Porsche 356 Carrera 2 – Zuffenhausen's finest on the road

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The Porsche 356 is hard to beat when it comes to ticking all of the boxes. A design icon that has the prestige, the purity and the performance to complement its sculpted looks, it has long been a favourite with aficionados, cognoscenti, racers and rallyists. The advanced platform was the envy of other car makers of the day and was carried through to the 911, which really set the Porsche legend in stone. In fact, drive a late 356 – or specifically this 356C Carrera 2 – against an early 911 and you’ll be surprised by how little they differ, pondering whether the new improved Porsche was really that much better a car for its extra cylinders.

Can you fault the 356? Well, you could focus on that slight humpback over the engine, which ever so slightly warps the perfection of the converging arcs front to back. Or, more commonly, you could argue that it lacks poke. That may be true of some variants, but by the time you get to the development that is the 356C Carrera 2, a four-cam speed machine that was launched 14 years after the original Gmünd-built 356, nothing could be further from the truth. If your envy is sufficient that you really want to wound the owner, you just do the same as everyone else and refer to it as a glorified Beetle. You’d still be wrong, of course. Even on its European debut in 1958, the 356 was a very different beast to Hitler’s people’s wagon. Prof Porsche’s engineering genius did provide a connection between the two projects, and an air-cooled thrum burst like popping crisp packets from both cars’ exhausts, but there the similarities end. But what about the shared componentry? That’s like arguing that Michelangelo was a decorator because he painted ceilings.

If there is a missing link between the two it is Ferdinand Porsche’s Type 64, an up-specced pre-war Beetle rebodied with a slick aero-dynamic shell. But that’s a bit of a red herring, because the foundations for the 356 were actually laid while the Professor languished at the French Republic’s post-war pleasure in Dijon and son Ferry cannibalised a Beetle to come up with the mid-engined prototype 356/1. When the Porsche Snr was released, the development continued. The Beetle-ness was swiftly eclipsed – even though the engine was moved to the rear of the back-axle line, like the VW – as the wheelbase was cut by a foot, Erwin Komenda’s sleek bodywork was wrapped around the sheet-steel backbone and platform chassis and Porsche moved towards building its first car to bear the family name. That car finally broke cover in 1948 and was continuously developed until its demise in 1966, with issues such as its initial tendency towards dramatic oversteer being designed out with each new model. 

The single biggest development was the engine, which grew from a 1131cc unit pushing out 40bhp through 1290, then 1498 and on to 1582cc and up to 95bhp in final SC form. And then there was the Carrera. Masterminded by Ernst Fuhrmann, it started life as the dry-sump 1500cc Type 547, with a new Hirth crank, hemispherical combustion chambers, bigger valves and twin-ignition heads. The masterstroke, however, was in the valve actuation. Furhmann came up with a complex system to replace the engine’s pushrods with a four-cam set-up that was driven by a central jackshaft – rather than chain-driven – from the flywheel end of the crank. First used in a road car in 1955, it gave the 356A Carrera 100bhp at 6200rpm.

The B variant of the 356, introduced at the death of the ’50s, was more cosmetically changed than anything else – notably with the headlamps raised to meet new regulations. Porsche staved off a switch to many modern technologies such as disc brakes to howls of derision from the motoring press. Yet, even with its 911 replacement on the horizon and the 356 clearly showing its age in the early ’60s, development continued unabated, with ATE disc brakes finally phased in as standard for the 1964 model year 356C and the Carrera name being resurrected. Appearing in 1962, the Carrera 2’s Type 587 engine boosted capacity to 2 litres and horsepower to 130-155, depending on the specific model. 

In power and spec these reborn Carreras were the ultimate 356s and this particular car is one of the rarest of the lot. Chassis 127338 – and matching-number engine 97362 – is one of only six right-hand-drive four-cam 356C Carrera 2 coupés. It was built for racer Chris Kerrison and used as his road car while his ex-Moss/Hill Ferrari 250GT SWB took up track duties. After one more UK owner (marque devotee John Hearn) it was sold to Germany in the 1980s, only returning to the UK for arch-enthusiast John Ruston in 2006. The past couple of years have probably been the most testing of the Carrera 2’s long life, with Ruston exercising the car on a series of endurance events including the 2007 Tour de España, where it was placed second overall in the regularity. Making such demands of a car commands a high degree of maintenance and this example has been looked after by the guru, Andy Prill at Maxted-Page & Prill. With such a recent history, you might expect this car to be in fine fettle – and it is. 

