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The Rearview Mirror: Birth of a Sports Car Legend

The original Porsche 356 seemed little more than as sports car based on the VW Beetle’s monocoque chassis designed for Adolf Hitler.

Having worked for others for decades, this week in 1949 bore witness to the birth of Porsche, as the first car to wear the name of Ferdinand Porsche debuts at the 19th International Automobile Show in Geneva, Switzerland. 

To the untrained eye, the Porsche 356 doesn’t look like much, being little more than a sports car based on the Volkswagen Beetle’s monocoque chassis that Porsche designed for Adolf Hitler. It used a highly reworked version of VW’s diminutive 1.1-liter flat 4-cylinder engine, boasting new heads, new cam, new crankshaft and a dual carburetor intake and using a non-synchromesh Volkswagen gearbox. Placed behind the rear axle, the engine develops 35 horsepower. But since the 356 only weighs 1,290 pounds, the 356 has a top speed of 84 mph. 

Porsche may not have known it at the time, but the little car would initiate a brand that would grow to produce some the world’s most legendary sports and race cars. And during the 356’s 17-year production run, it would be continuously refined, its production ending in 1965 with the 356C.

A long time in coming

Ferdinand Porsche’s birthplace.

Ferdinand Porsche was born Sept. 3, 1875 in the North Bohemian town of Maffersdorf. As a teenager, Porsche is fascinated by electricity, taking evening courses in electrical engineering at a state-run trade school in nearby Reichenberg. By 1893, he installs electricity in his home before leaving for Vienna where he develops an electric wheel hub motor while working as a technician at Vereinigte Elektrizitäts-AG.

In 1899, he joins Lohner-Werke, Austria’s largest coachbuilding factory, where he develops an all-wheel-drive gas-electric hybrid automobile, the Lohner-Porsche Semper Vivus, Latin for “always living.” The name is derived from the vehicle’s setup, which uses two-wheel hub motors and a pair of one-cylinder combustion engines, with the latter powering a generator that continuously recharges the batteries while driving.

In 1905, Porsche moves on to Austro-Daimler as head designer, where he indulged his interest in aircraft engines, developing an air-cooled flat-four that would serve as a template for his work on the Volkswagen Type 1. By the end of World War I, Porsche is managing director at Austro-Daimler, and is granted an honorary doctorate by the University of Vienna. 

But Austro-Daimler’s fortunes deteriorate after the war, and by 1923, Porsche joins Daimler-Benz as a designer. There, he works on the famous SSK and SSKL racecars. However, early in 1929, Porsche joins the Steyr-Werke in Upper Austria as technical director after his contract at Daimler in Stuttgart is not renewed. But he doesn’t remain there for long, as Steyr enters into a partnership with Austro-Daimler and gradually curtails Porsche’s creative independence. The leads Porsche to leave the firm in 1930.

Independence at last

Porsche GmBH’s first office in Stuttgart.

Having spent three decades working for others, Porsche now forms his own design firm, Dr. Ing. h. c. F. Porsche GmBH in Stuttgart in 1931. The company initially employs 20, including Ferdinand’s son Ferry, and Karl Rabe, who worked with Porsche at Austro-Daimler, and would remain chief engineer through 1966. Joseph Kales, who had served at Tatra and Skoda and an expert in air-cooled engines, also joins, as does designer Erwin Komenda ­— a key figure in the development of the Volkswagen Beetle and Porsche’s sports car DNA.

The firm goes on to develop vehicles for Zündapp, NSU, the mid-engine Auto-Union V-16 race cars and, most famously, the Volkswagen. But Ferdinand Porsche moves his company to Gmünd as the Allies bombing of Stuttgart intensifies in late 1943 into 1944, putting production at risk. The firm would work on military projects during World War II, before turning to the production of tractors, winches and hydraulic turbines at war’s end to survive.

Nonetheless, U.S. forces detain Ferdinand and Ferry Porsche, who are then imprisoned in France. Ferdinand remains behind bars for more than a year longer than Ferry, who is freed in 1946. Once his father is released, they begin working with Rabe on a new two-seat automobile in Gmünd. 

The birth of the 356

Ferry Porsche, middle, oversees the creation of the first Porsche sports car.

“In the beginning I looked around and could not find quite the car I dreamed of,” Ferry said. “So I decided to build it myself.”

It was contract to design the Type 360 Cisitalia Grand Prix car that provided the funds to develop Ferry’s sports car. Powered by a twin-supercharged flat-12, the car would lead to the company’s financial downfall.

Meanwhile, development continued on the car, which was initially dubbed the VW Sport. The car was constructed using a tubular steel frame and aluminum body panels and employing Volkswagen front axle, transmission and engine, albeit modified. 

As the design is perfected, and Porsche GmBH starts to assemble the 356. The car is hand-built, with 44 coupes and eight cabriolets built in Gmünd before permission is granted for the company to return to its Zuffenhausen facility near Stuttgart. By then, the car is displayed at the Geneva International Motor Show and with that, a legendary sports car — and sports car brand — is born. 

But on Jan. 31, 1951, Ferdinand Porsche dies of a stroke at the age of 75, His son Ferry carries on the family business, which sees its fortunes looking up.

Development continues on the car initially dubbed the VW Sport.

American importer Max Hoffman, a Porsche family friend, had begun importing Porsches to the United States in 1950, having started with Jaguar in 1948 before adding Volkswagen in 1949. Yet, even though he’s unable to make the Beetle a commercial success because of negative stereotypes about German goods, that doesn’t prevent him from importing Porsches. 

Ultimately, the 356 would prove popular for its simplicity, lightness and practicality. Despite its economy car roots, it would grow to become one of the world’s most-coveted sports cars. As for Ferry, he assumed that he would be able to sell approximately 500 Porsche 356s. Through 1965, the company would end up building nearly 78,000.

The 356 remained the company’s iconic touchstone, one that begat the 911, 924, 928, 944 and Cayman.

And the brand itself is now ranked as the world’s most valuable luxury brand by Brand Finance, the world’s leading brand valuation consultancy.

And it all started 94 years ago this week, in Geneva.  

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