• Keith Seume

End of the road

Updated: Jan 3, 2021

Porsche's 356C was the last of the old school designs, ahead of the launch of the all-new 911 in 1963.

Words & photos: Keith Seume

By the early 1960s, Porsche’s 356 had gained an enviable reputation for being a fun car to own, a great way to go racing at club level and the yardstick by which most other European sportscars were judged. In Carrera form, particularly, it was a difficult car to fault, with astounding performance from a relatively small package.

But whichever way you looked at it, the drum-braked, push-rod-motored 356 was showing its age. The Carrera’s exotic four-cam motor was too complex and costly to put into mass production but even if it had been more affordable and easier to maintain, it would still be at the mercy of a chassis that was becoming rather dated. Ferry Porsche realised this as early as 1957 and, as you can read elsewhere in this issue, set in motion a new project that would ultimately lead to the 901-series, later to become the Porsche 911.

The problem with new projects is that, to do them right, they take time. That meant it would be almost seven years before the all-new six-cylinder 901 would be ready for production. In the meantime, Porsche needed a stop-gap model, an upgrade of the existing range that delivered more, yet neither cost the earth to develop nor trod on the toes of the new project. Thus was born the 356C.

In the summer of 1963, as the prototype of the new 901 was undergoing road testing, Porsche released details of its ‘new’ car which, to all but the cognoscenti, looked remarkably like the old one it was supposed to be replacing. The outgoing 356B had already undergone a substantial redesign in 1961, whereby the old T-5 bodyshell was replaced by the fresh-looking T-6 design. This redesign had not necessarily pleased everyone, but it was intended to give the 356 wider appeal by addressing various of the areas which had come in for criticism.

The most significant of these was the lack of luggage space, and the need for opening the luggage lid to gain access to the fuel filler. By relocating the fuel filler to the top of the right-hand front wing (on left-hand drive models only, though) much needed boot (trunk) space was freed up. The boot lid was made wider, too, making access easier. The added benefit of relocating the fuel filler externally was that the interior no longer smelled of petrol after a fill-up. Apart from the unpleasant aspect of driving a car that stank of fuel, there were safety concerns, too, with spilt fuel being an obvious fire risk.

It was on July 1st 1963 that the first bodies for the new model were delivered by Reutter (that company having been taken over by Porsche earlier the same year) prior to the press launch in August and the official public debut in Frankfurt that September. However, as Reutter was earmarked to produce bodyshells for the all-new 911 and 912 models destined for release the following year, Wilhelm Karmann GmbH in Osnabrück was drafted in to help supply bodyshells for this, the last in the 356 line.

So what makes the 356C any different to the outgoing 356B T-6? The most obvious visual clue to the model’s identity is the new flat hubcap design. This was because the 356C was equipped with different wheels, with a new bolt-pattern. This was necessary as the 356C was fitted with four-wheel disc brakes, made for Porsche by ATE – a first for a road-going Porsche.

Porsche had previously developed its own disc brake, an annular design with a 5 x 205mm PCD, for racing models but this was deemed too costly to put into mass-production. Instead, ATE persuaded Porsche to use a version of its own design, developed under licence from Dunlop, as it was both efficient and cost effective. The ATE design, however, precluded the use of the old-style wheels with their ‘wide-five’ bolt pattern, hence the change to a new wheel with a smaller PCD of 5 x 130mm – the same as all future production 911s and 912s.

It is perhaps worth at this point to take a quick look at Porsche’s own annular brake design – known internally as ‘type 695’ – for it was very advanced for its time.

By ‘annular’ we mean that the disc is larger in diameter and is gripped from the inside by the caliper – this had several advantages over the more conventional Dunlop system whereby the caliper is mounted outside the disc, as is common practice today. One advantage of an annular design is that it is possible to fit a larger disc within the confines of a wheel of a given diameter. The larger diameter of the disc results in increased braking effort with the same size caliper, due to more leverage and an increase in the disc’s surface area.

The Porsche design was also very light, weighing around half a kilo less than the equivalent drum brake – the Dunlop designs weighed as much as two or three kilos more! But production costs won the day in favour of the licenced UK design, and Porsche’s own type 695 disc brake was ultimately consigned to the history books.

