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Model Guide: 356 — The Simple Porsche

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Article by David Seeland
Photos courtesy David Seeland
Lead image: 356A restored by Willhoit Auto  Restorations

The information presented below is meant to be an overview of the 356, and key features that make them unique. PCA has a great Tech Q&A forum open to Test Drive participants and PCA members that cover issues with these Porsches and their remedies. Other online forums, such as Rennlist and Pelican Parts, can be excellent resources where you can find information covering ownership experiences, DIY projects, and quirks and intricacies of the cars. When you're ready to start looking for your 356, The Mart is a great place to start. And remember; always take your prospective Porsche to a qualified technician for a pre-purchase inspection.


The 356 was built from 1948 to 1965 in six major types: 356/2 (“Gmünd”), 356 ("pre-A"), 356A, 356B (T5 and T6), and 356C. To the eyes of a non-enthusiast they are nearly indistinguishable. All have a striking resemblance to an upside-down "bathtub." Water-cooled Porsches of any model have little in common with a 356 other than the Porsche script font and, depending on the model, a horizontally opposed engine behind the driver. Initially the 356 shared many parts with the contemporary air-cooled Volkswagen Beetle, but had a completely unique body structure with a more aerodynamic shape and a more powerful engine. 

The desire of car enthusiasts to own a 356 hasn’t always been so strong, but for whatever the reasons, know that many other people want to be owners of Porsche’s first sports car too. Only about 76,000 were made, with about 50% imported to the U.S. — 40% went to California — and natural attrition has reduced the number remaining in the U.S. to maybe about 20,000 (of which a large fraction are in the desert southwest). Dwindling supply and high demand has raised prices beyond the reach of many would-be owners.

And prices are considered high for a 356 right now — perhaps at a peak. So if a 356C coupe and a new Porsche are the same price, why not buy a new Porsche instead? One reason is because a new Porsche is guaranteed to depreciate for at least 20 years until it has lost 80% of its value. Will it then be sensible to restore a complicated, electronics-rich, 20-plus-year-old car? Perhaps not, and in that case it would continue its slide into hard-to-recycle scrap. Will the 356 still be restorable in 20 years? I see no reason why not because it is such a simple car. A 356 bought today may not depreciate and could continue to appreciate. Although the financial aspect favors the 356, it isn't why I would recommend buying one. I personally would choose the 356 because ownership is an adventure.

Pros of Owning a 356

  • The mechanical components are simple and straight forward and easy for the owner to repair or maintain. Later 356 mechanicals are well developed and more reliable than early models. 356s are cheap to maintain.
  • All 356 models have been appreciating. Rare 356s will appreciate more and, if the market turns around, will depreciate least.
  • They get good gas mileage and can keep up with freeway traffic easily
  • Internet will get you advice quickly, and parts are an overnight shipment away. 
  • Reasonably good passive safety
  • 356 parts specialists and Porsche dealers have between them almost all mechanical and body parts.
  • You can buy all the parts to build a new 2.0-liter four-cam engine from Capricorn if you want to go faster! Or about $30k will get you a 2.1-liter pushrod engine that may be more powerful than the four-cam, and look stock.
  • 356s are old enough to not need emissions testing in some states.
  • A 356 is an excellent vintage race car that is reliable and fast in its class.
  • The 356 Registry has an excellent magazine and website and Parade-equivalent "holidays," so technical advice is readily available.
  • Smile-inducing to drive, particularly open 356s (roadsters, Speedsters and cabriolets).
  • Air conditioning? No factory AC but can be added more cheaply than a sunroof or the premium paid for an open 356.

Cons of Owning a 356

  • There was little rustproofing and no galvanized sheet metal. The body will rust badly if the underside is not cared for in damp/salty environments.

Above: Metal replacement on pre-A coupe. Shiny metal is new. Steve Hogue Enterprises.

