For many years now, the name ‘Carrera’ has been associated with Porsche sports cars. But the story of how the fledgling 356 first got its ‘Carrera’ name is a fascinating one. This required the far-sightedness of the company founder, Ferry Porsche, and a young engineer who was prepared to think outside the box. This story follows a long and twisty road which started in far-off Mexico and involved significant engineering prowess, commitment and endurance.
History of the Carrera name
In studying the origins of Porsche’s Carrera badge, it is important to understand the circumstances in which this model name came about, and to grasp some of the ambience surrounding the world of motorsport in the 1950s. Things were not quite so complex back then and legends were sometimes born out of simple traditions, and usually unintentionally.
At the end of the 1940s, the combined countries of the Americas agreed to resume the building of the highway, effectively uniting the two Americas by way of a north-south road. Known as The Pan-American Road, it covered a staggering 16,000 miles, stretching from Alaska to Chile.
In celebration of the completion of the Mexican section of the road, and in order to attract public attention to the project, the Mexican government proposed the creation of an international border-to-border road race. It was planned that top rate drivers would be invited to participate, a concept that was self-fulfilling as the event was being billed as a tough challenge. If one well known driver signed up, the others couldn’t afford not to be there.
The name given to this great Mexican event was simply, ‘La Carrera Panamericana’ and was first held on 5 May 1950. Although it was officially classified as a rally, in reality it took the form of a no-holds-barred race across some of the harshest and most dangerous terrain in motorsport at that time. Drivers had to tough it out over the 2000-mile course with little in the way of maps, or even support crew, for some. Rules were sketchy at best, and so the race became an all-out contest to get from the start line to the finish line as fast as possible, with the mere 2000 gruelling miles separating these two points.
Race conditions varied from a hot and humid tropical start, rising up from sea level to ten thousand feet with temperatures ranging from over 90°F to almost zero, all within 72 hours. It is hardly surprising that it earned the title of ‘The Toughest Race’.
These extreme conditions placed teams and drivers under constant pressure right from the start. Engines that performed satisfactorily at sea level sounded really sick at 10,000 feet, requiring teams to tune and retune their engines, as well as resetting carburettors and plug gaps on a regular basis. The road surfaces consisted of a mixture of highly abrasive volcanic ash, with rock strewn run-off areas and deep road-side gorges. Under such conditions, a set of tyres was not expected to last much beyond six hundred miles.
Over the five-year period during which the Carrera Panamericana was run, it attracted over two million spectators, more than any other motorsport event in the world up to that date. The Carrera Panamericana was only run for five years (1950-54) because of the high risk attached to the event, for both drivers and spectators, with nine fatalities in its first four years. But 1954 was a big year for Porsche as Hans Herrmann, driving the Fuhrmann 4-cam engined 550, won the 1500 cc class in jubilant fashion, finishing third overall.
Although the Carrera Panamericana was not the scene of Porsche’s greatest racing accomplishment, the Mexican race must rank as one of the toughest. Climatic and race conditions apart, for the small manufacturer from Stuttgart, this represented a monumental achievement.
Background to the Type 547 engine as installed in the 356
The brief given to Dr Ernst Fuhrmann, was to build a higher performing, air-cooled 1.5-litre boxer engine capable of producing 100 bhp. The new engine was to follow the general format of the existing 1500 cc pushrod motor, and should therefore not exceed the physical dimensions of this unit, but it should also allow much greater development potential in the future, right up to 2-litres.
Fuhrmann decided early on that the engine would have two camshafts per bank which were shaft driven, rather than chain or belt driven. Herbert Linge picks up the story, “Fuhrmann was really trying to build an engine which could also be used on the road, which was very difficult in the beginning, it was just so expensive for a road car.”
The complex, light alloy 1498 cc engine had dual ignition, four camshafts and produced 110 bhp at 7800 rpm. It had twin ignition which meant two plugs per cylinder, two camshaft driven distributors and two coils. So complex was the motor, that Porsche mechanics had to be specially trained before working on it, as an engine rebuild could take up to a week to complete. The simple task of replacing the spark plugs required the use of a special double-articulated plug wrench, which often proved too much trouble for owners.
The Porsche 356 A Carrera was launched at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September 1955, this model essentially representing the marriage between the 356 roadgoing model and the Type 547 engine. Interest was strong at the Frankfurt show which went some way to ensuring the sale of the 100 units required by the FIA for homologation in the Grand Touring category. The 356 A Carrera was distinguishable from its siblings by the ‘Carrera’ scripting on the car’s front fenders, engine cover and the dual exhaust outlets.
The Porsche 356 A Carrera 1500 GS
Although 356 Carrera was launched as a new model at the 1955 Frankfurt Motor Show, which was held in September of that year, cars produced between August 1955 and July 1956 are classified as 1956 models. The production date for our feature car was 11 February 1956, and it was registered on 20 April 1956. This car’s body was manufactured by the Reutter company, with whom Porsche had a production contract, and of course which company Porsche later took over when they needed a larger production facility.
