Driving a 1956 Porsche 356 Speedster made me a believer
There's a common axiom among car journalists: Don't drive your heroes. It's a riff on the more universal sentiment, "don't meet your heroes," the idea being that whatever personal idolatry you've fostered in your mind about someone or something can't possibly be lived up to in real life. But what if the hero in question isn't yours, it's someone else's? That's what came to mind as I slipped into the tiny, leather-covered bucket seat of this 1956 Porsche 356 A 1600 Speedster. This elemental, upturned bathtub of a sports car is an icon among icons, and not just because it's the genesis of Porsche as a brand. And yet, as I clicked its driver's door home for the first time, I admit I had more respect than love for the 356.
Porsche's rear-engine, air-cooled 356 is about as uncomplicated as cars get -- then or now. I've always admired the simplicity of its form and appreciated its lineage, but I've historically fallen somewhat short of veneration for this German standard bearer. It's older than the cars I grew up coveting, and for whatever reason, I tend to be less interested in models that are routinely knocked off by the replicar industry. The fact that 356 prices have rocketed far out of sight into the land of unobtainium has probably also served to temper my enthusiasm.
Funnily enough, it took being in the company of many far-more-modern, far-more-powerful Porsche convertibles for me to fall in love with this car, and fall hard. The automaker recently invited me to Hawaii to drive five dream generations' worth of its convertibles, including everything from today's 911 Turbo Cabriolet and 718 Boxster T to classics like the 964 Carrera S Cabriolet, as well as rarities like the 944 Turbo Cabriolet and an original 986 Boxster.
I was excited to finally check the 356 off my must-drive list of benchmark cars, but the truth is, I was more enthusiastic about getting behind the wheel of the iconoclastic 914/6 and the 944 Turbo Convertible, a variant of a car I love that we never received in the States. The fact that my drive took place on the Big Island of Hawaii and included Porsche's latest and greatest along with classics air-freighted directly from the Porsche Museum Collection in Germany... Well, I don't have to tell you how special this opportunity was. After a couple of days of back-to-back driving this menagerie of Stuttgart specials, from today's absurdly rapid and sublimely forgiving 911 Turbo Cabriolet to the quirky 914/6 and the under-appreciated original Boxster, it's this 356 Speedster that unexpectedly burrowed its way into my heart, revealing itself to be far and away my favorite.
The 356 entered production in 1954 and immediately became a sensation. This slightly later 1600 A model boasted a 1,582-cc air-cooled boxer four-cylinder, substantially larger than the 1,300-cc units that some 356s were fitted with. This engine only produces around 60 horsepower, so the name Speedster might sound like a misnomer, but with no side windows, no sound insulation and no "power" anything, it's just you, your bravery and your talents (or lack thereof). There aren't even any seatbelts, and the tiny shell seats feel more like stadium cushions than anything you'd expect to find in an automobile. The 356 may not be speedy by modern standards, but it still feels it.
Depending on who you believe and which state of tune the 1.6-liter engine left the factory in, period acceleration times ranged between 12.5 and 16.5 seconds to 62 mph -- an absolute eternity by modern standards. Yet in practice, this sub-1,700-pound 356 doesn't just feel adequately quick, it feels surprisingly rapid. In fact, this car's sensation of speed is so utterly convincing that in the video accompanying this writeup, I foolishly ballparked a 0-to-60-mph time of around 9 seconds.
When I'm testing new cars, my internal accelerometer can usually guesstimate a vehicle's 0-to-60 time to within a half-second, even without attempting standing-start runs, but this cherry-red roadster completely threw off my internal stopwatch. There's just something about period mechanicals and increased vulnerability that dramatically heightens one's impression of speed. In that vein, this 356 feels like an old roller coaster car, only it doesn't have a locking steel bar to hold you in place should it all go wrong. With its some-assembly-required soft top removed and its delicate cut-down windshield header at scalp height, visibility of the outside world -- and the immediacy with which it enters your headspace -- is unparalleled. Period drum brakes only heighten the vividness of the experience.
