One of my more tiresome habits is to refer to the first-generation Volkswagen Beetle whenever possible within earshot of friends who own Porsche 911s. This is partly because, even though its engine is clearly in the wrong place, I like the 911 more than I want to admit and try to disguise the fact in public. However, it’s true that there is a connection between these famous long-running models, and even another car closely linked to both. That car is the Porsche 356.
Designed by Ferdinand ‘Ferry’ Porsche, the son of Volkswagen’s creator, the 356 was essential a sports version of the Beetle, sharing many of its components though with a different chassis. It went into production in 1948 and was still being built – after quite a bit of development but no major changes – in the mid 1960s, after the 911 had been introduced.
There were four generations, the last three known as the A, B and C. I’m going to concentrate on the B here because I’ve just driven one of them.
By “one of them” I don’t mean just any old 356 B but a truly spectacular example, surely one of the most beautifully presented still used regularly on the road. Painted in a colour which I described as off-white before learning that the official name is actually Heron Grey, it was built on 21 April 1960, making it one of the earliest of the B models, and sold the following month by Porsche dealer AFN Isleworth, though its number plate suggests it was registered, or perhaps re-registered, some time later in 1963.
It was owned for a while by Porsche Cars GB, but early in 2012 ownership was transferred to the Porsche Club of Great Britain. The body and paintwork were restored, to an almost unbelievably high standard, by Terry Allen of Curves Bodywork Specialists that year. The 1.6-litre engine, the four-speed manual gearbox and the suspension were rebuilt by Andy Prill, then of Maxted-Page & Prill, some parts being supplied by Roger Bray Restoration.
I hope everyone involved is proud of their work on the 356, because in its current state it is in magnificent condition. Inside and out, it looks as if it came out of the factory yesterday morning rather than 57 years ago.
Needless to say, it’s worth a lot of money. I’m told that it has been insured for no less than £150,000. This is not even close to the highest price paid for a 356 – Janis Joplin’s multi-coloured Speedster fetched £1.2 million in 2015 – but it’s good going for a late Coupe, and certainly enough to persuade me that I’m going to drive it very carefully.
Since it is never made clear whether I’m insured to do so, I’m not going to drive it on the road at all. By prior arrangement, though, I’m going to do two demonstration runs at the tenth annual Bo’ness Revival hillclimb. The sumptuously produced programme for this event reminds everyone present of something I’d prefer them to have forgotten, namely that in the late 50s future World F1 Champion Jim Clark competed at Bo’ness in an earlier 356 owned by his friend Ian Scott Watson.
If Clark had bumped Ian’s car, that would have been okay. If I bump this one, it will not be okay. Fortunately, a feature of demo runs is that they must not be timed, so nobody will have documentary evidence of how slowly I’m going, even though it will be plain to see.
My total experience of the car as I arrive at the start line for my first run consists of one three-point turn and a trundle through the paddock at slightly less than walking pace. This tells me that, despite the large wheel, the steering is heavy (it probably lightens up at higher speeds), the first inch or so of brake pedal travel doesn’t produce any results and the gearshift is vague. On the plus side, there is not the slightest suggestion that anything is going to fall off, and the 75bhp engine feels very benign.
The lack of timing means that I don’t have to be lined up accurately at the start line, so the marshals don’t, as they would normally, put a chock under a rear wheel to stop the 356 from rolling backwards. There is no procedural reason why they should, but I realise the flaw in this when I have to lean a long way forward to release the umbrella-handle handbrake while at the same time attempting to do something that might pass for a racing start. The 356 lurches away and there’s a strong smell of hot clutch.
The red line on the revcounter is at 4500rpm but I change into second gear at 4000. Shortly afterwards I have to hit the brakes for a left-hand hairpin (renamed this year, I’m delighted to say, in honour of the late and much-missed Bill Henderson, about whom you can read here) and select first again. I was a bit worried about this in advance but there is no problem.
Exiting Henderson’s, I prod the throttle nervously, suspecting that the narrow crossply tyres will let go. They don’t, so I make a smaller lift than I was planning to at Crawyett Bend, where the track starts to climb seriously for the first time. In its current layout, much slower than the original, everything that follows, from Paddock through the Courtyard to a new finish line approached after a tight square left, is twisty and surrounded by very large straw bales, so I don’t push hard there, but again everything feels very secure.
At a guess, the run has taken just under a minute, but it has changed me. I have become a Porsche 356 driver, and I can’t immediately think of anything that would make me happier. I love this car, perhaps even more than the many spectators who have already come up to talk about it and will continue doing so for the rest of the day.
I return to the paddock knowing that it will be a few hours before my second run, but there is much to see in that time. The variety of cars competing at Bo’ness is astonishing. There’s a Stutz Speedster, more than a century old (ahh), and a Vauxhall 30/98 and a couple of Frazer Nashes and several 911s and many things that are either Minis or have Mini engines and a Saab 96 (ooh!) and a brutal AC Cobra (yikes) and single-seaters with engines ranging in size from 500cc to ten times that and a few very quick Mk2 Ford Escorts (mmm!) and some absolutely beautiful Jaguars and a fantastically quick Ginetta G4 and – get this – a Chevrolet Corvette reputed to have 700bhp (it certainly sounds like it) which seems to be wider than the track is and is being handled by a very brave man who, it’s said, has never driven in competition before, though his times suggest he’s learning the ropes extremely rapidly.
That wasn’t even the half of it. If, for a modest admission fee, you want to get up close to wonderful cars like this, chat with their drivers, browse round various displays, wander through a historic estate and even try some pulled pork marinated in Irn Bru (about four hundred times better than I initially suspected), Bo’ness is the place to be.
Anyway, back to the 356. My second start is better (the marshals agreed to chock the car this time) and I push harder. I still don’t quite take the engine to the red line, but I’m now changing up at 4400rpm or so. I brake much later for Henderson’s, turn in more sharply and get on the power earlier. The car doesn’t complain.
I could take Crawyett flat, but this would mean changing into third before the exit, and since I’m still very conscious of how valuable this car is I lift anyway. No point in taking risks when I’m not being timed. I attack the twisty section slightly harder and the 356 seems to enjoy it.
As I was getting ready for this run I felt sad that it would be the last time I drove the 356 all day, and perhaps ever. Afterwards, I realise I’ve reached the point where I wish it had better brakes, which is as good a sign as any that it’s time to bring this wonderful experience to a close.