A rich racing heritage is baked into every Porsche. An early chapter in Porsche racing history is in their first production car, the 356. While it was primarily a road car, many 356’s spent plenty of time on the track. It was a popular racecar because it took little – if any – modification to make it race-ready.
The rear-engine configuration was unique for a sports car. This made it excellent for rally racing. All the 356 needed was some beefy, off-road tires, some extra lights, and maybe a suspension modification to be ready for a rally event. Rally racing was very popular in Europe at the time the 356 was new.
One of the earliest specific examples of a serious Porsche 356 racecar is the 1951 356 SL. The “SL” stood for Sport Leicht. It had a race tuned 1500 Super engine which was still experimental at the time. It broke a world record at the Autodrome de Montlhéry, a racetrack in a small town south of Paris where the French Grand Prix took place.
The record was driving for 72 hours at 94.66 mph. The 356 SL had various aerodynamic modifications like steel rear window louvers, fully skirted wheels, and aluminum belly fairings. These cars competed at Le Mans and one finished first in its class at the Liège-Rome-Liège rally race.
Another famous racing Porsche is the 356A Carrera GT. This was the track-oriented version of the Carrera. It was stripped of amenities on the inside including the heater which earned the car the nickname of “icebox.” There was no sound deadening, the windows were acrylic, and they had simple door panels all of the sake of weight reduction. Mechanically, it was only slightly different than the de Luxe model intended for road use, the main mechanical differences were the heater delete and a sport muffler.
The 356A Carrera GT found racing success in the Liège-Rome-Liège rally race, the same one the SL once won. In 1957, a Carrera GT won and the very same car finished fifth place at the Tour de France Automobile. A pair of Carrera GTs with bigger 1529 cc engines won their class at the 1957 12 Hours of Reims endurance race.
In the late 1950’s, Porsche shopped around for a company to build a new lightweight 356 body for racing and decided on Abarth. Abarth made a body that was smaller, lighter, and had lower drag than the regular 356 body. The resulting car was the Porsche Abarth 356B Carrera GTL. A rough prototype of the car managed to win its class at the Targa Florio endurance race in 1960 and again the following year. It also won its class at Le Mans one year finishing tenth overall. In another endurance race victory, it won its class at the 1962 12 Hours of Sebring.
Just as the Porsche 356 endured in grueling races, it has endured the test of time over the decades. It’s still an outstanding sports car and one of the most fun vintage cars to whip around a track.