You're just so damn busy when driving a 356 that you can't possibly get bored. There's no time for driver distraction, let alone anything in the cabin that would oblige such indiscretions. You're forever minding the thin three-spoke wheel (a gorgeous metal and mahogany Nardi), working the pedals and swizzling the four-speed manual gear shift. The latter is a wispy wand capped by a small, scriptless knob that requires shepherding between the ratios. Throws are on the longish side, at least fore-aft, and there's no springy, return-to-center tendency to help guide you between gates. That said, the shifter is simultaneously easy to get the hang of and rewarding. So, too, is the friendly, lightweight clutch. Good thing, as with such little power, you're forever on the cusp of changing gears. In modern stick-shift Porsches, you might only need to swap cogs once to get up to freeway speeds, and where's the fun in that?
On second thought, I may be exaggerating a bit about that apparent lack of power, as the twin-carb engine is surprisingly torquey. Period figures quote 81 pound-feet of the stuff, enough to make second- and third gear feel wonderfully flexible.
Even with the extraordinary refinement and power baked into modern sports cars -- not to mention all of the electronic safety nets -- it's hard to understand how isolated today's performance automobiles can be from the sensation of speed until you drive something like this vintage Speedster. I sampled the 2022 Porsche 911 Turbo nearly back-to-back with this 356, and while you can see and appreciate their shared lineage, their driving experiences are so different as to be utterly alien. At least on public roads, you simply can't go fast or go hard enough in a modern 911 to trick your brain into pumping the same quantity of dopamine and adrenaline that a 356 mainlines into your soul at a third of the speed -- at least not without going to jail or bending something. Today's 911s are so tractable and their limits so high that if you happen to spot one wrinkled and steaming on the side of the road, it's a sure bet the driver ran out of talent long before their car did.
To be honest, glorious tropical sights and amazing indigenous history aside, Hawaii isn't a particularly great place to drive sports cars. The road network is so sparse that it's hard to find interesting sections unimpeded by dawdling tourists or delivery trucks. What's more, during my brief trip, it was unseasonably cold and it rained intermittently, giving me the opportunity to reacquaint myself with how truly feeble 1950s windshield wipers are.
None of this is actually a complaint, though, because when driving this 356, it's a pleasure to take nature's challenges in stride, distractions melting away with every blip of the throttle. It's simply too much fun to rev this Porsche's fizzy engine, the accelerator providing a welcome haptic-feedback warning through one's shoe sole that the flat-four's 5,500-rpm redline approaches. It's too much fun to manage weight transfer and conserve momentum railing through corners on those skinny, pizza-cutter tires. It's too much fun to gawk at the gorgeous mint-green typefaces on the analog gauges.
It's even too much fun to stop and worry that you're driving a rare Porsche that only counts around 24,000 kilometers (15,000 miles) on its odometer. Cars of this originality regularly command $350,000 to $400,000, and with this particular classic's museum provenance, it wouldn't surprise terribly if it brought a half-million dollars or more (not that Porsche would ever let it fall into private hands).
This is the first and probably only time I'll ever get to drive a real 356, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have done so. After all this time, I finally understand the enthusiasm, the idolatry and even the sky-high valuations that accompany this legendary automobile. In fact, I enjoyed the experience so completely that despite my decades-long predisposition against replicas, I've lately found myself browsing car-auction websites like BringATrailer.com. Good secondhand replicas from respected companies like Beck and Intermeccanica can be had for $30,000 to $60,000, so while still expensive for a plaything, the idea of parking an homage in my garage isn't even a complete pipe dream.
Despite wider industry trends, Porsche continues to cultivate a steady, profitable output of manual transmission trims among its more hardcore driver's cars, and good as its current 911 and 718 ranges are, a drive in this vintage 356 has me wondering if the company wouldn't do well to produce a truly stripped-down, lightweight and more-affordable roadster in this mold. They could pitch it as a final, purist's send-off to internal combustion before the whole company goes electric. Hell, who knows -- it might even work as an EV.
None of this will happen, of course, but a man can dream, right?
Editors' note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.