First Love: Porsche 356 Series

1958 Porsche 356A Speedster

You may not recall the name of the person who stole your heart as a child, but you can probably remember the model of car that you first fell in love with. For Elliot Mason it was the Porsche 356.


Elliot Mason falls in love. Manhattan Beach CA (1998)

Almost 25 years later, the love affair is still going strong, but the cost of courtship has increased somewhat. When it was launched in 1949, the price of Porsche's inaugural production vehicle was $3,750 for the coupe and $4,250 for the cabriolet - the equivalent of approximately $50,000 today... a sum that you may now expect to spend on a tired car in need of total restoration.


L-R: Erwin Komenda, Ferry Porsche, Ferdinand Porsche Snr., Porsche 356-001 (1948)

The 356 was the brainchild of Ferdinand "Ferry" Porsche. His father, Ferdinand Porsche Snr., was responsible for designing the Volkswagen Beetle, and the Porsche 356 clearly bears a family resemblance. The first prototype (356-001) was assembled in a converted sawmill in Austria, using a number of Beetle components, including the air-cooled flat-four engine that was tuned to increase power from 25 hp to 35 hp. It featured a space-frame chassis and handcrafted aluminium bodywork, both designed by Erwin Komenda (pictured above).


Porsche 356-002 (1948)

In March 1949, the Porsche 356-001 and sibling coupe 356-002 were unveiled at the Geneva Automobile Salon. The unknown marque did not receive much attention, and production for the first two years at the Austrian factory amounted to a total of just 50 cars, but in 1951 Porsche entered a 356 SL coupe into the 24 Hours of Le Mans and achieved a class win. The act was repeated the following year and Porsche became a recognised and respected name in the motorsport world.


Porsche 356SL. 24 Hours of Le Mans (1951)

In 1950, Porsche had switched their manufacturing location from Austria to Zuffenhausen, West Germany, and replaced its aluminium bodywork with pressed-steel panels, made under contract by Reutter Carosserie-Werke, allowing the company to scale production. In 1954, a four-cam "Carrera" racing engine was introduced, and continued success on road and racetrack saw orders increase to over 10,000 units in 1964. By the time 356 production ended in 1965, a total of 76,000 had been manufactured.


James Dean looking after his Porsche (1955)

Porsche exported its first 356 to the United States in 1950, and in 1955 the market accounted for 50% of the company's production. By 1965, that had increased to almost 75%. California represented the lion's share of sales, and the open-top Speedster naturally appealed to the West Coast inhabitants. Numerous Hollywood stars put themselves behind the wheel of a 356, including James Dean, who drove his Speedster on the road and raced it on the track... much to the dismay of his studio bosses.


Steve McQueen with his wife Niele and his first new car (1958)

Following his first major film and television roles in 1958, Steve McQueen bought his first new car - a black on black Porsche 356 Speedster with optional Rudge wheels. McQueen was an accomplished motorcycle racer, but hadn't driven a car around a track, until he entered the Porsche into a competition in Santa Barbara in May 1959, unsurprisingly winning his first race. He kept the car until the late 60s when he sold it to Beverly Hills real estate magnate, Bruce Meyer. Seven years later, he bought it back, and the Speedster remained in the McQueen family after his death in 1980. It is now owned by his son, Chad.


Sean Connery in his coupe. Wavel Mews, London (Dec.1961)

Scottish actor Sean Connery used a motorcycle as his daily transport in the 1950s. His career changing moment arrived in November 1961, when it was announced that he was cast for the role of James Bond. It was time to trade his bike for a motorcar. He chose a Porsche 356 Coupe, which was better suited to the British weather than the Speedster, although judging from the dent on the wing it was just as much fun to drive.


1959 Porsche 356A Coupe 

Connery's Porsche was a rare vehicle - less than a thousand right-hand-drive 356s, across all models, made it to the UK. It is estimated that half of the 76,000 cars produced for global distribution have survived, but the proportion is far less for the British export models. The damp climate was not kind to the complex body structure of the 356, and as rust set in and prices dropped, the majority of UK cars ended their lives on the scrapheap. Some right-hand-drive models were driven in sunnier climes, such as the example pictured above, that spent its life in South Africa before returning to Europe for a nut and bolt restoration.


1964 Porsche 356C. Hampton Court Palace (Sept.2021)

In 2021, David and Elliot Mason revived the historic automotive luggage brand, Brexton. Founded in 1920, the company made trunks and suitcases for Rolls-Royce and Bentley. The first commission for the relaunched business was a five-piece set of fitted luggage for David Gandy's 1964 Porsche 356C. Elliot seemed to think it was the perfect choice of motorcar - he's been saving his pocket money since 1998... only a few more years to go.

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