A total of 439 Porsche 356 A Carreras were built in various forms, of which just ten right hand drive cars were produced. Of the ten RHD Carrera GS built, only four were imported into the UK by the official Porsche dealer AFN. This car is the third of the four imported into the UK, and to this day it is still an all-matching numbers car, making it a very desirable and extremely rare machine.
In an effort to provide Porsche drivers with a level of comfort, combined with the high performance expected from a Porsche, the ‘GS’ model was made available. The ‘GS’ stood for Grand Sport, and for good reason as this sports car developed 100 bhp at 6200 rpm, which in 1956, was extremely potent for a 1498 cc 4-cylinder car. By today’s standards, a top speed of 125 mph (200 km/h) with acceleration from 0-62 mph (100 km/h) in 12 seconds may seem pedestrian, but in the mid-1950s this was blisteringly quick when compared to its rivals in the market. All that performance came with a good deal of luxury and comfort too, as the owner could specify a wide range of options with which to deck out his/her new wheels.
The Porsche 356 A was equipped with a ‘panorama’ front windscreen, this being a single, curved piece of glass as opposed to the old split screen. When the original 356 was first launched, the technology required to manufacture a one-piece, curved windscreen was not available. Another first was the foot-operated windscreen washer feature fitted as standard, although this had been available for some time on other models as an option. The bucket seats for the driver and front passenger left one with no doubt about the sportiness of this model. All of this could be had for a basic price of DM 18,500 which would equate to around $4500 without taxes and import duties.
1956 Porsche 356 A Carrera 1500 GS – 752 LMA
The car was first sold by AFN to Bank Top Motor House, Burnley which was where Edgar Wadsworth purchased the car. Wadsworth, a well-known privateer racing driver, twice entered Le Mans in an Aston Martin and a works Triumph TR2, kept the car from 1956 to 1961. Thereafter it was sold to Cyril Corbishley, another well-known racing and rally driver, who was an Alpine Rally winner. The current owner, David Harrison, is the car’s seventh owner and whilst in his care it has undergone a complete restoration.
David Harrison acquired the car in November 2012, but as he told the author, he wasn’t looking for a Carrera. The owner explained, “We have our rally car serviced by Gantspeed Engineering up in Lincolnshire and in their store room was a 356 body and scattered around were bits of engine and wheels. For years, I had been asking Robert at Gantspeed what it was and what was happening to it. Then one year he said they wanted to get rid of it because the owner had had a lot of bodywork done on it but the bodywork hadn’t been done properly and they couldn’t even get the engine to fit. He warned me that if I took it on, it would have to go right back to scratch, because everything needed to be completely rebuilt.”
The decision was taken to purchase the project, but even at that stage Harrison did not realise the significance of the car, that was only revealed once he and his wife began the research. David outlines the scale of the project, “When we realised quite how historically important it was, the finish on it became even more critical. It took three-and-a-half to four years to complete with 1,200 hours of work just on the body alone, that is not painting it, that is just purely getting the shape right and getting the attention to detail absolutely bang on. But it is a matching numbers car with the engine, gearbox and panels, everything matching.”
In the restoration, as many of the original body panels and parts as possible, were used. The result though, was spectacular, because at the car’s first public showing at the Classics at the Castle, Hedingham Castle in Essex, it won the best car at the show. “We had not even seen it, we were actually away on a rally, so that sort of showed that he had done all the work correctly and the car was as good as we had hoped,” he added.
Hearing the stories of the multiple rallies that David and his wife have been on, it became obvious very quickly that the white Carrera was not going to be a garage queen. In fact, they use the car regularly, as David explains, “The car had broken down on a trip that we had done because I just didn’t drive it hard enough, I kept oiling the plugs up, and so it went back to Gantspeed and they fixed it. We have been back up to the Castle Porsche meeting at Hedingham where we had it on display for Gantspeed. Otherwise we just generally drive it around, but we haven’t rallied it. The only Concours event that we have ever done, and will ever do, is the Salon Privé Concours Masters Celebration (2018), and we drove it there, put it on display, and drove it home again. We won Best Carrera and we took second place overall,” he added proudly.
It is important for several reasons that sports cars such as this one, are driven regularly, and driven in the way they were designed to be driven. So often you hear of expensive sports cars and racing cars just being stored and brought out only to be shown at events. These cars are known as garage queens.
It’s been a long and twisty road, but this 356 A Carrera can once again take its rightful place as one of the top cars in its class. Fortunately though, this 356 A Carrera will not live a tranquil or staid life in the Harrison household, as the owner is firmly of the opinion that a sports car is to be driven, properly. That would have brought a smile to Ferry Porsche’s face.
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale, Porsche Werkfoto & Salon Privé