Though planned in principle in mid-1947—chief Porsche designer Karl Rabe was working on a one-fifth-scale drawing at Gmünd, Austria on July 24—the mid-engined Type 356 roadster was only progressed as and when the necessary skills were available. In July and November of that year, meetings took place with the British occupation officials in Klagenfurt who would have to bless Porsche’s creation of an automobile, lest it be a new secret weapon. Inspection of the 356’s completed tubular space frame took place on January 18, 1948.
After the frame was ready, final assembly proceeded quickly. On the 5th of February the bare chassis was ready for the road. Naturally Ferry Porsche, one of the most experienced evaluators of automobiles in Europe, was first to try it out. On several of his outings with the bodyless car Ferry was accompanied by Robert Eberan von Eberhorst, then still a consultant on the Cisitalia Grand Prix project. At first silent, shaking his head, Eberan then said, admiringly, “That’s really something. And all that from Volkswagen parts!”
Next an aluminum body was needed. Erwin Komenda drew it, thereby establishing the basic look of the 356 coupes and cabriolets to come. Star craftsman Friedrich Weber hammered out the body. Though Ferry Porsche later wrote that Weber needed “a bit over two months to build that first body—not exactly a record time for a skilled artisan,” the actual timing indicates that he built it in a day or two more than three weeks.
Soon after the roadster’s completion, on the 28th of April, Ferry invited his father to join him for a run south toward Spittal, Austria, during which the 356 suffered a frame breakage. After repairs, works manager Otto Husslein took it for a shakedown run on May 1st. That he had something to learn about sports car driving was shown by the dents in its tail that had to be repaired after his return.
On the 13th of May the roadster was undercoated in yellow, weighed and turned over to Ferry for further evaluation. A week later, Ferdinand Porsche and chauffeur Josef Goldinger commandeered the car for an afternoon drive.
Finish-coated in silver-grey, the 356 was presented to the authorities in Spittal, Austria on June 8th for road registration. They recorded Porsche as the producer and the model as “Sport 356/1.” The serial number was 356-001 and the engine number was 356-2-034969. A picture appended to the application is the only known image of the roadster with its crude canvas top erect. Individual type approval was granted on June 15 with the awarding of registration number K 45 286.
Now branded as a “Porsche,” no longer thought of as a possible sports Volkswagen as it had been when the project began, the 356 roadster was driven to Switzerland late in June so it could be tested by journalists who were on hand for the Swiss Grand Prix on July 4th. Then it was driven back to Austria, where it was demonstrated before an appreciative crowd on July 11, 1948 at Innsbruck between races of the Rund um den Hofgarten meeting. Accompanying it was a 1939 Volkswagen Berlin-Rome coupe.
This appearance “at racing speed” of exotic Porsche creations, giving a glimpse of the future of auto making, caused even more excitement than the race. “Much observed and admired were the two new Porsche cars,” said the Austrian newspaper Tiroler Tageszeitung, “using components from the Volkswagen and a tuned engine, not as racers but as sporting touring cars.”
That summer, David Scott-Moncrieff, a British tourist, paid an impromptu visit to Gmünd and to Porsche. He and his wife driving “up a valley to a group of what looked like army huts and were very graciously received.” A purveyor of fine motorcars, Scott-Moncrieff made himself known to Ferry Porsche, who showed him the works and the first 356.
“I was allowed to take the prototype for a test run,” said Scott-Moncrieff. “I was absolutely shattered by its roadholding. We were emerging from the decades during which only vintage cars and a few sports cars sat on the road; the others wallowed and floated about. So to find this new prototype as taut and road-hugging as a Grand Prix Bugatti was an incredible experience.”
Thereafter, the 356 roadster came to rest back in Switzerland, where the first orders for Porsche production cars originated. Desperately in need of hard currency, Porsche was in no position to keep the car as a historical icon.
For Sale: The First Porsche Ever!
356-001’s first owner after Porsche was the Riesbach Garage in Zürich. Josh Heintz, the garage’s owner, bought the Porsche for 7,000 Swiss francs—about $1,750—in September of 1948; an Austrian export license was forthcoming on September 7th.
The Riesbach Garage put the very first Porsche in its new-car showroom. Though the 356 was admired by many onlookers, no one had the courage to buy this unknown vehicle. A friend of the garage owner, Peter Kaiser, was willing to take the car for 7,500 francs—as more or less a favor to Heintz. Kaiser was told that a group of Swiss industrialists had wanted to manufacture it. He was sold the 356 on the understanding that they could buy the roadster back if they decided to proceed.
