It was discreetly parked amongst other cars in South Mumbai. I couldn’t believe my eyes – you don’t see Porsches too often on our roads, and a classic Porker in Mumbai is as commonplace as a blue moon. After I lifted my jaw back from the ground, I tucked my business card with a handwritten note in the Porsche’s window rubber lining and hoped against hope that I would be contacted. Two days later I received an email from Raj Jain, the lucky owner of one of the greatest classic cars on Earth. We got talking and I learnt that he dealt in art and antiques and was based in London. And Raj was soon on his way back to the UK, so the 356 drive was scheduled for later, when he returned to Mumbai.
I think the word ‘yearn’ has been derived from ‘year’, because this happened a whole year back. Oh, what a long year it was.Finally, here I am, behind the oversized steering wheel of the 1965 356 SC, the final, most refined iteration of the first ever production Porsche. The typical beat of a horizontally-opposed engine is emerging from the rear and the 356 blissfully moves on the streets of Mumbai, turning everybody’s heads as I pass by.
What’s it about Porsches? The moment you sit in the driver’s seat, you are instantly at home. The reach is just right, the instruments are perfectly placed and the driving position is bang-on. I am not talking about the 993 911, the 997 911, the Boxster S or the Cayman S that I am lucky to have driven earlier. What links these modern machines to the first production car to proudly wear the Stuttgart badge is the way the focus is towards the driver. Sitting in a Porsche produced over 40 years back, I can see that nothing has fundamentally changed over the intervening years, the driver’s seat of a Porsche is still where it is at.
My legs are just slightly stretched out and the same with my hands. My rear is comfortably placed on wide leather seats and the backrest is holding my back well. The steering is pretty large and in true Porsche fashion – heck, this is the car that started the ‘true Porsche fashion’ actually – the clearly and beautifully marked tacho holds pride of place on the instrument console. Below the padded dash, the gauges are well laid-out, with the enduring green digits on a black background starting the Porsche design trend. Sorry to get this descriptive, but it’s really something. The engine is chugging at the rear and the typical sound of a boxer motor is filtering towards me at the front. According to me, there can be only one reason why the pedals are so closely set, and that is to aid quick and precise heel-and-toe shifting! Well, nothing of that sort now, okay?
Nestling behind the rear axle is a horizontally opposed four-cylinder 1582cc motor, massaged by double carburettors, developing 95 bhp at 5800 rpm and 12.6 kgm of torque at 3600 revs in this, the SC version (the S version of the 356C developed 75 bhp). Not much, you may say, that too for a car that wears a badge adorning some of the fastest cars on the planet today. But remember that the 356 started life being powered by a slightly tuned Beetle engine making just 40 bhp Oh, there was also the Carrera 2 356 available around the same time, that had a full 130 bhp on tap – so there. Since Porsche was aware that they did not have many horses to play around with, they ensured that the 356 had not a gram of excess weight. The 90 bhp motor powered a car that weighed less than 900 kg – giving you a brilliant and highly enviable power-to-weight ratio – making it a breezy performer. Breezy enough for a rated top speed of 185 kph and a 0 to 96 kph timing of 13 seconds. And that was reason enough for Porsche to introduce disc brakes in the final 356 model. In fact Porsche, being what they are, had wanted to develop disc brakes themselves, but since their design was proving to be too expensive and cumbersome, they finally sourced it from a specialist manufacturer.
Linked to the flat-four engine is a four-speed gearbox that features Porsche’s patented split-ring synchromesh system that allows for effortless and precise gear changes – something that’s working nicely even today. The gear ratios are so well spaced out that the 356 is driveable in Mumbai’s irritating stop-and-go traffic. There is adequate torque available across the range and so it need not be revved needlessly to be propelled forward. Yet, the little motor is rev happy and I was tempted more than once to play around with the throttle pedal. The surge you get is not awe-inspiring – not like the way the Jaguar E-Type pins you to the seat – but it feels quick and decidedly sporty. Its slippery, aerodynamic shape, which is almost futuristic, allows it to move this way, even with the lack of sheer horsepower. There’s no hesitation and the acceleration is virtually instantaneous; quite an achievement for a car that was built 40 years ago. And if that does not tempt you to get heavy with the gas pedal, the sound emerging from the rear definitely will. So it was with great delight that I obliged Pablo for pan shots, even when he was done with shooting the 356. Driving this car gives me a slight sense of deja vu, because it’s almost Beetle-like. The 356 was criticised for being quite a handful to control, especially for those not used to the weight of the engine sitting at the rear. Yet, powering it through corners, the 356 is much more planted compared to the Beetle. In fact, with a Beetle you don’t exactly power through corners because you can actually feel the rear wheels straining not to break out. While the 356’s basic configuration also means that it’s tail happy thanks to a rear weight bias, it’s still better balanced and encourages you to step on the gas. Besides, thanks to its low-slung body style and a chassis that was steadily honed to perfection since its beginnings in 1949, the 356 is substantially more nimble than my beloved Beetle. And unlike my Veedub, the car and the driver are one. I think more than a familiar shape or horizontally-opposed engines placed at the rear, the true hallmark of a Porsche sports car is the way the machine is an extension of the driver. I think Porsche realised this early on during the development of their first ever production car. Which is why in spite of this car being produced four decades back, the seating is just right, the chassis is nimble, the engine performance is extraordinary, the gearshifts are precise, the steering is responsive... I think I have just strung out the elements of what makes the Porsche DNA. Yes, the 356 is the original gene pool from where new species of Porsches eventually evolved.
Oh, I forgot to mention one more element of the Porsche DNA: build quality. The 356 is so well put together, it does not show any signs of age. The doors shut with a deeply satisfying thunk and there are no creaky noises emerging from anywhere. Marvellous. In fact, this was one of the reasons why the 356 got lapped up so quickly by buyers, as such exemplary engineering was not available in most other sports cars. Even the fancy price tag of US $4,300 for the 356SC did not deter buyers. And the fact that it could take the more powerful Carrera engines without any fundamental modifications to the chassis is proof enough of the 356’s fantastic construction.
Even the suspension setup on offer – independent all round, with trailing arms with transverse torsion bars and anti-roll bar at the front and swing half axles, radius arms and transverse torsion bars at the rear, ably assisted by telescopic shocks – allows the 356 to take troublesome Mumbai roads in its stride. The ride quality is pretty amazing actually, it cushions impacts well, yet does not act shy of giving you feedback on what lies beneath the 165/80 15 radials.
Rumour has it that this car should have been called the 350 and not the 356. The number, as everybody knows, is Porsche’s internal project code that eventually became the name of the car. It seems that to impress their first customer during their initial days, Porsche gave the project the number 7, to indicate that they had already completed six projects. So would history be any different if the first ever production Porsche was called the 350? Perhaps not.
The Porsche legend, which was already established with the 356’s prowess on the road and the track, was going to be solidly cemented for generations to come. The 356C was showcased at the 1963 Frankfurt Motor Show and it was still on sale when a brand new Porsche was introduced as a replacement in 1964 – the 911. But that, as they say, is another story.