  • Slow compared to modern econoboxes.
  • Dealers don't usually have mechanics that are familiar with 356s, and many independents that used to work on them no longer have the expertise.
  • No modern safety equipment, some didn't even come with lap belts, and even fewer had shoulder harnesses — although they can and should be added.
  • Expensive to buy (nice coupes are near new-911 prices) except for derelict project cars that may never run again without budget-breaking expense or the use of all your spare time.
  • A 356 is not a good PCA drivers education car because, although nimble, a stock 356 is not very fast in a straight line. There’ll be too many point-bys and mirror watching to work on your driving skills. And how close to your rear bumper do you want that $5,000 944?
  • No emissions controls

356 Models

356/2 “Gmünd.” 1948 – 1952. Aluminum body/steel chassis. About 60 were built in Gmünd, Austria in both coupe and cabriolet body styles, with the coupe being much more common. Though the 356/2 looks very similar to later steel-bodied 356s built in Stuttgart, astute observers will notice differences such as the shape of the hood and the curved front quarter windows. All but the 356 SL came with bench seats. One engine was offered, displacing 1100cc, and made 40 horsepower. The factory modified a handful of coupes — less than 10 — for racing, and they were known as the 356 SL. The SL had aero under-body panels, fender skirts, and louvered rear-quarter windows.

Above: 356/2-058 at Le Mans in 1953. 

356 "pre-A." 1950 – Oct. 5 1955. Steel body and chassis. Built in Stuttgart, Germany. It had an engine with a VW-sourced two-piece crankcase until November 1954, when Porsche started using a three-piece crankcase of its own design. Engines  displaced 1100cc, 1300cc, and 1500cc, and made anywhere from 40 to 70 horsepower depending on displacement. All had dual single-throat carburetors. It rode on narrow 16-inch tires wrapped around 3.25-inch-wide wheels. There was no front anti-roll bar until November 1954. Pre-As had a two-piece windshield through 1952, then a single-piece windshield with a V-bend in the middle. A non-synchromesh VW transaxle was used through June 1952, before Porsche switched to a fully synchronized gearbox with Porsche-designed gears and synchromesh. The first Speedsters were introduced in October 1954 and could be equipped with 1300cc and 1500cc engines making anywhere from 44 to 70 hp. Perhaps the most mysterious 356 produced during the pre-A era was the America Roadster, of which 16 were built for racing in 1952 with aluminum bodies, and the last with a steel body. The first America Roadster came equipped with a 1300cc motor, while the other 16 had the 70-hp 1500 Super flat four.

Above: Early stage in reconstruction of 356 (pre-A), Steve Hogue Enterprises.

356A. October 1955 – September 1959. A number of engines were added to the model line at the start of 356A production, including the venerable 100-hp 1500cc four-cam Carrera motor. The largest pushrod four now available was 1600cc, while the 1100cc engines were dropped. For 1956, the 1500cc line of pushrod fours was also removed. Single-throat carburetors were replaced by Zenith twin-throat carbs in 1957. And by 1958, all pushrod motors were 1600cc. For 1959, all were 1600cc, including the Carrera engine, which made 115 hp in its most powerful iteration. The suspension changes introduced on the 356A resulted in the most significant improvement to the 356’s handling during the entire 356 production run. In addition to the front anti-roll bar introduced near the end of pre-A production, oversteer was further tamed by adding softer front springs, stiffening the anti-roll bar, and doubling the caster angle. Understeer was engineered into the chassis with updates to the steering linkage and softer rear suspension. Longer, more vertical rear shocks were also added. The wheels were widened to 4.5 inches and the diameter decreased to 15 inches. The windshield was now curved instead of bent. The dashboard was flat. Body styles included coupes and cabriolets and two types of roadsters, the iconic Speedster and its successor in 1959, the one-year-only Convertible D.


Above: David and Bette Seeland's 1958 356A coupe at the 2017 Porsche Parade in Spokane. Photo by Bette Seeland.

