An Air-Cooled Escape

Los Angeles may be considered the City of Angels, but watching its thick urban sprawl rapidly shrink through the rear view is often a desirable goal. Tormenting horns and the buzz of the hustle on the clogged Interstate 10 are dulled by the confident roar emitting from the 1965 Porsche 356C’s air-cooled rear engine. As the Mojave Desert and its late morning broil approaches, the fact that anything can be cooled seems impossible. Winding through the San Bernardino Mountains, an instinctual reaction to engage the synchromesh transmission by pushing the slender floor-mounted gearshift into third creates a heightened, metallic combustion. Gazing through the chrome framed windshield, the responsive 1600cc flat-four engine and minimal interior provide a timeless escape along Route 62.

Over 5,000 miles away from that particular desert road lies the industrial hub of Stuttgart, Germany. In the distant past, this is where Ferdinand Porsche’s team, including his son Ferry, established a motor vehicle design and consulting firm in the early 1930s. One of their early assignments came from Adolf Hitler — to fulfill his vision of motorizing the nation with a practical, affordable and efficient auto. The final Volkswagen Beetle blueprint surfaced from Porsche’s camp in 1938; its rear-engine design and Ferdinand’s continued ties with VW would become key DNA strands in future Porsche models. Even though consumer production of the Beetle was postponed due to the start of World War II, the firm produced designs for light military renditions including the Kübelwagen and amphibious Schwimmwagen.

Back in the Mojave Desert, a coyote crossing in the mirage-rippled distance symbolizes the starting line to a flat stretch of Route 62 — a perfect chance to test the 356C’s well-used speedometer along the sun cracked road. Unlike Porsche’s post-war imprisonment in France, a modern-day brush with the highway police seems like a worthwhile inconvenience. Perhaps purpose-designed, the rounded outcrop of the driver’s side door acts as a perfect roadside armrest for an inevitable speed limit debate with a staunch state officer. Porsche’s contact with French authorities, on the other hand, was a grey area. While being held in a medieval Dijon jail, he was forced to collaborate on designs for Renault under the guise of being punished for war crimes related to questionable labor practices in his German factories. After serving about 17 months, a release and dropped allegations ensued when the Porsche family paid a ransom of one million francs. 

…IT’S THE UNMISTAKABLE 356 SILHOUETTE HURTLING ALONG ROUTE 62 THAT ESSENTIALLY LED TO 50 YEARS AND OVER 40 VERSIONS OF THE 911.

Steering away from designing vehicles for others, Ferdinand Porsche’s son Ferry envisioned the first auto to bear the family name — one that could be driven at a competitive level, on the intertwining freeways of Los Angeles and, more immediately, through the dusty Mojave Desert. This versatility — along with the desire to create a lively driving experience with a compact, overpowered car — would define the brand going forward. The first Porsche 356 prototype rolled off the production line in 1948 as a low profile, agile and sleek cousin to the Beetle that Porsche Sr. designed. And after a 1951 class win at Le Mans, people outside of Germany and Austria paid attention.

A key detail began centering the 356’s steering wheel in 1952 — an enduring logo design that was conceptualized by Ferry on a dinner napkin in New York City. Porsche engineer Franz Xaver Reimspiess, who also designed the VW logo, rendered the final display of powerful German imagery crowned with the Porsche name. The antlered crest of a former state was unified with the rearing black steed that signifies Stuttgart’s horse breeding heritage, as well as the independent automaker’s tenacity.

By 1963, Porsche presented the larger, more powerful six-cylinder 901 — a title that Peugeot in France nixed, claiming exclusive rights to car names that have a zero centering three numbers. So, the design handiwork of Ferry’s son Butzi became known as the 911. Nonetheless, it’s the unmistakable 356 silhouette hurtling along Route 62 that essentially led to 50 years and over 40 versions of the 911 — an icon that continues to influence Porsche designs and inspire drivers worldwide.

Written by Frank Daniello
Photographed by Stephen Wilde

The Journal is published bi-annually and complimentary copies are available at Herschel Supply stockists worldwide. Enjoy the digital edition of Issue 4 (Spring/Summer 2015) in its entirety by visiting the archive.

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