Porsche 356 Buying Guide

Cooler than a 911? Yes! Still going up in value? Yes again! Straightforward to buy? Well... not always, so read our guide carefully

How much to pay

• Project £20,000-30,000 • Good £40,000-100,000 • Concours £100,000-350,000 •
• Most expensive at auction £679,627 (Carrera Speedster)

Overview

Practicality ★★★
Running costs ★★
Spares ★★★★
DIY friendly ★★★
Investment ★★★★
Desirability ★★★★

The 356 provided the foundation on which the Porsche legend was built: a rear-mounted, air-cooled ‘boxer’ engine, thorough engineering and a focus on driver involvement. Over the course of its 18-year production run, it offered everything from 1086cc and 40bhp to quad-cam 1966cc and 130bhp. Even ‘just’ the early Pre-A models came with 12 engine types and four bodystyles: Coupé, Cabriolet, America Roadster and Speedster.

The elegant 356 carries with it a classless appeal that has not only endured over the years, but has grown. It established the marque in America and, as with many Lotus models, proved throughout the 1950s that less could be more – 356s and their variants scored numerous giant-killing results in sports car racing, including the one-two class finish on the ’53 Carrera Panamericana that led to the introduction of the legendary ‘Carrera’ moniker.

Even now, a good one is a surprisingly practical classic and brilliantly rewarding to drive. Don’t be blinded by its curves, though – there are numerous pitfalls to trap the unsuspecting.

Your AutoClassics Porsche 356 inspection checklist

Engine

The 356 employed an air-cooled flat-four powerplant that was available in an extensive range of sizes and specifications. Specialist help will ensure the engine you’re looking at is what it’s claiming to be. With the exception of the four-cam Carrera unit, none of them is particularly complex. Check that the motor idles smoothly and doesn’t suffer from any misfires. While none of these units is exactly quiet, they should have that unmistakably even ‘thrum’, and you certainly don’t want to hear any knocks (which could point towards big-end problems) or rattles.

Check for oil leaks, which can occur around the valve covers. Anything more isn’t a good sign. Worn valve guides can show up via blue exhaust smoke, so check for that – plus evidence of regular oil changes. Parts supply is good if an overhaul is needed, but it’s not a cheap operation. Genuine components, in particular, can be very costly.

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Gearbox

All 356s featured a four-speed gearbox, and until 1952 it was a crash unit. From then on, it gained synchromesh on each ratio. All ’boxes are robust and should last well, with bearings being among the very few relative weaknesses. Listen for a rumbling sound on the test drive, and make sure – on later ’boxes – that synchromesh is strong on first and second gear.

Difficulty selecting ratios could just be down to the need for fresh bushes on the linkages. That’s relatively straightforward and inexpensive – a gearbox rebuild, if required, is not.

Suspension and brakes

The 356 used torsion bars at the front and rear, and you’ll need to make sure there’s no play in the bushes that support them. Ideally, you’ll be able to get the car on stands so that you can rock each wheel, placing one hand at the top and one at the bottom. Any movement is a sign that the kingpin needs replacing, which is expensive.

The steering box – worm and peg until 1957; worm and gear after that – needs to be kept lubricated. If it is, it should last well and offer nicely weighted, direct steering. Some owners tighten it up as a way to tackle wear, which only accelerates the problem.

The aluminium-alloy drum brakes that were offered until the 356C introduced discs are now costly to replace. Cars that have been stored for a long time can suffer from corrosion, which shows itself via a severe judder when you apply the brakes.

Bodywork

The condition of the body should be your number-one concern when looking for a 356. Check everywhere for corrosion. At the front, pay particular attention to the ‘boot’ floor, the inner and outer wings (the latter especially at their top-rear edge, which is difficult to repair so often not done properly) and the bulkhead. Then inspect the sills, floors and chassis members, before moving on to the B-posts, the bottom of the rear screen pillars, rear wings and rear valance. Don’t forget the jacking points or the locating panels for the rear torsion bars. Everywhere, basically.

Look at all of the panel gaps to ensure that they’re correct and even, and carefully inspect the car’s contours for signs of rippling or restorations that have been done on the cheap. It’s a complex shape to repair, with welded and leaded joins everywhere, and full restorations are correspondingly eye-watering in terms of cost. Also make sure the front and rear panels aren’t bent – they can be damaged by people slamming them.

Now that 356 values have shot up, people are more willing to spend the money on getting them properly restored. It’s a car that demands specialist knowledge and attention, so evidence of work having been carried out by one of the recognised experts is a very good sign. A 356 with bodged bodywork will quickly turn into a money-pit.

Interior

Inside, 356s are mostly simple and robust, with nothing that will be beyond a trimmer to restore. Some owners convert to 12-volt electrics, but it’s a complex operation and the 6-volt set-up is reliable as long as all of its connections are clean.

Make sure the carpets aren’t damp. If they are, it points to corrosion beneath. Also check for dampness on the trim underneath the Coupe’s rear window. On variants that feature a soft-top, check it raises and lowers properly, and that it’s in good condition. It should fit snugly and provide an impressively watertight seal.

The dashboard layouts changed over the years, with the famous central rev counter being introduced with the 356A. Even the windscreen style was modified – from two to one piece, then v-shaped to curved.

History

  • 1948: 356 launched in 1100 form
  • 1950: Production moves to Zuffenhausen
  • 1951: 1300 and 1500 variants added
  • 1954: 1100 dropped from range. Speedster and Carrera launched
  • 1955: 356A goes on sale as 1300, 1500 or 1600
  • 1959: 356B introduced with T5 bodyshell and in 1600 or 2000 form
  • 1964: 356C launched with T6 bodyshell and disc brakes
  • 1966: Production ends 

AutoClassics says…

Cynics point towards the 356’s Volkswagen heritage and early reliance on Wolfsburg components, but those links quickly disappeared as Porsche continued to develop its new baby. The Gmünd models, built in tiny numbers and with hand-beaten aluminium bodies, are now very rare and extremely valuable – as are the later Carreras – but such was the 356’s lifespan and rate of development that there should be something within the range for most tastes.

Speedsters are the most sought after, while Cabriolets generally command more than Coupes. With all of them, a rock-solid history is vital.

There are those who appreciate the purity of the Pre-A’s shape, but – as well as the revised T1 body – the 356A gained improved suspension and steering geometry, plus upgraded dampers. The intention was to tame some of the unwelcome handling characteristics of a rear-engined car, and over the years Porsche largely succeeded. Later cars now make sensible tourers.

If you’re at all unsure about what you’re looking for – and that wouldn’t be a surprise with such a bafflingly complex range – get a specialist to check it over.

Specifications

Pre-A
  Power 40-70bhp
  Top speed 99mph (1500)
  0-60mph 17sec (1500)
  Economy 25-37mpg

356A
  Power 44-115bhp
  Top speed 99mph (1600)
  0-60mph 16.5 sec (1600)
  Economy 25-37mpg

356B
  Power 60-130bhp
  Top speed 108mph (1600 Super)
  0-60mph 15sec (1600 Super)
  Economy 25-37mpg

356C
  Power 75-130bhp
  Top speed 108mph (1600)
  0-60mph 14sec (1600)
  Economy 25-37mpg

Picture courtesy of MagicCarPics

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