1963 Porsche 356B Super 90 Cabriolet
This air-cooled aficionado has driven Beetles and 911s galore but the 356 is his missing link. Today he’ll complete the chain by driving his dream car, a 1963 Porsche 356B Super 90 Cabriolet.
Words EMMA WOODCOCK
Photography JONNY FLEETWOOD
‘That’s the biggest surprise – it could easily be my daily’
Did a grounding in VWs prepare reader Darryl Sleath for the 356?
Just for a moment, Darryl Sleath doesn’t know where to look. Seemingly endless rows of seven-figure classics and supercars stretch out before him, his gaze flitting between myriad machines he’s always wanted to experience. Then he spots his one dream car above all others, front and centre. The 1963 Porsche 356B Super 90 Cabriolet. Thanks to a generous owner and O’Kane Lavers – the dealership currently offering the car for £139,500 – there’s a key waiting in the ignition. Open roads beckon. Today Darryl will discover his long-cherished favourite from the driving seat.
‘My family always had VWs when I was growing up,’ he explains. ‘I used to borrow my brother’s Beetles, then ended up with one of my own. I tuned it, badly, before moving on to a pair of VR6 machines – a Golf MkIII for the track and a Corrado for the road. Between us we’ve owned every Golf generation from MkI to MkVIII and dabbled in Porsches too. Dad owned a nice 944 and I was lucky to drive several 911s when I tried writing for a few magazines. The 356 sits between my air-cooled VW youth and my more recent Porsche experiences.’
Ben Hadfield, senior car manager at the V Management storage facility, beckons us forwards. I’m scrolling through the detailed start-up instructions provided by the car’s owner, but Darryl can’t take his eyes off the Bali Blue coachwork. ‘My brother has a poster of the 356A works racers at the 12 Hours of Reims and I can never take my eyes off it. Porsche designed such a pure, beautiful shape, only enhanced by the remarkable condition of this example. We’re standing in a supercar sweet shop and the 356B is still one of the prettiest cars in sight.’
‘What a tactile interior,’ he adds as we duck into the cabin. ‘The narrow Bakelite wheel has stunning patina, the VDO dials are beautifully finished and the chrome details light up the space. It’s quite Art Deco in its own way.’ Pushing the clutch in, he feels his away around the H-pattern four-speed gearbox. We’ve been warned by the owner that the baulk rings can be slow to engage, requiring a steady, accurate shift. ‘I’m rummaging around to discover where the slots might be, so I can get some idea how the lever needs to be nudged. It’s an inch-this-way, inch-that-way process but, otherwise, I’m not feeling nervous.’
The flat-four flares into life and we pull out into the daylight, setting aim for Sparsholt Firs. Industrial estates turn to urban sprawl turn to countryside, and soon Darryl is getting a sense for the Porsche. ‘It feels remarkably modern, though I’m trying to be cautious on these greasy minor roads. I feared the rear-engined 356 might be quite tail happy but it’s nothing of the sort. Whatever upgrades Porsche applied when it developed the 356B facelift clearly worked. The steering is light and precise, reminding me of the decades-younger Mazda MX-5, and the chassis is unerringly neutral.
‘Given my Beetle background, I’ve been bracing to shed teeth through every pothole and that simply isn’t happening. It’s not quite the smooth experience of a modern-day 911 with PASM active damping but nor does it crash like the classics of yore. Nothing seems to phase the 356, and I’m including the brakes in that. They’re drums all round and I’m making allowances for that, leaving plenty of space around other cars, but they’re very strong, progressive and give no sense that they’ll let me down. ‘I’m constantly having to remind myself that this car was built in the Sixties and designed even earlier. It’s such an easy, compliant and well-put-together thing, with remarkably little wind noise at motorway speeds, showing the engineering brilliance of post-war Germany. Porsche was a feisty underdog in a way, taking what it had and wringing the absolute best from it. I’ve driven British sports cars ten years younger than this, and they’ve been much harder work. I could drive the 356B all day – and maybe even every day – yet it’s never boring.’
