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The 356/356A Speedster: 9 Reasons Why It’s The Best Classic Porsche That Isn’t A 911

1954 356 Speedster, one of the first off the production line bound for America
Image Via: Porsche

Let’s face it, the Porsche 911 was the most successful model produced by Porsche in the 20th century, and it is only in recent years that it has started to be outsold by the Macan, the Cayenne, and the Taycan. But many who are not wise in the ways of the car company from Stuttgart seem to forget that there have always been other models made by Porsche, especially in the early years of the company.

1948 356/1 in the Porsche Museum
Porsche #1, 356 Roadster, in the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart. More commonly known as the 356/1 Roadster. Image Via: Wikimedia Commons.

The most beloved of all those other models is the 356, which throughout its model lifetime had several variations. There was the original 356/1 Roadster, the very first proper road car created by Ferdinand “Ferry” Porsche. There was the 356 1100 Coupe that was the genesis of the shape that would later become the 911.

However, amongst all the other variations and models, from 1956 to 1959, the 356A 1600 Speedster epitomized the model line—it’s often referred to as the greatest version to emerge during the entire 356 model lifetime.

Why is that?

We put our heads together over that question and came up with 9 great reasons why the 356A 1600 Speedster is the greatest classic Porsche that isn’t a 911.

Reason #1: The Porsche 365 Speedster Had An Awesome Origin Story

Many consider Max Hoffman and Erwin Komenda as the fathers of the Speedster. While Ferdinand Porsche himself was instrumental in creating the 356, it was Hoffman, at the time the sole importer of Porsches into the United States that set the ball rolling.

Seeing all the British roadsters making their way to American shores, during one meeting with Porsche, he asked if Ferdinand could design a roadster that could compete, price- and performance-wise, with the English cars that were selling well.

Max Hoffman circa 1950
One of the two “fathers” of the 356 Speedster, Max Hoffman. Image Via: Classic Trader

Porsche accepted the challenge, but as he was not able to personally sit down and draft out the design, the task was assigned to Senior Designer Erwin Komenda. In 1954 and 1955, the first version of the 356 Speedster arrived, but after refining and perfecting it, the 356A Speedster entered production and started to arrive in the USA. The rest, as we all know, was history.

Reason #2: It Was the Car that Took Porsche Global

Many would argue that the 911 was the car that cemented Porsche as a global brand, but nearly a decade before the first 911 rolled off the production line, a small experiment was conducted. A special car known as the Type 540 America Roadster was made in 1952, to gauge the interest from North American buyers. Only 17 sold, mostly due to the high cost of production that led to a large amount of sticker shock after importation fees and taxes were added on.

356's on a turntable in Max Hoffman's dealership
Max Hoffman’s showroom in the mid 1950s. Note the 356A Speedster front and center on the “Porsche Turntable.” Image Via: Renngeshaft

Yet, the 356 Speedster was already well into its design and development phase, and despite the “failure” of the Type 540 to gain traction, when the 356A Speedster arrived at a much more reasonable price, supply could barely keep up with demand.

Porsche leveraged that sales success into their marketing department. Interest was soon registered around the world to have “the car that even the American’s love.”

Reason #3: It Was Designed for Speed from the Outset

There were two views on how to go fast in the 1950s. For the American side of things, it was all about big engines, big power, and straight line speed.

For the European side of things, especially at Porsche, it was about light weight, using only what was necessary to make the car well equipped, and handling, so that it could exit corners fast and accelerate down the next straight. Imagine the surprise, then, of many Americans when the 356A Speedster arrived on their shores.

356 Speedster on the open road
What the 356 Speedster was designed to do… go fast, on a bright, sunny day and devour corners for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Image Via: The Robb Report

Instead of being a big, heavy car hauling a V8 around up front that was pushing out over 200 HP, there was this low, sleek steel bodied car with the engine “in the wrong place” putting out a measly 60 to 74 HP. Yet, that little “bathtub on wheels” would literally drive circles around the American cars.

It cornered so quickly compared to the American cars that by the time those cars were around the corner and using their straight line power, the Porsche was a mile down the road and gone. It was built solely to go fast and corner hard in the real world, something that almost every Porsche model since has had in its DNA.

Reason #4: It Influenced the Design of Bucket Seats

Keep in mind, the 356A Speedster did not have performance bucket seats, as they weren’t even invented at the time. Instead, they used a design known as a “Speedster Seat,” which was a one-piece fixed seat.

This seat had bolsters at the hips and the midriff, but could not be adjusted for recline or height. It was a seat that you sat in more than on, as many cars of the time used either bench seats or “driving armchairs” for the American crowd that preferred comfort.

356A Speedster one-piece seats
The “Speedster Seat” that had no recline functionality, was a one piece unit, buthad deep bolsters for the hips that would become standard for bucket seats at the end of the decade. Image Via: AutoEvolution

Yet, the Speedster seat was a revelation, and by the start of the 1960s, several designs of racing seats borrowed heavily from it. Sports cars also suddenly started to have bolstered one- or two-piece “bucket” seats, including one of the most popular American sports cars of all time: the Corvette C2 introduced in 1963.

While it wasn’t the genesis of the bucket seat, the Speedster seat was the catalyst to finally push things over the edge, and we’ve been reaping the rewards in sports cars ever since.