It wasn’t until December 20th that the car was officially registered for the road in Switzerland, where it bore the plate number ZH20 460. The “PORSCHE” lettering on its front deck didn’t meet with Kaiser’s enthusiasm. He felt that it didn’t fit well with other sports cars, which had sonorous, zippy names like Alfa Romeo and Jaguar. “I wasn’t interested in advertising Porsche,” he said, “so I changed the name.” Accordingly, he rearranged the original lettering to spell “PESCO.”
The “PESCO” became Kaiser’s daily driver. “I had the feeling of driving a very lively and agile automobile,” he said. “I had to park it in the darkest back streets of Zürich because otherwise there would be a huge crowd of people around it when I returned. They didn’t know which end was the front and which the back.”
In the spring of 1949 Kaiser sent the car to Metsch, a friend in Frankental in Germany, to have its brakes converted from cable to hydraulic operation. In 1951, after Porsche set up in business in Stuttgart, he took the roadster to the works, where he thought that it might cause some excitement. Instead, he was told that they had no interest in it. This “failed design” had nothing to do with them, the Porsche people told him.
In 1951 Peter Kaiser sold the 356 to Zürich VW importer AMAG for 4,500 francs. At the time, said Kaiser, its seats were uncomfortable, body seams were opening up, the doors were dropping after the hinges went, the seating between the frame trusses was narrow, the engine was weakening and the springing was suffering. “It was falling to bits,” he recalled.
Shortly thereafter Rosemarie Muff of Zürich acquired the Porsche for 10,000 francs. After she drove the car into the ground, swanning slowly about the streets of Zürich, Hermann Schulthess bought it for 3,000 francs, still in 1951. Now the first Porsche was finally in good hands. Zürich’s Schulthess, a car hobbyist, restored the 356 completely.
On a trip over the Gotthard Pass through the Alps, the Porsche nearly collided with a goat. Avoiding it, Schulthess braked so severely that the Opel following him, occupied by six nuns from the Einsiedeln nunnery, ran into him and pushed the 356 into the car in front. Both ends were repaired in the bodywork department of AMAG in Zürich, which altered both front and rear to align them more with the design of current production Porsches.
In 1952 Schulthess took 356-001 to the Porsche factory for the installation of larger hydraulic brakes and a 1500S engine. The only person in the works who expressed pleasure at this reunion with “our first Porsche,” as he called it, was business chief Leopold Prinzing. Otherwise, no one took a particular interest in it.
With its strong engine and great brakes, thought Schulthess, his car was race-ready. But the only actual race that the first Porsche entered was the Swiss Mitholz-Kandersteg Hill Climb in 1953. Mark Engler from Ascona, Switzerland drove it to second place behind winner Hans Stanek in his Porsche-powered Glöckler special. That year the car also participated in several Swiss rallies.
The next owner was a Zürich baker named Igoris. It was love at first sight when he saw the 356 being inspected at AMAG. Igoris exchanged his Porsche 356 1300 coupe for the car with Schulthess. Although he wanted to renege on the deal the next day because 356-001 didn’t meet his expectations, Schulthess refused. From then on the car stood in the garage of Igoris and deteriorated.
The last private owner of the first Porsche was Franz Blaser of Lachen, Switzerland. On one of his daily trips to Zürich the auto mechanic spotted the car sitting in Igoris’s garage, made a bid and bought it. Again, the car was completely overhauled, restored and returned to the road.
In 1958, celebrating its first decade, the Porsche works took its belated decision to retrieve the first car bearing the company name. The intention was to set up an exhibit at the factory in which all previous Porsche designs would be assembled and admired. Porsche’s Richard von Frankenberg, a friend of Hermann Schulthess, assumed that he was still in possession of 356-001 and asked if he would sell the car. Frankenberg was referred to Blaser, who happily exchanged his ten-year-old roadster for a factory-new Porsche Speedster.
Thereafter, 356-001 has been in the Porsche collection. Around 1975 it was restored to an approximation of its original external appearance. Its interior had been much changed with a new dash and buckets instead of bench seating. In the 21st century its instrumentation was changed to resemble the original more faithfully. Today, it is justifiably a prime attraction in the wonderful Porsche Museum in Stuttgart.