356B (T5 and T6 body styles). September 1959 – July 1963. A facelift resulted in the T5 body (1959-1961) with raised headlights and re-contoured, raised bumpers front and rear. The last facelift of the 356 was the T6 body in September 1961, which had a squared-off hood, and a larger windshield, rear window, and rear lid. The gas filler was moved to the top of the right fender. The rear lid had twin grilles. The 1600cc Super 90 engine was introduced with twin-throat Solex carburetors for 1960, and it made 90 hp. Zenith carburetors were retained on the Normal and Super models. The 1960 356 Carrera 1600GT coupe made 134 hp and was available through the end of 1961.  In 1962 the Carrera 2 was introduced, now with a 2,000cc four-cam flat four making 130 hp. Coupes and cabriolets were available in all years, while roadsters could be had from 1959 to 1962. By the way, what is a roadster? It has a chrome-plated removable frame around the windshield and a single-layer canvas top. A cabriolet has a thick, padded top and painted sheet metal around the windshield. The notchback body style (cabriolet with a hardtop welded on) was available from 1960 to 1962. Drum brakes were replaced by Porsche-designed annular discs — which do not resemble modern disc brakes — on the 1962 Carrera 2. Handling was further improved with softer rear torsion bars and a transverse rear leaf spring — called a camber compensator — which was standard on the Carrera 2 and Super 90 and optional on other models.

Above: 356B T6 roadster with Meinhart steel hardtop. 

356C. July 1963 – 1965. The final stretch of the 356 introduced the C and SC models. The SC and Carrera 2 engines used twin-throat Solex carburetors, making 95 and 130 hp, respectively, while the C had Zenith carburetors and the same 75 DIN horsepower as the previous 356B Super engine. Only coupes and cabriolets were offered. The biggest change was the addition of conventional disc brakes made by Ate to all 356 models. As well, the Carrera 2 made the switch from the annular discs fitted during the 356B era to the Ate units.

Above: 356C 2000GS Carrera 2, 40,000 miles, unrestored. 

Buying Advice

According to the Hagerty Insurance price guide (www.Hagerty.com), a "good" 356A 1600S coupe is worth slightly over $100,000, and a concours car is worth twice that. So you would prefer to buy an open car? Hang on to your wallet: A concours-level 1958 356A 1600S Speedster is worth about a half million dollars! A "good" example is “only” worth a quarter of a million dollars. Prefer a four-cam-engined 1500GS Carrera Speedster? Hagerty says that 356 is worth a paltry $1.25 million. A Gmünd? Want to bid against Jerry Seinfeld or Hans Peter Porsche? Maybe a plain-Jane 1965 356C coupe would be less pricey. Yes, but still not for the penurious when one in good condition can set you back around $75,000, likely more. Many coupes were made and the mean price of the four major coupe models (Pre-A, A, B, and C) in "good" condition is $100,000. Only 4,145 Speedsters were made, of which 151 — or 3.6% — were Carreras with four-cam engines. Perhaps 75 survived so finding a Carrera Speedster for sale is difficult. Finding one of the 30 or so surviving Gmünds for sale out of the approximately 60 built is even more difficult. As a general rule, overall desirability is reflected in the prices buyers are willing to pay for a specific 356 model. This guide won’t get much deeper into 356 price ranges — we recommend you check out other, more thorough tools dedicated to presenting that information, such as Hagerty’s price guide.

Where to Look

Concentrate your search efforts on cars that have spent most of their lives in areas that are less conducive to the development of rust such as the desert southwest. "California car" may not be enough. Beach cars get rusty. The northernmost parts of California get lots of rain. The important part of "desert southwest" is desert, and just because a car is for sale in Palm Springs now doesn't mean that the retired owner has always lived there. He and the car may have come from Buffalo, New York. Good mechanicals are a plus but are far outweighed by the absence of rust or rust repairs. "No rust" in most car ads means no rust now. You should aim for never rusty. "Never damaged" is also something to aim for. Ordinary accident repair is not done with the goal of making a perfect, undetectable repair, but rather to make it "good enough," which may mean that you’ll have to redo the repair. Removing and reattaching a front or rear clip that has been lap-welded more or less in the right place is expensive. If it isn’t fixed, the lap-weld will eventually cause rust perforation.