However, Porsche engineers did score one victory in the battle of the brakes by incorporating a small 7in-diameter drum brake inside the rear disc to act as a parking brake. This was a good idea as cable-operated parking brakes on disc calipers are notoriously ineffective.

There was another significant change made under the skin: Porsche chose to drop the transverse ‘camber compensator’ spring first introduced on the old Super 90 model to counter ‘tuck-in’ on the rear swing-axle suspension, offering it instead as an extra-cost option. To complement this change, the rear torsion bars were softened by reducing the diameter from 23mm to 22mm. At the same time, to overcome any tendency towards oversteer caused by this change in spring rate, the front anti-roll bar was stiffened by virtue of a 1mm increase in diameter.

The 356C benefited from other improvements, too, among them revisions of certain interior features which had bugged customers for some while. For example, the driver’s seat was lowered to give more headroom, while the heater control was redesigned – now a lever instead of a knurled knob – and armrests on each door became a standard fitment. Other changes included a repositioned ashtray and a new passenger grab handle – in black plastic instead of chrome. Of more significance was the relocation of the switches for the headlamps and wipers, meaning that the driver was no longer tempted to reach through the steering wheel to operate them – a recipe for disaster in an emergency situation.

The introduction of the 356C saw a streamlining of the engine option list. The old 60bhp ‘Normal’ motor was dropped from the range and, it has to be said, wasn’t greatly missed. By the time the T-6 redesign had come along, fewer customers chose to specify this bottom-line engine. Striking it from the options list had the benefit of freeing up capacity in the engine shop, too. The former 1600S, or ‘Super 75’ engine became the 1600C (or type 616/15, to use its internal code), while the ‘Super 90’ became the 1600SC (type 616/16).

Hans Mezger had the task of overhauling the engine line-up, and he immediately addressed several weaknesses in the old designs. This included increasing the diameter of the exhaust valves – in the past, Porsche had boosted power output largely by simply increasing the inlet valve diameter alone. The inlet and exhaust ports were also revised in shape and volume, promoting better gas flow at all engine speeds.

In terms of boosting power, the principal difference between the two engines was that the 1600SC used the camshaft from the outgoing Super 90 model, along with a compression ratio of 10.0:1, whereas the 1600C relied on an all-new camshaft, which featured higher lift than the previous part used in the old base-model 1600 motors, but a lower compression ratio of 9.5:1.

Further differences included the fitment of dual 32NDIX Zenith carburettors on the 1600C, while the 1600SC relied on dual Solex 40 PII-4 carbs. The more powerful engine was also fitted with a fully-counterweighted crankshaft, to allow prolonged use at high rpm. Both engines featured crankcases with the Super 90’s larger 55mm centre-main bearings, and revised oil breathing systems as a tip of the hat to new US-market emissions requirements. Yes, the emissions regs were starting to have an effect on car design as far back as the early 1960s…

The outcome of all this was to raise the power output of the SC to 95bhp, while the 1600C offered 75bhp. This resulted in performance statistics as follows (Porsche’s own figures): 0–60mph – 12.2secs (1600C) and 10.8secs (1600SC); 0–100mph – 61.5secs (1600S) and 34.8secs (1600SC); top speed – 109mph (1600C) and 115mph (1600SC). As for fuel economy, contemporary road tests suggested overall figures of around 24mpg (US) for the 1600C and 28mpg (US) for the SC – that’s 29mpg (Imperial) and 33mpg, respectively.

The last 356C from Karmann left Osnabrück on 21st January 1965, while the last Reutter-built coupé drove off the line on 28th April 1965 – the final 356C Cabriolet left the Zuffenhausen factory on the same day. That was not the end of the story, though, for a further 10 examples of the 356C – all Cabriolets – rolled off the assembly line in May 1966, destined for the Royal Dutch Police. By this time, production of the new 911 had been in full swing for over three years. It seems the 356 just refused to die…

Being the least of the line, the 356C should, in theory at least, be the best of all. By its demise, the tiny four-cylinder Porsche had enjoyed 15 years of near-constant development, even when its successor was waiting in the wings. Today, fans of early road-going Porsches are divided into two factions: those who regard the 356C as the least desirable of all and those who, to put it simply, don’t! Everyone, it seems, has an opinion.

