356-001 begins the story

On June 8, 1948, Porsche completed the first car to bear its name, the 356-001 prototype.

With it Ferry Porsche sketched a dream that ultimately would be realized with the Boxster, unveiled as a concept car 45 years later.

 Mid-engined, seating two, light weight – these were the basics of the car Ferry and long-time engineering associate Karl Rabe began planning in 1947.

Admittedly the Volkswagen-Porsche 914 of 1971 was a closer approximation to that vision than our Boxster, because both were powered by Volkswagen engines chosen for their low cost.

But the Boxster stands as the more fully realized, 21st century expression of Ferry Porsche’s vision.

What shaped that vision? Start with Piero Dusio, who had made a fortune outfitting the Italian army during WW2.

In February, 1947, Dusio’s Cisitalia (Compagnia Industriale Sportive Italia) engaged the Porsche engineering bureau to design a world-beating formula race car. So rich was this contract, it financed both Ferdinand Porsche’s release from prison in France and Porsche’s move from engineering consultancy to auto production.

When Ferry and Rabe visited the Cisitalia works in Turin, Italy, on the race car project, they saw what Dusio was already achieving by combining tube frame chassis and Fiat motors and suspension parts.  

The Italian’s concept of elegant coachwork enclosing inexpensive components was exactly what they had in mind for their own car, but far closer to realization.

As Karl Ludvigsen tells the story in his landmark history, PORSCHE: Excellence was Expected, project Type 356 officially began on July 11th, 1947, for a two-roadster based on Volkswagen parts.

Drawings of the frame and body were completed on July 17th. The wheelbase was anticipated to be 82.7 inches, the dry weight 1,220 pounds. As with the Boxster almost half a century later, the finished product would be larger: 84.6 inches and 1,330 pounds. 

The prototype ran under its own power for the first time in March, 1948. Hand-built in Gmund, Austria where the Porsches had located during WW2 to escape the bombing of Stuttgart, Friedrich Weber had hammered the body panels into shape in only two months following Erwin Komenda’s design drawings.

In the last week of May, 1948, 356-001 began extensive testing on public roads with Ferry Porsche deeply involved. In fact he was at the wheel when 001’s rear suspension failure ended one endurance run up the Grossglockner Pass.

Why June 8 became acknowledged as the date marking the car’s creation is unclear. Ferry Porsche, in the book he wrote with Gunther Molter, Cars Are My Life, stated 356-001 was completed June 8th – so it may have been as simple as the boss signing off on the project.

The public debut followed almost a month later. In the last week of June 356-001 was driven from Gmund to Bern, Switzerland, where a car dealer had arranged for prominent journalists to drive the new Porsche prior to the Swiss Grand Prix, July 4.

The journalists gave 001-356 rave reviews. But Ferry decided against putting it into production. He judged its tube-frame construction too expensive and anticipated a coupe would have wider appeal.

Again, Piero Dusio’s influence may have been in play. The stunning Cisitalia 202 GT coupe unveiled at the 1947 Paris Auto Show, the 202 GT, had been a sensation. Erwin Komenda’s 356 coupe, then under development several steps behind 356-001, rivaled the Cisitalia 202 GT but could be manufactured at much lower cost.

Events proved Porsche correct.  The Cisitalia 202 GT failed despite its classic beauty because its tiny Fiat engine couldn’t justify its high price. Of a planned production run of 500, only 170 were made between 1947 and 1952. Whereas, the Porsche’s 356 coupe’s sales were in ascendancy over its first five years. 

Porsche might have manufactured the roadster as well as the coupe, but reaking even took precedence.  A production 356-001 would have sold in lower numbers, likely at a loss, even as its mid-engine and tubular frame reinforced Porsche’s reputation for advanced engineering – as the 550 race car, the direct inspiration for our Boxster, would beginning in 1953.

One thought on “356-001 begins the story”

  1. Hello. I made a Christmas time purchase of a 2005 Boxster S, manual transmission. This is my first Porsche, to join a long line of sports cars I have owned over the years. I’m hoping to get some good runs in this summer, and being in the very north of Halton, there are nice handling roads close by. The car needs a little tinkering to correct a few minor issues, and I’ll tackle those once the foot deep snow is gone.

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