carrera" engine, a totally new design and unique to Porsche sports cars, in late 1954. 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 356 was built in four distinct series, the original ("pre-A"), followed by the 356 A, 356 B, and finally the 356 C. To distinguish among the major revisions of the model, 356s are generally classified into a few major groups. The 356 coupés and "cabriolets" (soft-tops) built through 1955 are readily identifiable by their split (1948 to 1952) or bent (centre-creased, 1953 to 1955) windscreens. In late 1955 the 356 A appeared, with a curved windshield. The A was the first road going Porsche to offer the Carrera four-cam engine as an option. In late 1959 the T5 356 B appeared; followed by the redesigned T6 series 356 B in 1962. The final version was the 356 C, little changed from the late T6 B cars but disc brakes replaced the drums.
Prior to completion of 356 production, Porsche had developed a higher-revving 616/36 version of the 356's four-cylinder pushrod engine for installation in a new 912 model that commenced production in April 1965. Although the 912 used numerous 356 components, Porsche did not intended for the 912 to replace the 356.
When the decision was made to replace the 356, the 901 (later 911) was the road car designed to carry the Porsche name forward. The 912 was developed as the "standard version" of the 911 at the 17,500DM price of a 356 1600 SC, while the complex but faster and heavier six-cylinder 911 was priced more than fifty percent higher. Customers purchased nearly 33,000 912 coupés and Targas powered by the Type 616 engine that had served Porsche so well during the 356 era.