Best Concours 356

The rarest model you can afford is the best 356 for high-level concours such as Pebble Beach and Amelia Island, but if that isn't your goal, it’s probably better to find the most complete, simplest model with the lowest mileage and the best body to restore. No dents, no rust, no accident repairs — although minimal rust would be a more rational criterion, or you might never buy a 356. Perfection is usually a more important consideration than elegance in most concours competitions. Initial condition is therefore more important than the model.

Best Race Car

If you could find a relatively rust free 356A coupe body shell with no mechanicals, no interior, no gas tank, and no glass, it would be the perfect race-car raw material because you likely will use all 356C mechanical parts for race modifications anyway. Plastic windows are lighter and you will be using a fuel cell. On the other hand, just buying a complete race car would be quicker and might be cheaper, as they are generally worth quite a bit less than an original car. Vintage racing is more fun than anything else you can do with a 356 and may be cheaper than paying for concours-level restoration work. Living near local tracks or being part of a local vintage race group cuts down on travel time and expense. PCA Club Racing has also started to expand into vintage racing, for which the 356 qualifies. No space for a trailer? Flat towing is easy if tracks are nearby.

Above: 1959 356A , RMVR race at Second Creek Raceway, Commerce City, Colorado.

Least Expensive 356

There is a limit here because as the price approaches zero the cost (or time, your choice) to make a rusty wreck safely drivable becomes infinite. The cheapest models are T5 356B coupes, but 356C coupes are not much more expensive and they have disc brakes that are better and less expensive to fix. See above for where to look for less-rusty cars. Due to the pervasiveness of online classifieds, I think there is less regional variability in prices now compared to years past, so why buy a rustier car than you have to? It is better to buy a car with missing or bad mechanical components than a rusty one. Rusty floor panels scare a lot of people away, but they’re actually not difficult to replace, so the car could be a bargain — particularly if the engine is bad or missing. Don't buy a car like the one below.

Above: A 356C, the rustiest I've ever seen. 

Best Daily Driver

A 356C coupe with a sunroof would be best. Open cars are leaky and have poor outward visibility when the top is up, while some people say that "daily driver" and 356 are contradictory terms. However, if water can't penetrate the structure, doors, and lids of the car, a 356 won't rust (much). Great Lakes states and New England are probably too wet and salty to daily drive a 356 unless periodic re-restoring doesn't bother you. If you live in the desert, it won't rust if the window wipers are good and rust-prone areas are caulked. In all other places, careful sealing of all underbody seams, crevices, and the inside of the doors — plus frequent detailing of the underside, as though you were going to enter the car in a concours — is mandatory. To protect the underbody from rust, use epoxy or Rust-Oleum Rusty Metal Primer 7769 on bare metal, paintable caulk in crevices, followed by 3M Body Schutz or the Ditzler equivalent, and then paint over it with satin black enamel. Texaco Compound L was a popular spray-able grease-like material that is too messy for me in all but internal cavities. 

You must know where rust will form to be able to stop it, so study any rusty cars you come across carefully to understand what must be protected. The lack of depreciation of a 356 compared to a new Porsche should balance out the need for periodic de-rusting.

Most Fun for a Sunday Drive

Any open 356. Cabriolets are the most luxurious and the roadsters, which include the Speedster, are faster and lighter.

