Likely inspired by his work with Cisitalia, Ferry Porsche began looking into developing his own sports car during the late 1940s. Work on what would ultimately become the 356 started as early as 1947, and the first car to wear the Porsche name was manufactured in Gmünd, Austria, in 1948.
Called Type 356, the original Porsche was an aerodynamic mid-engined roadster largely built with components borrowed from the Volkswagen parts bin. Notably, power was provided by a Beetle-sourced 1.1-liter air-cooled flat-four engine that made 25 horsepower at 3,300 rpm in its initial state of tune. Porsche made a handful of modifications to the mill, including fitting redesigned heads and new valves, in order to boost its output to 35 horsepower at 4,000 rpm and 51 pound-feet of torque at 2,600 rpm.
The flat-four was mounted directly behind the passenger compartment. It spun the rear wheels via a Beetle-derived four-speed manual transmission, and it sent the Type 356 on to a top speed of roughly 87 mph (140 km/h). Drum brakes all around brought the car to a stop.
The Austrian government gave Porsche permission to test the Type 356 on public roads in June of 1948. In a way, the roadster was a rolling experiment that helped Porsche gather the information it needed to build its first series-produced model. The prototype was sold to a Swiss car dealer for 7,500 Swiss Francs in order to help fund the development of the production-bound 356, though it was re-purchased in 1953 and it has been part of the company’s collection ever since.
The Type 356 remained a one-off model, but it had a tremendous influence on the series-produced 356, especially in terms of design. The most significant modification made to the prototype as it transitioned to a production car was that the flat-four was moved from behind the passenger compartment to behind the rear axle for cost and packaging reasons.