It’s fairly common sports car knowledge that the 356 was the first production Porsche, but did you know about the prototype that came before it? Prior to the production Porsche 356 that came out in 1948, the 356/1 laid the groundwork for what the car – and the whole brand – would become.
Porsche built the 356/1 as an experiment. It was used to determine what the production car would look like, what kind of proportions and weight it would have, and maybe most importantly, how many Volkswagen parts they could get away with using.
The biggest and most obvious difference between the 356 and the 356/1 is the engine placement. The 356 is famously rear-engine, but the 356/1 prototype was mid-engine. They put the engine between the axles in an effort to optimize weight distribution, but ultimately decided to make the production car rear-engine. Ferry Porsche wanted the 356 to be a compact sports car with a measure of practicality and everyday usability. This required a back seat making rear-engine a more appropriate layout.
Aesthetic differences are fairly noticeable between the prototype and the production car. The aluminum body of the 356/1 was designed by Porsche team member Erwin Komenda. The car had no roof and a less pronounced bulge in the back of the car than the production 356 since the engine was pushed up farther towards the driver. This made the car look sleek and aerodynamic, but it also looked bit like a throat lozenge. It’s easy to argue the production car was better looking. It had a two-piece, frameless windshield, no cooling vents on the back, and “Porsche” lettering on the front not unlike what you’d find on the back of a modern Porsche.
The Porsche 356/1 was powered by a modified version of the Volkswagen Type VW369 1.1 liter flat-four cylinder engine. In Volkswagens this engine only made 25 horsepower, but after Porsche put on modified cylinder heads with larger intake valves and ports and gave it a higher compression ratio, it was cranking out closer to 40 horsepower.
That isn’t the only piece of VW kit they were able to use. Ferry Porsche really wanted his cars to be reliable. He was much more interested on focusing his efforts on making a unique, spectacular sports car. Porsche was working on perfecting the body and the chassis and didn’t want to have to worry about designing every single part of the car from the ground up. The more existing VW parts the 356/1 could use, the better. A few of these parts included the front suspension, the steering rack, and a modified version of the rear suspension to accommodate the mid-engine design.
The Porsche 356/1 was an important car in the brand’s history. It was ahead of its time in some ways – Porsche didn’t make a mid-engine production car until the 914 over twenty years later. It was truly the beginning of a long legacy. It was visibly aerodynamic, just the right size, and above all else, fun to drive.