What to Look For

  • Matching numbers, meaning all the removable body panels should have the last three digits of the chassis number stamped on them. If not, why? The engine number should be the one listed on the Kardex or Certificate of Authenticity. Are the fonts correct? Look for signs of welding around and under the chassis number. There is a “secret” chassis number under the door hinge cover on the passenger side on model years 1962 through 1965. The chassis number should also be on a tag on the drivers side hinge cover.
  • If restored, did a well-known shop or individual that specializes in 356 restoration do the work?
  • Does it have a kinked hood just forward of hinge mounts or visible indications of a repair?
  • There should be no visible seam-welded panels. Porsche used spot welds. 
  • There should be no visible sheet-metal patches on the underbody.
  • Dent-free floor pan and longitudinals suggest they were replaced at some point. Replacement floors are not usually installed by spot welding.
  • Have the longitudinals been entirely replaced or is there a horizontal lap joint near door sill?
  • Original jack points have thicker-walled square tubing that does not extend outward as far from the sheet metal as do reproductions. Originals have a blunt look and are spot-welded to the longitudinals. 
  • Wrong type of engine, such as a three-piece crankcase on a 1953 car, instead of the correct VW-based two-piece unit. 356 Carreras came with a four-cam engine instead of the pushrod type found in other 356s, but pushrod motors have been swapped into Carreras before. Having the correct engine type and year is better, while an original engine with matching numbers is best. All three pieces of a three-piece case should be stamped with the same three-digit number. That said, an engine number could be stamped on a blank third piece or on a replacement two-piece VW case, so be sure to check that the font and "star" stamp are original. To identify whether a 912 engine has been swapped in, look for bosses with threaded nuts for a rear engine mount and the engine type, which is 616/36 or 616/40.
  • No pushrod engines ever had Weber carburetors. If the carbs are wrong the air cleaners and the manifolds are wrong too.
  • Any transmission in a 356A that has a cast-in pad for a camber compensator has a later — probably better but still incorrect — transmission. If a 356C has a transmission with no pad, it has a non-original, earlier transmission. Transmission serial numbers will tell you if it is original, but they are inaccessible without a floor jack or lift.
  • Poorly repaired nose, tail, or bumper sheet metal damage. Look for lumpy sheet metal or bondo “worms” on the backside, and don’t be fooled by the smooth body filler on the outside. A magnet and/or paint-depth gauge can also help determine the quality of body repairs.
  • Feel the thickness of the door skin folded around the door structure at the bottom of the door. It should be of consistent thickness — about 0.13 inches — unless it has irregularly bulged due to rust.
  • Karmann-bodied cars originally had round drain holes in the longitudinals.
  • Look for damaged tar-paper sound deadening material on either side of the panel above and to the side of the battery box on 356As (Speedsters excepted) and T5 356Bs. Front end damage is the usual reason the material is damaged or missing. 
  • Lap-welded joints six inches behind the headlights and down the center of the nose indicate either a whole front clip or a half clip poorly installed. They should be butt-welded not lap-welded. Similar lap-welds may be found at the rear, indicating the car was hit in the rear and a clip was welded on. 
  • Door and lid gaps should be 3mm and a flexible ruler laid flat horizontally across the vertical door gaps should not show a dip at the gap.
  • DOT numbers on tires will show their age, which should not be more than seven years.
  • 356A Carrera GT cars have rolled edges on the front and rear, the same as around the wheel openings. If you notice these rolled edges on a pushrod-engined car and the owner doesn't even realize they are there, you have hit the jackpot. A GT car should also have an 80-liter gas tank and 60mm front brake drums. There are both steel-  and aluminum-paneled GT Speedsters. If it is a coupe it should have aluminum panels (doors and lids). 
  • Rust bubbles sometimes occur behind the wire reinforcement along the edge of the wheel opening.
  • Rust bubbles can form on the horizontal area at the top of the rear fender and below the rear quarter window.
  • Inner rear wheel wells rust from inside the car because the sound deadening under the vinyl side trim becomes water saturated due to rear quarter window leaks 
  • Battery should be a 6V tar-top with external cell connectors.
  • The 356A should have a radio with ivory push buttons and knobs and have two units under the dash. Later radios have thinner, black push buttons and black knobs.
  • Seat padding should be felt, not foam. Seat cushions with a sharply defined glued-in transverse groove are incorrect. The proper tied-down pleat can be seen on vintage seat photos.
  • Look for rust repair inside the rear of the front fender along the door edge, and then open the door and feel the back edge of the fender. The rear of the fender is folded around the closing panel and makes a three-layer sandwich, as at the bottom of the door. It should also be about 0.13 inches thick. Poor repairs will have jagged, rusty, or lumpy areas.
  • Rust bubbles form along the sides of the hood opening on the inner edge of the front fenders because the caulking has failed at the top of the wheel well. 
  • Check for fender patches along the lock post inside the rear wheel well.
  • The lead at the horizontal lap joint between the rocker panel and both the front and rear fenders is prone to swelling because there is a factory lap joint here. 
  • After many years, in rare instances, the lead along the body openings develops cracks perpendicular to the edge of the openings.
  • Hoods rust along the front edges. Doors rust through the door skin an inch above the bottom edge and through the bottom. This commonly happens in areas near the ocean from salty fog condensing on the windows and running down inside the doors.
  • The closing panel behind the front wheel is made of two pieces of sheet steel and has a large lapped area in the middle that rusts through from water wicked in through the spot-welded lap. Spray from the front wheels removes the undercoat from the lap joint. The joint has no caulking. Once there is a rust hole the spray goes into the longitudinal, which first compromises the joint between the inner and outer longitudinals and the floor, and then water gets into the interior under the rubber mats. The floor becomes permanently wet and then rusts through in the low spots. 
  • The front wheel well closing panels bend rearward and are close to horizontal near their tops as they approach the underside of the fender. The factory inserted a large roll of caulk to keep water and debris out of this wedge-shaped recess at the rear of the fender and on top of the closing panel. It eventually shrinks away from the fender becoming a dam. Water and dirt and salt go over the top of the dam into the newly formed mud trap and the rust begins to eat through the top of the fender and through the surrounding body structure.
  • The oval fog light openings at the front of a 356B or C have a bracket that traps debris and causes the outer sheet metal to rust through behind the bumper if not cleaned out regularly, even on cars that are not otherwise showing rust. 
  • An area high up on the rear fender between the rear quarter window and the rear windshield corner has a horizontal row of spot welds that create a row of dimples in the paint surface when rust expands between the exterior sheet metal and an internal structural rib and tries to separate them. This is not easy to fix and prevention is better. Seal this area up from inside the rear wheel well before the problem starts. Someone who is less than completely ethical might just bondo over the dimples knowing that the dimples will take a while to reappear. Look for sand scratches and subtle waviness in this area.
  • Debris also accumulates on top of the rear of the "diagonal member," a V-shaped brace under the front of the body connecting the anti-roll bar mounts to the toe board bulkhead in the tunnel area at the front of the floor pan. Rust development at the tip of the V can provide an access point for water intrusion into the tunnel and the car interior.

