Few Porsche enthusiasts can lay claim to a 52-year ownership experience. We drive a special 356 that belongs to just such an owner.
A Porsche 356 A Super 1600 and a 991.1 GT3 RS. If you could only own two Porsches, isn’t this the perfect combination to have in your garage? However, the story of this owner and his life-long affinity for Porsche started decades before the very first GT3 was even a twinkle in a Porsche engineer’s eye. A few years ago I heard a rumour about a wine farmer who stored his 356 in his office and, at times, would drive it on the gravel roads surrounding his farm, mostly to travel to and from the closest town. I found the lore hard to believe, but when I eventually connected all the dots, I discovered there was truth to the rumour.
South Africa’s Western Cape has some majestic roads, including several mountain passes of tarred, as well as gravel, varieties. One of the most picturesque gravel roads – Highlands Road – is situated approximately 70 km from Cape Town in the Elgin valley’s region called the Highlands, an area best known for its fruit and wine farms. It’s what the owner has called home since the mid-’90s, when he sold his business in Johannesburg and moved to the Cape. He brought his very first car, a Porsche 356, with him. He had bought it second-hand back in 1969 but he is not a collector, he’s always used his cars and has turned down many good offers for it because it was, after all, his very first car.
His long-time fascination with Porsche includes ownership of some of the best 911s to have left the Stuttgart factory. This includes a 2.7 S, an SC, a 1970 2.2 S, a 930 Turbo and even a 1975 2.7 G-Series Carrera. That’s an impressive back catalogue! So what two models stood out for him? “I would say the 2.2 S and the 964 RS has impressed me the most over the years”. However, although he has owned many illustrious cars, it’s the 356 that he’s kept – partly owing to the fact that he has promised the car to his son when the latter was at a very young age.
When he bought the 356 for R675 he realised (after researching the car’s history) that the vehicle was originally finished in silver, not the ivory colour it was when he purchased it. Years later he would find out that the first owner painted it this off-white colour to make it more visible on the road (compared to silver). Andrew explains the original owner’s reasoning for changing the colour: “Back then you need to remember that cars were relatively huge and long, while the 356 was tiny and low to the ground – fellow road users sometimes didn’t see it on the road!” However, in time, Andrew had the car returned to its original colour, while the engine also needed some attention.
When he purchased the car, it had already clocked up close to 200 000 km (he estimates), as the previous owner often drove the 356 between Johannesburg and Cape Town. He duly had the engine overhauled, but that was the only time in the 52 years he has owned it. Otherwise, this 356 is in a near-perfect condition, and it only shows its age in the areas that you would expect.
On a crisp, early morning in the Cape, the soft lines of this early 356 look perfectly harmonious amid the aged vineyards. Outside the confines of built-up areas, where there is only the landscape to appreciate, you have time to take in the simplistic lines of a motoring icon of the 20th century. It is, after all, the car that put Porsche on the map; the car that several of its first race cars were based on.
The owner opens the front luggage compartment. Here the spare wheel is positioned at an angle, fastened by a period leather strap. The rear engine compartment lid has the single, vertical vent, and it is here that you gain access to a clean example of the 1.6-litre, flat-four that produces a claimed 56 kW. That is admittedly a modest number, but bear in mind that these 356s only tipped the scales at around 820 kg.
As we leave the main gate of the farm, the sight of a 356 traversing a gravel road seems a trifle unusual – I (and probably most of you reading this) often browse classifieds and upcoming auctions, and the 356 is a car that is usually seen parked in a pristine environment; on a showroom floor or soft grass. But five to six decades ago, at least in South Africa, 356s experienced their fair share of gravel roads – unsealed road surfaces were the norm, so you could say that the owner is simply continuing that illustrious history.
So what did make the car stand out in its heyday, and what was it about the car that initially appealed to him? “The elements of this car that stood out for me at the time were the handling, balance, speed and design,” he answers. “And all of those aspects still hold up today. I’ve owned plenty of other marques of car during my time as well as Porsches, vehicles with similar-sized engines and shapes, but they can’t compete with the 356. Also, you need to remember that the original shape was designed as early as the late-1940s, which makes it so much more classic and special.”
With the first rays of sunlight creeping over the peaks of the mountains, it is time for me to climb behind the wheel. It is with much excitement that I twist the key to allow this flat-four engine to turn with a little help from the throttle pedal. My head just misses the roof lining, but other than that there is enough space in the cabin for me to find a relaxed position behind the wheel. Rounded shapes are visible everywhere, most notably when you look through the windscreen and appreciate the curved wings that lead out from the relatively flat luggage compartment lid towards the wheels. The huge steering wheel allows for decent leverage at slow speeds, while three circular dials relay the speed, revs, fuel level and oil temperature. To the left of the steering wheel is the original Becker Safari radio and, below the dashboard, the sense of space continues. There is only a small divider between the driver and front passenger’s footwells, while the ample space around the floor-mounted pedals and gear lever must have been perfect for racers at the time.
As I pull away I change into second gear and slowly increase my speed, before shifting into third and eventually fourth (top) gear. The gearbox does have long, and rather loose, shifts, but after a number of times of going up and down the ‘box, you do become familiar with it. Interestingly, each gear has a specific feel to the engagement process. The engine is more than happy to potter around the 2000-2500rpm mark, but with the redline starting at 5000rpm, I felt obliged to not push much beyond 4000rpm. As I select second gear, I put my foot down and the revs built to 3000rpm, and then it picks up speed as the needle brushes past 4000rpm. Third gear, and again, with a surprisingly honest level of enthusiasm, the needle passes 4000rpm. The engine and exhaust ends emit a rough but recognisable flat-four sound.
You can’t help but smile at the pace of this very basic sports car from the late-’50s. There is some play in the steering wheel (like most cars from the era), but once you acknowledge this initial sensation, the 356 reacts convincingly to inputs. I keep my speeds low on the gravel road, although the owner admits that at higher speeds the 356 is especially fun to drive as the grip levels are so low, partly owing to those narrow tyres.
As we subsequently make our way on the (tarred) main road leading to Hermanus the 356 easily keeps to the national speed limit of 120 km/h, and there is still some margin left to accelerate. The car absorbs joints and bumps in the road with aplomb by virtue of its softly-sprung suspension and high profile tyres. There is no doubt in my mind that I could undertake a long journey in this car any day… but, saying that, the 356 would probably provide plenty of thrills on a mountain pass too. Just imagine how different the 356 must have felt all these years ago compared to cars from across the Atlantic. It’s the polar opposite to the luxurious barges offered by some of its contemporaries.
Being able to share anecdotes from the late-’60s, through the next four decades up to the advent of a recent RS makes for fascinating conversation. As his history with his cars illustrates, he believes a car should be driven, enjoyed and then passed on. A prime example is when he took delivery of his then new RS and immediately did a 2500 km jaunt through South Africa’s Western and Eastern Cape provinces. And he didn’t stick to the highways, either. He allowed those cambered 265/35 ZR tyres on 9.5x20-inch front wheels to sniff out some of the best mountain passes in the country. That’s how it should be done!
The modest 356 started the Porsche story not only for him, but for countless enthusiasts all over the world. Even after roughly 70 years, it still surprises with its honest approach to driving fun. It’s truly refreshing to drive a car which has low limits and where everything can be measured in seconds, not milliseconds, where you, the driver, execute every action and there’s no nannying from some sophisticated electronic system. It’s no wonder Andrew has kept the 356 all these years.