The need for speed… California loved the stripped-down Porsche 356 Speedster’s performance and looks. We take the UK sea breeze in a 1500 and Carrera to find out why Words Adam Towler. Photography Tim Andrew.
COVER Hitting the coast in Porsche 1500 and Carrera Speedsters. Porsche 356 Speedster Porsche’s glamour-puss proved beyond doubt that less really is more. We take a 1500 and a Carrera on a memorable back-to-back test drive.
Ahead, the cliff edge conceals a sheer drop to the shimmering blue sea far below. The only discernible sounds are “are” the constant cries of the seagulls circling overhead and the gentle hum of excited under-the-breath conversation from the ever-increasing throng of onlookers. The summer sun beats down on my back. Life feels good. I step self-consciously through the small crowd, open the black 356 Speedster’s delicate door and settle into the cabin as coolly as I can manage. I don’t feel very cool at all in truth because I’m three feet from the edge, and selecting the correct gear is literally going to be a matter of life or death. Bizarrely, I’m more worried about plunging a quarter-million pounds’ worth of classic Porsche to its doom far below than I am for my own safety.
At this point I should confess that we haven’t just pulled off Highway One and it isn’t the Pacific Ocean spread out before us – it’s actually the English Channel and we’re in the shadow of Portland Bill lighthouse. But it doesn’t take much imagination to place myself in California during its sizzling mid-Fifties pomp, with great roads, authentic Drive-Thrus and golden sand. It was a world of glamorous young Hollywood actors wearing big sunglasses, with a love of speed and the means with which to indulge it. They would perhaps have just discovered an unusual little sports car from Europe that has a bit of a sting in its tail.
Today we have the rare privilege of comparing two Speedsters – one with a pushrod engine, the other with the later four-cam engine. It’s a genuinely big deal to be in the presence of the real thing but I keep expecting to field the inevitable question, ‘Is it genuine?’ I fire up J1956’s little four-cylinder engine and listen as it settles to a thrumming idle overlaid with a familiar Beetle-esque rasp. It’s been tweaked to deliver more than the factory 55bhp, but even so this car is all about making the most of what modest power it has. With what feels like a hundred pairs of eyes fixed on me, I edge out on to the coastal road and head inland.
Rarely is the view from a car quite so evocative. The sensuous expanse of bodywork ahead rises and falls like the Chiltern Hills, the broad sweep of low-cut windscreen makes me feel exposed to the elements and in my closer field of vision I can see the basic, mostly painted metal dashboard inlaid with a handful of elegantly simple VDO instruments.
With the slim-rimmed but oversized steering wheel wedged in my lap and my feet hovering above the offset pedals, the driving position forces my legs outwards at different heights, one knee in particular contorted at an angle I never knew it was capable of. I reach for the large cream ball topping off the lever sprouting from the floor and push the floor-hinged clutch pedal. I snick it into first and the little Speedster darts forward with the sort of effortless zest only a truly lightweight car can summon.
Driving it soon becomes second nature. The steering loads up in the corners, more so than you might expect from such a light car, and all the while my mind is flashing a big red warning about the rear-mounted engine and swing axle suspension. And yet the Speedster always feels agile and surefooted even at enthusiastic cornering speeds – it’s a blast. Right now it’s not prudence currently curtailing my outright pace, but the inevitable glut of coastal traffic clogging the road ahead.
My only eye-widening moment comes on a long straight road, exposed to the sea on one side and an estuary on the other. Possibly egged on by a brisk crosswind, the Porsche suddenly feels skittish and starts to wander disconcertingly. Matters improve when I back off, so I make a mental note to keep a close eye on the Speedster’s trajectory the next time the speedometer needle begins to climb. I switch to the white car and its Carrera engine sounds very different and rather sophisticated after the earlier pushrod’s cheery chug. It’s smooth, but the crisp edge to the distant flat-four beat snaps into a full-on rasp with a dab of the throttle. I’ve never heard anything quite like it.
I’m sweating profusely as I pull away, and not just because of the unrelenting sun – this car is eye-wateringly valuable. But it doesn’t take long for early anxiety to give way to raw excitement. This is an astonishing little car; its engine thrives on revs and the performance is impressive even by modern standards. The splayed driving position with the large gearknob angled towards me is familiar but the controls feel somehow lighter and more accurate than they do in the pushrod car. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that this 356A is left-hand drive – as it was engineered to be – but the Carrera engine is smoother and there’s a polish to the whole car that belies the single year separating the two.
I could really get carried away with this if I’m not careful, letting the engine sing its way all the way up into the higher echelons of the rev range and feeding the nose into corners with a delicate touch on the giant steering wheel. Then I remember how much it’s worth and have to restrain myself from pushing any harder.
This particular car was delivered to Max Hoffman’s New York dealership in August 1956. It was originally white with a black hood and interior and although ostensibly to GS specification, little details such as the missing heater put it more in line with the later GT-spec cars. Rumour has it that it raced at Sebring, Daytona and Riverside during its early years, but was repatriated to Germany in 1992 where it was restored, resprayed red and fitted with a Spyderspec 110bhp engine, adjustable Koni Classic dampers and 12v electrics. It also gained a louvred engine cover and single centre-exit Sebring-style exhaust to bring its appearance in line with GT-spec cars. The Fica Frio Collection that currently owns it had it resprayed white and fitted the searing red interior.