Naysayers criticise the ‘C’ models for being too heavy, too clumsy, too ‘modern’ compared to the A-models. These are the same people who often hint that Porsche lost the plot when it introduced the 356B… Those in favour of the 356C line boast of its refinement, its higher level of equipment, better brakes and, it has to be said, better value for money these days. You will often see advertised good examples of the 356C (the best, as far as the factory was concerned) for less than its predecessors. Pay less, get more. Funny how the classic car market goes…

To find out what a 356C is really like to live with, we recently borrowed a fine example of the model from marque specialist Roger Bray at Whimple, in Devon, UK. The car in question is chassis number 127392, a 1964 1600C supplied by AFN Ltd in West London, making it an original factory-built right-hand-drive model. Finished in red with black interior, registration number FMG 966B underwent a a full restoration under Roger Bray’s watchful eye.

Standing back and looking at a ‘C’ model, it is indeed the wheels and hubcaps, as innocuous a detail as they would seem to anyone other than a Porsche enthusiast, which first strike you. They are the instant giveaway that this is the final model prior to the 911’s introduction. The wheels look too modern against the classic, but dated, lines. But aside from this one detail, there is little other than badging to tell it from a 356B T-6.

Settling into the sumptuous driving seat, you are instantly reminded this is sportscar from a forgotten age. Modern high-performance cars have figure-hugging seats, firm and supportive. Old Porsches welcome you like a favourite sofa, soft, enveloping… comfortable. The driving position is from a bygone age, too. It is almost impossible to adopt a modern straight-arm position – well it is for me, at least! The large steering wheel is set close to the chest, the controls somewhat random in their location. Unless you drive a 356 everyday, you need to study them before you hit the road. The pedals will be familiar to anyone who has driven a VW Beetle, but alien to those more familiar with other marques, sprouting from the floor as they do.

Starting from cold, the engine needs a little coaxing before it settles to a slightly lumpy idle. Blame that on the mechanical fuel pump – it’s easy to see why so many owners fitted electric pumps to their cars in period. But throttle response is near instant, hot or cold. No coughs, no hesitation, no flat-spots. Whoever tweaked these Zeniths knew their stuff.

The clutch is light and gear selection oh-so-sweet, just like all good 356s, regardless of age. Performance on the open road is best described as ‘brisk’ – it’s no rocket ship, that’s for sure, but it acquits itself well in modern traffic, being perfectly happy to cruise at 70-75mph all day. But it’s easy to see why, back in its day, the 356 was criticised by many road testers for having too much cabin noise. The engine makes its presence felt with a constant whir of the cooling fan, backed up by a healthy growl from the induction system when you hit the throttle. It’s a fabulous experience in an age when every car is too quiet, too detached – too damned perfect. In short, Porsche’s four-pot ‘boxer’ is a real gem, and a far cry from the Beetle engine with which it is so often (erroneously) equated. Sure the early ‘Pre-A’ models may have used a significant number of VW-sourced parts, but by the time the ‘C’ models hit the road, there was precious little linking the two motors, save the cylinder configuration and cooling system concept.

But it’s the brakes and overall handling which really make an impression. The C’s four-wheel discs are such a major improvement over the old drums (as good as they were) that it makes you realise how long in the tooth the ‘B’ models had become. And the handling? Yes, it is ‘safe’ and perhaps the suspension is a little soft for some, but as a long-distance tourer (and that, by this stage, is what the 356 set out to be), the C would have been hard to beat. It still retained the lightness of feel which made the 356 such a hit with owners, something which the incoming 911 never quite matched.

The doyen of motorsport journalists, Denis Jenkinson, could have told you all about that: ‘I looked at the size and complexity of the 911Porsche and decided that if I was to learn to live with it, I might as well have 4.2-litres of Jaguar rather than 2.0-litres of Porsche,’ he wrote. ‘The 356 had been a way of life and I was always comparing it with its contemporaries, especially as regards overall size and height, and always marvelled at what it did for its size. The new generation Porsche did not have this attribute; it was a big car just like a lot of other big cars…’.

But no matter what anyone writes about the 356C, there will always be those who refuse to acknowledge its attributes, its charms – its character. Their loss, I’m afraid. If you’ve never driven a well set-up 356C, be it a basic 1600C or a ‘cooking’ 1600SC, do yourself a favour: try one. It was, after all, the ultimate 356 – at least, as far as Porsche was concerned. And Porsche does know a thing or two about cars.

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