So, having looked over the guide above, and not being quite sure what a longitudinal is — but it can't be that important — you are Googling "356 for sale." You thought a Speedster would be way too expensive but here is one in northern Minnesota for $75,000. But why are there palms and an ocean in the background of the photographs? A four-letter word: scam.

Stay away from scams, but not the Internet. Find several local 356s for sale and go look at them with a knowledgeable friend who can show you what to look for. Try to find a rusty car to inspect. It will be worthwhile to pay a restoration expert if you are short on expert friends. Next, I strongly recommend a trip to Southern California for a few days to look at 356s and visit Porsche restoration and sales businesses that sell and restore 356s. An organized way to do this is to attend the L.A. Lit and Toy Show at the LAX Hilton, whose 35th annual event will be in early March of 2018. Associated events include many shop tours and open houses in the two days prior to the event and the 356 Club's SoCal All-Porsche Swap and Car Display at the Phoenix Club in Anaheim the day after. Don't feel that just because you are there you have to buy a 356 right away. The primary purpose is education. Take lots of photos and notes. When you find what you think is the right car be sure to have an expert examine the car. It is better to miss a car because you are trying to be careful than buy a bad car. When you find and buy your 356, clean and maintain the underside and it will provide you with many miles and smiles.

Above: 356SC in the mountains. 

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