The short-stroke four-cam engine is a motor sport unit through and through, and reflects a small Porsche concern beginning to spread its wings. It has a swept volume of 1498cc – just under the homologation class limit – and a short stroke for the period, plus valve gear actuation taken from the output end of the crankshaft, a roller bearing crankshaft, dry sump lubrication, twin-spark ignition and two 40mm downdraught Solex carburettors.
After success in the legendary Porsche Spyders, it was only a matter of time before the four-cam engine found its way into the back of a 356, coinciding with the advent of the 356A in late 1955. It was first shown at the Frankfurt show alongside the new Carrera and brought with it a 1.6-litre pushrod engine, improved handling and a new dashboard. The four-cam Carrera, so named after Porsche’s class success in the Mexican Carrera Panamericana road race, was available as a Coupé, Cabriolet or Speedster.
What makes the Speedster story particularly fascinating is that this most revered of sports cars began as a US sales initiative to offer a cheaper, simpler 356. Few could have known at the time that such humble beginnings would go on to create something very special. The 356 evolved gradually; its early days in the late Forties may have been rather inauspicious but it had matured into a capable sports car with a small but devoted following by the early Fifties.
Porsche had already achieved a class win at Le Mans when it launched a heavily revised 356 in late 1952. It looked much more modern with its single curved windscreen and higher-set bumpers, while ventilated brakes and Porsche’s own synchromesh four-speed gearbox improved the driving experience. A new factory meant Porsche could increase production volumes and the 5000th car rolled off the production line less than two years later.
But Porsche’s original American importer, Max Hoffman, wanted more. He believed that an aggressive strategy would improve sales and suggested Porsche should introduce a new sports car that majored on driving thrills but cost less than $3000. Since a 356 Cabriolet cost $4584 (£3044) at the time, this seemed like rather a tall order.
Hoffman was a persuasive salesman however and had the backing of Porsche’sWest Coast importer John Von Neumann. By now convinced, Porsche took the basic 356 Cabriolet body as a starting point and covered the rear cabin with additional panels, turning it into a strict two-seater. A shallow curved windscreen with a lightweight canvas hood improved its already rakish good looks; simple drop-in plastic screens replaced the original wind-up windows. The quest for lightness extended to the stripped-out interior that had three dials set into a flat dashboard, a passenger grab-handle and not much else. Lightweight bucket seats shed further weight and helped to keep the driver and passenger firmly in place during enthusiastic cornering.
Two engines were offered – a 55bhp 1500 and a 70bhp 1500S, which cost an additional $500. Shorter third and fourth gears further improved acceleration that had already benefitted from the extensive weight-saving measures. Colour options were limited to white, red or blue enamel.
A Speedster 1500S with the 528/2 Super-spec engine could reach 60mph from rest in around ten seconds and exceed 100mph flat-out, so they practically flew out of the showrooms from the outset. The rest of the world had to wait a little longer, but cars began to filter through in 1955 and the UK got its first glimpse of the new car at that year’s Earls Court Motor Show, where a white right-hand-drive car was displayed on the AFN stand.
That brings us neatly back to the sunny Isle of Portland – and this black 356 Speedster 1500 in particular. J1956 has worn this colour since it was restored in the late Seventies but is in fact that very same Earls Court show car. As one of just two right-hand-drive Speedsters that were ever officially imported into the United Kingdom, it’s a very special machine.
Deryk Haithwaite, the current owner’s father, bought it in 1994. ‘I had a 1962 356 Super 90 Cabriolet from new, then a 1964 356 Carrera 2,’ he recalls. ‘They were pretty expensive and considered something of an oddball choice even then. But I campaigned the Super 90 in various hillclimbs and went on extensive touring holidays with both of them.
‘I collected the Carrera 2 directly from Zuffenhausen. It was the last of seven right-hand-drive models made and driving it straight from the factory was a great experience. It had already been run-in, so I could go at it full-bore up and down the autobahns!’ Deryk went on to own a number of 911s, but decided in the early Nineties that he wanted a Speedster. ‘I nearly bought one at a Coys auction but then I spotted this 1500 for sale within the Porsche Club. It’s featured in a lot of books and is the actual car that Corgi based its scale model on.’
It is highly original despite its colour change – and not just because it’s a matching numbers car. ‘That’s the original fuel gauge,’ says Deryk, ‘and the steering wheel has been on there for ever. The badges, glass and seats are all original too, although the driver’s squab may have been changed at some point.’
When Deryk realised that he wasn’t using the Speedster as much as he used to he swapped it for his son James’s 1962 356B Coupé, a car that he eventually gave to his daughter after buying a more practical right-hand-drive 356C Cabriolet. Meanwhile, James tweaked the Speedster and treated it to a full body respray – all of which means it’s not just the financial worth of the car that rests heavily on my shoulders when I drive it, but all of the emotional investment that’s gone into it too.
Each of these Speedsters is enchanting in its own way – the black 1500 because of its invigorating driving experience, history and family importance; the white Carrera quite simply because it’s one of the most impressive machines I’ve ever driven. As Deryk says, ‘These cars are the very essence of Porsche.’
Given that Porsche managed to create something this impressive less than a decade after its inception in a small shed, it’s no surprise it went on to reshape the motoring landscape for decades to come.
Thanks to: James and Deryk Haithwaite, Fica Frio Collection.