Germany's comeback after its defeat in World War II is a remarkable story - and much of it was due to an auto designer named Ferdinand Porsche, the brain behind the "People's Car" - better known as the Volkswagen Beetle. Porsche, who gave his name to a now legendary line of high performance sports cars, had the foresight to see what would appeal to the automotive market of the future. To be sure, GIs returning from England had developed a taste for that country's sporty little two seat roadsters like the MG and the Jaguar. That led Chevrolet to eventually develop the Corvette and Ford to come out with its Thunderbird - but long before that, Porsche came out with the 356.
As Porsche was the designer of the VW, it should not be surprising that the early Porsche 356 bore a family resemblance to the Beetle. First built by hand in 1948, the 356 was quick, road gripping and offered superb handling. Unfortunately, only fifty of these vehicles were built over the next two years. Then, in 1950, production was moved from the original plant in Gmünd, Austria to a suburb of Stuttgart in what was then known as West Germany. It was there that ensuing generations of the 356 were produced until the model was replaced by the 911 in 1965.
The 356A first rolled off the assembly line in 1955. Known among sports car enthusiasts as the "T1," it was first sold in the U.S. as the "Continental." 1200 of them made it to U.S. dealerships that year. The model got a slight makeover in 1957. Over the course of production, several different four cylinder, air-cooled "pancake" or "boxer" engines were available, ranging in size from 1.3 to 1.6 liters in displacement. All of these delivered power to the rear wheels through a four speed manual transmission. The Porsche 356A Speedster is probably most infamous for being the car driven by actor James Dean when he was killed in a collision on a remote California highway in September of 1955.
By 1959, production of the 356A was discontinued in favor of the 356B. However, the spirit of that classic roadster, a company in San Diego offers a Porsche 356A replica kit, which has been very popular over the past quarter century. That is probably a good thing. Back in the day, the sticker price for a new Porsche 356A was nearly $3000 - which would be around $25,000 today. Today, the typical Porsche 356A value (according to Hemmings Motor News) is around $170,000 - and a few go as high as $400,000.
For those of us without quite that much money to throw around, there's always the "replicar" Porsche 356A kit. There are also parts for the original (as well as the replica) available through PartsGeek.com, a discount purveyor of auto parts. They're well worth checking into, should you want to save some significant money on your next automotive project.