As is now well known, the first batch of Porsche 356 models was hand built in a small workshop in Gmund, a beautiful little resort in the Austrian province of Karnten where Prof. Ferdinand Porsche and his son ‘Ferry’ (now Professor F. Porsche) temporarily transferred their activities before returning to Stuttgart. Those first cars had all aluminium bodies and, as they were lighter than later production models, they were kept by the company for use in competition or sold to some selected competition drivers. They were fundamental in establishing the sporting reputation of the young company.
By 1950, production was transferred to Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen where it was housed in wooden barracks, while assembly took place in a workshop rented by Porsche at Reutters, the body builders. The Zuffenhausen-built cars mainly differed from the Gmund cars in having aa all-steel body of a generally similar shape. One development prototype was built before the start of the actual production and was run for two months before the first production car was delivered.
Those early Type X56 cars were what we would call today ‘Volkswagen Specials’ of which many were built in the early 1950's - and are still made today - mainly in the form of 'Dune Buggies'. The body structure was entirely original but, except for a few engine details, all the mechanical units were standard Volkswagen products. The engine, however, was fitted with special cylinder heads, having inclined valves of larger diameter than the Volkswagen's, with a special camshaft and twin single choke carburettors, while the cylinder bore was reduced from 75mm to 73.5mm to bring the car down into the 1100cc class. The bottom end, cooling fan, etc. were unaltered. In this form, the engine developed 40 (DIN) bhp, an increase of 15bhp over the Beetle of the period.
A major contribution to the new car's success was the fact that an agreement was concluded with Volkswagen to sell and service Porsche cars through their own organisation, while further confidence was inspired because the new sports car was developed by the creator of the Volkswagen himself and his design team, rather than being more or less amateurishly evolved from somebody else's original design. Also, of course, Prof. Porsche (1875-1951) was known as one of the world's leading automobile engineers and the creator of the immensely successful mid-engined Auto Union racing car from which many basic VW features were borrowed.
As soon as production had started in Zuffenhausen, the Type 356 was under constant development and improvements were made from year to year: engine capacities were increased up from 1100 to 1300, 1500 and finally 1600 cc and there were 'normal' and 'S' variants in all sizes except the 1100 cc. A gearbox incorporating an early version of the famous Porsche synchromesh system replaced the VW 'crash' box at the end of 1952, while brakes, steering and running gear were improved in various steps, disc brakes being fitted when the 356 'C' series was introduced in July 1963. Meanwhile, a baulking mechanism had been added to the synchronising system. There were some styling changes, too, like the replacement of the V-shaped windscreen by a curved one in 1953, a larger rear window in 1961 and various bumper styles, though the basic body shape - which had a remarkably good drag coefficient of around 0.38 (progressively rising to 0.41 for high bumper models) - remained unchanged throughout.
A comparatively small number of 356 models were also produced with the four overhead camshaft 'Carrera' engine designed by Porsche's later Managing Director, Dr Ernst Fuhrmann, which had nothing in common with the original VW engine. This was first conceived as a racing engine and was used successively in 1500 and 1600 cc forms, both with roller bearings, then in 2 litre form with plain bearings, in the years 1957-1963.
Though by the end of the 1950's little was left of the Type 356's VW ancestry except the basic design, even in the pushrod models, it was clear that the development was quickly catching up with the limits of the basic concept. Though good for 125 mph, the Carrera could remain only marginally competitive, since it offered little room and comfort for its very high price, while the fastest pushrod model of 1960, the 'Super-90' with a top speed of 115 mph and capable of reaching 60 mph in 11 seconds, was getting a bit pressed by the much more comfortable and quiet high class saloons of the time like the Mercedes 220 SE and the Jaguar 3.4s and 3.8s which also handled no worse than the Porsche. Even the Citroen DS was a problem on the Autobahn, as it was not really safe for the Porsche's engine to be cruised indefinitely at over 100 mph.