1956 Porsche 356A 1600 Speedster
In 1954, New York car importer Max Hoffman imported 15 special 356A Porsche roadsters to the USA. The cars, with basic specifications to keep the price low, captured the public imagination and a classic was born.
The original Porsche 356 was designed by Ferdinand Ferry-Porsche in 1948 and was based on the Volkswagen platform designed by his father, the founder of the company. It was the very first production Porsche and although the timeless body design, penned by Erwin Komenda, was an original, the mechanics were derived from the Volkswagen Beetle. The car was rear-wheel drive and contained a rear mounted four-cylinder, air-cooled, flat-four, 1131cc engine. The model was lightweight, simple and competitive. A works car went on to win the 1100cc class at Le Mans in 1951.
Launched in the USA in 1954 and in Europe in the summer of 1955, the 356A was a thorough update to the 356 line. Offered as both a coupe and cabriolet, it included the option of a more powerful 1600cc engine with a higher compression, taking advantage of the new higher octane fuels. During extensive testing, many changes were made to the suspension and driveline mounting. The springs were softened and stiffer shocks and dampers fitted. Wheels, designed to take advantage of new tire compounds becoming available, were reduced to a 15-inch diameter but had a wider tread that reduced air pressures.
The car’s exterior followed the Porsche design mantra of stepwise evolution – a mantra still followed today – greatly resembling the previous version but for some key changes. The car featured a lower floor, a curved glass windshield replacing the split-screen and, following the line of the new windshield, a flat face dashboard with padding on top. There was space for a radio and a lockable glove box as well as new gauges, a headlight flasher, automatic interior lighting and self-canceling signal switches.
In 1954, Max Hoffman, Porsche’s only distributor in the country, was anxious to have the cheapest Porsche on display in his showrooms. In order to keep prices low, Hoffman recommended to Porsche that an open-top, stripped down, racier version of the car would sell well in the USA. Porsche took note and the 356A Speedster was born.
Stripped of many of the 356A’s extra features, the Speedster was fitted with tiny side screens rather than roll-up glass windows. It had a minimal top, non-reclining bucket seats, and a lightweight dashboard with revised gauges and no glove box. The raked windshield, which could be removed for weekend racing, was cut down in height. The Speedster was also given a curved top and aluminum side spear making the car look sleeker.
By advocating these changes to allow competitive pricing for his American clients, Max Hoffman succeeded not only in making the car more affordable to the average buyer, but in making the Speedster lighter and simpler. This in turn created a vehicle that was more responsive and fun to drive. Originally sold at $2,450, the car was an instant success, attracting 4,243 buyers between 1955 and 1959.
The earlier Speedster is referred to as the Pre-A or Type0 model. Over a thousand were made before being superseded in October 1955 by the 356A Type1 Speedster. The latter would remain in production until being replaced by the Type2 model in August 1957. Approximately 1,850 Type1 356A Speedsters were produced.
The Speedster pictured is near flawless. Originally Imported in 1954 by Max Hoffman, this car was purchased in Chicago and the first owner kept it for 13 years. The second owner bought the vehicle, which by then needed a new transmission, in 1967, and used it as a weekend car for the next 45 years. In 1998 an ex-Porsche Research & Development mechanic, with over 40 years experience working with Porsches, stripped the car down and completely rebuilt it. The result is a perfect restoration.
The later Type2 Speedster received a few minor changes. These later models can be differentiated by their more rounded wheel arches, a slight change to the engine lid, the number plate being illuminated from below and new teardrop-shaped rear lights. Also the gold-plated badge on the dashboard read “1950-1957”, rather than “1950-1956”.
In August 1958, the Speedster was replaced by the Convertible D. More luxurious than the Speedster, the Convertible D reflected Porsche’s focus on premium models. Costing $3,695 it was far more expensive. With a taller windshield, roll-up windows, and reclining seats it was certainly more comfortable and well equipped but had lost some of the magic that made the original Speedster such a success.
356s suffering from rust can be difficult to restore due to their monocoque construction. Thankfully a large percentage of the cars were sold in dry southern California. Of all generations of the 356, the 356A Speedster is considered the most coveted body amongst today’s collectors. Due to its advancements over the comparatively primitive 356, as well as its sleeker, more “vintage” lines, the A is revered among Porsche enthusiasts.