Car styles come and go, but few have endured the test of time like Porsche's original sports car, the 356. With its smooth flowing contours and distinctive roof line, the 356 was the dawn of the modern-day Porsche and is still one of the most recognizable car brands on the road today.
In the Beginning
Following in his father's footsteps, Ferry Porsche did what he was born to do - build cars. He began as a draftsman and test driver for Porsche Motors, which was founded by his father, Dr. Ferdinand Porsche. His design talent and keen business sense didn't go unnoticed, and he quickly became more involved in the daily operations. His vision to build his own sports car was realized when the first Porsche 356 rolled off the production line in 1948. More than 76,000 356s were sold before halting production in 1965. "We naturally hoped that this automobile would please others as well, so that we might sell a few of them. But I never expected it to be so many," said Ferry Porsche. Then, in 2004, "Sports Car International" deemed the 356C to be one of the top ten sports cars of the 1960s. With a winner like this, it isn't surprising that a new version of the Porsche 356 is scheduled to go back into production in 2013.
Early Porsche Racers
Successful in motorsports from the start, the Porsche 356 won its first street race only one month after its completion. In 1951 a 356 Light Metal Coupe won at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, at an average speed of 140 km/h.
In 1953, Porsche introduced a more refined racer, the 550. In that same year, two specially-prepared 550s dominated the 24 Hours of Le Mans in their first year of competition, taking first and second place. It went on to win races at the Italian Mille Miglia, Sebring, and the German Grand Prix. Fans of this little race car appropriately named it the "Giant Killer." The 550's continuous popularity has led to a rise in modern-day body shops specializing in replicas of this popular Porsche racing model.
Celebrities and Early-Era Porsches
Porsche personifies excitement and luxury, and celebrities are well known for their fondness for both. With the financial means to indulge themselves, it is no wonder that they would be drawn to automobiles that are distinctive and outside the mainstream.
Steve McQueen's first new car was a 1958 black convertible Porsche 356. He raced it in SCCA events, and won his first time out. This car was one of his favorites, and remains a prized possession of his family.
Possibly the most notorious incident surrounding a celebrity and an early-era Porsche sports car involved James Dean, a young super star of the '50s. Dean, who was known to be fascinated with speed, was driving his brand new Porsche, on his way to a road racing event, when another car turned in front of him. The driver of the other car sustained only minor injuries, but Dean did not survive.
As further proof of its appeal, Hollywood showcased the Porsche 356 in several movies, either in prominent roles or cameos. Some of the more well-known movies are "Harper," starring Paul Newman, "Another 48 Hours," starring Eddie Murphy, "Top Gun," starring Tom Cruise, and "Doc Hollywood," starring Michael J. Fox. In total, the Porsche 356 has appeared in more than 50 films.
Today's Porches - Boxters, Caymans, 911s, Panameras, and Cayennes - remain at the pinnacle of desirable sports cars. With options that include twin-turbo power plants generating amazing amounts of horse power to advanced suspension systems, these cars continue to be the vehicle of choice of those who want a piece of the Porsche legacy. Unlike other car manufacturers who change designs based on the latest trend, this German sports car has a clear unbroken lineage back to its beginning. After more than 60 years, the Porsche 356's winning design has not grown old, and is clearly recognizable in the company's latest models.