Reason #5: The Porsche 356 Speedster Was Truly Bare Bones

To keep the price of the 356A Speedster under $3,000 ($33,000 in 2022 USD), you did not get a heater or a tachometer in your car. If you wanted to have toasty feet and hands, or know what your engine revs were, you had to pay extra to have those options fitted.

The reasoning at the time was that there should be nothing to distract you from the act of driving—of extracting maximum enjoyment with minimal interference.

The bare cockpit of a 356A Speedster
Bare bones is truly a fitting title. No console, no heater, just two dash dials with an oil pressure readout between them, a four speed stick shift, and that’s it. The fact that there are even carpets is amazing. Image Via: Audrain Auto Museum

To wit, in reply to the complaints about the car lacking a heater, Porsche’s reply was simply “Wear a jacket and dress warmly.” Even bundled up in a driving jacket and stylish flat cap, the performance of the car wasn’t affected much, as by keeping the car to an absolute bare minimum of equipment, its wet weight with a full tank of fuel was a hair shy of 800 kg, or 1,750 lbs.

There was a roof in case it started to rain, but even that didn’t offer a ton of cover. This was in the interests of shaving every possible penny from the price and every possible gram from the weight.

Reason #6: The Windshield Was Removable

Because of its design being focused around going fast and keeping weight down, the 356A Speedster soon became the favorite car of many weekend racers. However, some classes at the time required open top cars to be truly open top, without any “dangerous” glass to get in the way. Porsche, however, had thought about this.

1956 356A Speedster in racing trim
A 356A Speedster with the windshield and windshield posts removed, with a small wind deflector installed in front of the driver’s seat. Image Via: Wikimedia Commons.

To remove the windshield, all the owner would need to do is undo the anchor bolt in the middle of the windshield that holds it down to the dash, then unscrew the flathead screw in each of the side posts. The windshield would then simply slide off the posts, and the owner could go race to their heart’s content. To put the windshield back on, simply reverse the process. Slide the windshield into the posts, do up the flathead screws, tighten the center bolt back down, job done.

Reason #7: The 356 Speedster Had Two Personalities

Drive any modern Porsche 911, and you get the feeling that you’re driving two cars in one body. The first is a perfectly civil road car, able to handle the bumps and lumps of everyday city driving, and will happily cruise down the freeway. Get it onto an empty, twisty bit of road, however, and then it wakes up, becoming a razor sharp sports car that is begging you to attack the next turn even harder.

Mildly modified 356A Speedster with custom racing parts
One of two personalities within the 356A Speedster. This particular one has had a custom speedster hump, wing mirror, and wind deflector designed and installed for racing. All three are removable, and the original Speedster furniture reinstalled. Image Via: Ultimate Speedster

While other 356’s were capable of that feeling, it was the 356A Speedster that was the standard bearer for it. You could go for a lovely cruise on a Saturday, the little quad-cam flat-four burbling away behind you. Then, on Sunday, you could go attack a canyon, that same flat-four howling out its note as you hit every apex you want to as there is literally no weight to drag the car off line or into any form of understeer. Then, on Monday, commute to work in a civil manner once again.

Thankfully, Porsche knew what they had with the Speedster, and transplanted that DNA into pretty much every car they have made since.

Reason #8: It Still Offers One of the Purest Driving Experiences Available

In today’s world of electric-assisted steering, magnetorheological suspension, driver-selectable engine modes and vehicle settings, technology has taken away something from the actual experience of driving. There have been many cars that have tried to capture that feeling again, with only a very select few, such as the Ariel Atom, achieving it.

1955 356 Speedster parked on the road
No distractions, no unnecessary clutter. Just four wheels, four cylinders, four speeds, and a an open top so you can feel the wind in your hair. Image Via: Porsche

Yet, with a 356A Speedster, there is no power steering, no adjustable dampers, there aren’t even any roll up/down windows for the doors. It is a car that needs both feet and both hands to drive, and you feel every little buzz, rattle, and wobble that the car goes through. It’s tactile, it’s alive under you, and it tells you exactly what it wants and where its limits are. That, along with the rarity of the Speedster compared to the other models of the 356, is probably what makes them such highly prized collectors items.

Reason #9: The 356 Speedster Was the First Porsche Convertible Model to Reach 200 KPH

In American, that’s 124 MPH. In 1957, a special variant of the 356A Speedster was made, known as the 356A 1500 GS Carrera GT Speedster. It had an upgraded flat four engine that was pushing out a nigh unbelievable 115 HP from just 1.5 liters, and managed 87 lbs-ft at the same time, a record for that engine size at the time. While the Carrera GT Coupe had an easier time punching a hole through the air, the Speedster was also capable of reaching the at-the-time mythical 200 KPH mark.

1957 356A 1500 GS Carrera GT Speedster
1957 356A 1500 GS Carrera GT Speedster, the first open top Porsche to push beyond 124 MPH. Image Via: Stuttcars

Keep in mind, that was coming up to nearly 65 years ago, when a British roadster or American land yacht would be lauded if it even made 100 MPH, let alone beyond it. Yet the little bathtub on wheels shocked the world when it plowed straight past 100 and topped out at 125 MPH, or 202 KPH. Porsche had etched their name in history, and when the 1960s came around, as the 356’s model life came to a close, there was a worthy successor already lined up in the 911.