11 December 2007

The Introduction of the Porsche Type 356

The Porsche 356 was a two-seater based on the Volkswagen, code-named Type 356 after its design office number. With Fiat-based Cisitalia sports cars as an inspiration, the first Type 356 had a tubular frame; and its body, designed by Erwin Kommenda, was the first to bear the legendary name Porsche, cast in a logotype that is almost unaltered to this day.

The Type 356 cars that followed had a platform chassis like the Volkswagen, but retained the same basic mechanical lay-out and Kommenda's distinctive body. Why change the chassis so soon? That is a question that might be asked about the myriad changes to Porsches ever since. The reason is simple; Porsche people are perfectionists and, because the cars have always been produced in relatively small quantities, it has been easy to change things in detail. Wherever the technical wizards could see a way of improving a component they would, usually after testing it on a racing Porsche.

The result has been a stream of fascinating, complex and confusing cars, each one almost invariably a little better than the one before. But as their logo remained unaltered, so did their basic lay-out for 27 years: with only a brief flirtation with open-wheeled racers, they have all been rear-engined, air-cooled, all independently sprung sports cars. Only since 1975 have there been more conventional front-engined, water-cooled Porsches, and they are still true sporting cars.

By 1951, high-performance versions of the 356 were racing at Le Mans as a result of a plea by the race's organizer, Charles Faroux, who had helped free the professor from prison. Ferdinand Porsche lived long enough to see his 356 coupes win their class in the French race and establish themselves as a great force in Continental rallying. He had a stroke in the autumn and died the following year, leaving his company in the hands of his son, Ferry, with the Piech family for support. Hardly anything changed at Porsches. Production was transferred to Zuffephausen, near Stuttgart, West Germany but the cars were the same, constantly developing versions of their creator's original work.

By 1952, the Porsche company was deeply involved in racing as a way of promoting its cars and it was apparent that they needed a new engine for more power. One of Porsche's younger designers, Dr Ernst Fuhrmann, was given his head and produced an advanced four-overhead-camshaft flat four-cylinder unit with Ferry Porsche and chief engineer Karl Raabe who was one of the old professor Porsche's first employees, looking over his shoulder.

This high-revving engine was installed in a racing Porsche with spyder, or skimpy open, body and the car given a new type number, 550.

Porsche's American agents encouraged the production of these highly specialized vehicles which, in ever-improving form, took the German firm through top-class competition in the 1950s; and as the Spyders spent their time racing, the 356, in continually developing form, provided the production backbone and competed in classes for more standard cars.

As the Spyders developed, they became more like open-wheeled racing cars in concept and little modification was needed to enter them in Formula 2 events from 1957. These cars were an immediate success and when the capacity of Formula 1 cars was limited to 1.5 liters - Porsche size - in 1961, the men from Zuffenhausen plunged into grand prix racing with great enthusiasm.

This ultimate form of competition proved to be too expensive for them, however, and Porsche retired after two seasons with only one victory of note - in the 1962 French Grand Prix - despite spending a fortune on developing a new flat-eight engine.

The sports-racing and production cars were stilt very successful so they decided to concentrate on them. Ultra-lightweight Spyders made the European Mountain Championship their own, as befitted cars with an Austrian origin. High performance road and rally cars were produced bearing the name Carrera to commemorate their class win in the Carrera Panamericana, a gruelling Mexican road race with an especially emotive appeal to their biggest market on the west coast of America. They backed up the Spyders, winning such classics as the Targa Florio road race in Sicily.

The world of Porsches is steeped in history and traditional values, but not even the Porsche manufacturing plants would be the same without the humble fork lift truck. The introduction of the electric fork lift improved the efficiency of manufacturing plants the world over.

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