The seats are supportive, but not particularly sporting and you sit low to make way for the vast, three-spoke Bakelite-rimmed steering wheel with the inner horn rim that was the fashion of the time. Make sure the twin coil switches behind the wheel are activated, turn the key and there is only a hint of that familiar four-pot boxer thrum. Instead a steadier and more guttural backbeat emits from the twin pipes, the four overhead cams spinning sweetly where rods push harshly. Finding the familiarly chunky pedals (organ throttle, others sprouting out of the bulkhead, none as offset as you might have read) with your feet is the first and only time the word ‘Beetle’ will come into your head. Thereafter it is all Porsche. The long-throw action via a tall, kinked wand of a lever on the all-synchro four-speeder is taut and precise, if a little white van-ish, the steering is delightfully light and full of feedback. The all-round disc brakes are efficient for their age and just about a match for the impressive forward-thrusting capabilities of the Carrera.

The driving position is perfect for pottering, touring or pressing-on without the pilot having to reposition or adjust themselves at all. In fact, everything is beautifully positioned with a tactile synchronicity between driver’s seat, gearlever, pedals and wheel. As an ensemble, they have an almost telepathic connection: as you slide into the pre-built space they allow you, it’s as if the car has been tailored precisely to your frame.

This Carrera is a symphonic joy to drive, watching the wings bobbing up and down as they gorge miles of country roads, scything through the ’box as if it’s spring-loaded, leaving just your fingertips on the wheel to guide the car as it tiptoes throughs bends. The ride is splendid, dispatching bumps and potholes with disdain. You suspect it might be on the hard side with its less cosseting seats, but it’s just perfect. There are no clonks as each wheel takes its punishment without unsettling the others. In fact, it is only when you hit a sizeable bump with a front wheel while some steering lock is on that the car – and as a result the driver – ever gets nervous.

Push it harder and there is a tendency for the front to drift airily through corners rather than properly understeer, but give it too much on really greasy switchbacks and it feels as if it might wash out altogether before it twitches neatly back into alignment. You can provoke oversteer through the more sophisticated rear suspension of this later car, but again it doesn’t snap as much as drift gently and catchably outwards. Wet weather does bring to the fore this car’s most diverting idiosyncrasy, however. Find the unmarked switch to turn on the wipers and you are confronted with two small blades working at different speeds over non-matching arcs. It’s distracting, bordering on perturbing.

When the rain stops falling you can focus again on that unburstable performance. Slide it into second on a tight corner and feel it scrabble for grip before it hunkers down and slingshots you through. Neat exhilaration. Rather usefully, Porsche has drawn the powerband on the rev counter (from 2200rpm to 7000, red zone starting at 6200). Then again, it put the same markings on the speedo from 20-40mph and, given the freedom to drive this car properly, that’s not a region you will be visiting too often. Should you need to, 1500rpm will trickle you off the line (any less than that and the twin Solexes will splutter their disgust vociferously) while from 2-3000rpm it’s hugely tractable and covers most of your driving needs. At 3000 it starts to change character and by 4000rpm it is coming on cam and pulling cleanly and with a fierce second wind. You can keep revving all you want past 5500rpm and it will still sing, but you won’t get much more out of it power-wise. The official peak is 6200rpm, but unless you are racing or want to max it in top, there’s no need to press into that territory and overstress the engine. 

It may feel like the Carrera runs out of useful puff long before its redline starts, but it offers lusty performance for a 2-litre, punching well above its weight. By the time of this car, though, the frugality of the concept was maybe a little long in the tooth. An XK trouncer for sure, but maybe not so convincing an E-type beater.

You would expect the appointments of this late 356 to be different from the 1948 cars – there is even an electric sunroof, although it makes a fearsome racket in operation – but it retains all of that Spartan charm. The interior is much unchanged, airy and spacious in a way that makes the dark confines of an early 911 feel vaguely claustrophobic. Visibility out of this glasshouse if predictably superb, much improved on the earlier cars with the peephole rear windows, but the cost of such practicality is the sacrifice of a little of its architectural purity.

The whole feeling is of a car that is cosy rather than cramped from the waistline down. Headroom is plentiful and width happily exaggerated by the absence of a transmission tunnel, allowing the front seats to nuzzle each other like a Mini’s. The fold-flat rear-seat jambs are either seating for two kids or plentiful storage. It’s not actually bad for a 2+2 and, unusually, the issue is not the norm (leg space behind the front seats), but width – thanks to that sinuously tapering body and gathering of the hips – and headroom.

The furniture is similarly, wonderfully understated. The metal dash is no more showy than any British shopping car of the era, the only sop to opulence being the leather crashpad on top of it. It is comfortingly symmetrical and flaunts its common-sense ingenuity through such features as the map pockets built into the overlapping carpets in the footwell (without showing off such features, they could be mistaken for something in a Bracknell office block). There’s more storage in the door pockets and the generous rear, especially when the seats are folded flat.

It is at this point that you might start to doubt the 356, to wonder whether such understatement is its genius or its downfall. Is it minimalist perfection, or vastly overpriced poverty-spec car? After all, in terms of values it might be considered its own worst enemy. It has long-since escaped the status of undervalued connoisseurs’ car and prices are on the up. Big time. It is such a winningly capable all-rounder that it is easy to see why, and you soon start to wonder why less desirable models languished at £15-20,000 for so long. 

Yet there is something about the 356’s nature, its utilitarian simplicity and lack of glitz, that makes it seem too modest and diffident in comparison with its similarly priced rivals. By the end of the line in the mid-’60s, its demeanour made it feel from a different age. Like the 911 in its price bracket, a 356 should be the most genuinely usable all-round classic that you can buy, but then you probably can’t buy one of this rarity. While rough base models might still be found for less than £20,000, this example will set you back over £150k and that’s Daytona money.

If these doubts threaten to overtake you, just look forward and gaze upon the three big dials with their traditional green numerals. They’re gentle reminders of what this car is all about. On the left is the mph speedo rising to 160mph; in the centre is the rev counter, which reads to a heady 8000rpm, 1000 higher than the top of the redline (lest you forget that this is a pure driver’s car). On the right is oil temperature and fuel.When you consider what it is worth solely as a driving machine (lots, believe me), the price becomes largely irrelevant. 

Despite its driving excellence and winningly sparse interior, from the outside this car is perhaps even more impressive. The unadorned shape is wonderfully elegant, in profile two gracefully doodled arcs gently melding towards the tail, only the rump of the engine cover disrupting those smooth lines. The simplicity of the theme is carried throughout, its delicately bulbous perfection making a dainty and petite beauty of what might otherwise be considered a squat crapaud of a car. There are rare flashes of chrome – on the body-coloured bumpers, doors, lamp surrounds and engine grille – and just one splash of gold for the Carrera script. These help to disguise how curvaceous this shape really is, how dynamic it is from the flanks with the ovoid rear window like a cartoonist’s stretched D, hinting at movement even when the 356 is stationary. There are no straight lines to be found on this car, just as there is no wasted space. 

Any 356 is a difficult machine to walk away from, but how can you possibly sum it up? There is a game I play with classic-loving buddies in which the purpose is to think of a single word that perfectly sums up the very essence of a particular car. A sidescreen TR is ‘robust’, a Citroën SM ‘daunting’, but it’s actually pretty difficult to come up with precisely the right word for any car if it must encapsulate looks, value, build quality, performance, character, appeal and aura. On a wet night, burning back from Essex after driving this extraordinarily rare Porsche 356 variant, I had a couple of hours to think about it and all I could come up with for the Carrera 2 was ‘formidable’. Without those scary windscreen wipers still preying on my mind, it might have been ‘flawless’.

FACTFILE – PORSCHE 356C CARRERA 2 2000GS

Sold/no built 1963-’65/126 (all 356C C2s) Construction steel monocoque Engine rear-mounted, dry-sump, horizontally opposed air-cooled dohc 1966cc ‘four’, fed by two twin-choke Solex 40 PII-4 carbs Max power 130bhp @ 6200rpm Max torque 119lb ft @ 4600rpm Transmission four-speed manual, driving rear wheels; optional limited slip differential Suspension independent, at front by swing arms, square torsion bars, a/r bar rear half-axles, swing arms, round torsion bars, compensator spring; telescopic dampers f/r Steering worm and peg Brakes discs, 103/4in (274.5mm) front, 111/4 in (285mm) rear  Wheels and tyres 4.5Jx15 steels, with 165x15 radials Length 13ft 3/4in (3980mm) Width 5ft 53/4in (1670mm) Height 4ft 4in (1320mm) Wheelbase 6ft 103/4in (2100mm)  Track: f/r 4ft 31/2 in/4ft 2in (1306/1272mm) Weight 2249lb (1010kg) 0-60mph 8.8 secs Top speed 124mph Mpg n/a Price new £3734   

This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images.

Words: James Elliott; pictures: Tony Baker

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