He pushes the floor-hinged throttle to the floor, proving his point with the vocal flat-four burr. ‘This car was built on the cusp of the 911’s introduction and the beginning of the flat-six era, yet I think the earlier engine gives the 356B its wonderful purity. It’s free-revving without being overly intrusive, the metallic thrum sounding half-way between a VW and a 911, which is entirely as I’d hoped and imagined.’ There’s a sense of speed to match. ‘It really picks up and responds. Okay, the engine only puts out 90bhp but what a sense of theatre comes with it! I constantly feel like I’m driving 10 or 20mph faster than our actual road speed.’ Crunching to a halt amongst the heather, we hop out to take a closer look at the rear-mounted engine. ‘Look at its simplicity,’ Darryl muses. ‘No other engine looks as simple or straightforward, while the range-topping Solex carburettors of the Super 90 really set off the space. There are hints of Dr Porsche’s previous work on the Beetle, but no more. I can see them in the shape of the crankcases and the plates that finish off the floor.’ With the weather brightening, we grab a moment to lower the roof. ‘The hood fits remarkably well, up or down, and buttons so neatly into place. Other sports cars from the era can look like collapsed tents. Not so the 356B.
‘The styling is a real advancement from the jelly-mould styling of the earlier 356A, though I do prefer the single-piece pre 1962 engine lid grille. You can see the genesis of the 911 in the sharper, more upright 356B shape, and I’d choose the later car for its technical improvements and increased power. ‘Form and function combine fantastically across the interior,’ he muses, pivoting back behind the wheel. ‘The driving position feels absolutely right, with everything falling exactly where I expect it to be. I chose my footwear very carefully this morning, expecting very fine and Caterham-esque pedals, but I needn’t have worried. All three pedals are easy to use, so much so that I’ve barely given them a thought.’
It’s not just the major controls that impress; he’s equally enchanted by the smaller details. ‘There’s a real sense of quality. The Blaupunkt stereo is carefully incorporated into the dashboard, the hessian mats fit the footwells exactly and – though unmarked – the knobs protruding from the dashboard are perfectly intuitive. I can soon discern which does what.’ The bijou rearview mirrors require the only major adjustment. ‘Visibility is a little tricky with no offside wing mirror. I’m working around that with plenty of lifesaver glances.’
Open-air motoring adds a new dimension to the 356B, Darryl cracking an ever-wider smile as we carve downhill. ‘I can really hear the flat-four now – listen to the exhaust bouncing back off these stone walls! The owner is happy for us to reach 5000rpm, but I don’t need to push that far to start enjoying it. Even at half those revs, the Porsche sounds so eager and alive.’ His confidence growing, he reflects on how best to enjoy the performance. ‘I’ve driven cars with similar power-to-weight ratios – Caterhams and Fiat Panda 100HPs – which feel faster because they can be driven in complete anger. I wouldn’t dream of driving the Porsche the same way. It deserves reverence.
‘I’m already starting to build muscle memory with the major controls,’ he continues. ‘That’s a real endorsement for the Porsche’s user friendliness. Third gear no longer feels elusive and I’m satisfied that the giant finned drums will stop us just as well as decade-younger disc brakes would, while every corner is bolstering my faith in the chassis. The 356’s compact dimensions, especially its narrowness, really help on these roads, overcoming any challenges that come from being left-hand drive.’
‘Little details shine through, showing how much this car has been used and loved. I really like to see that. A well-patinated and exactingly maintained classic is worth more than something over-embellished and faux-original, at least in my book. I really understand why the owner drives it so often too. The 356B is never threatening or needlessly dramatic, yet I’m still absolutely engaged in everything I’m doing behind the wheel. That’s the biggest surprise of all – I’d happily use it every day.’
Gathering clouds threaten Vale of White Horse as we turn for home, yet nothing can dent Darryl’s mood. Clicking the canvas roof into place, he shrugs back into the driving seat, looking perfectly at home aboard the Porsche. ‘I’ve really got my bearings now and I’m feeling confident with the gearshift, so I can just enjoy the drive,’ he explains. ‘I’m having a wonderful time flowing with the car on these long, ambling countryside roads. It’s such a neutral and compliant machine, which really speaks to the depths of its engineering.’
Eventually we nose back through the gates of V Management, where the team stand ready to receive their charge. Darryl pulls up outside the open doors, gazing thoughtfully over the automotive glitterati inside. ‘There’s no greater test than returning to a warehouse of Aston DB5s, Ferrari 250 Lussos and the like, then asking myself whether I’ve chosen the right dream drive. And yet the Porsche passes with flying colours. I’m still fixated on it, even after a full day behind the wheel.’
‘It goes without saying that the 356B stays in my top ten. I’m sitting here, working out how to manipulate my bank balance so I can own one, which doesn’t quite seem to be immediately possible. Even if the Porsche remains just beyond my reach, today has nudged me away from collecting Minis and back towards my air-cooled roots. I’m thinking of VW ‘Fastbacks’ or hotted-up Beetles – I think my Vespa, MGs and Minis could soon be up for sale to fund something early, fun and German!
‘The cliché advises not meeting your heroes, so I arrived today with my expectations set low and a clear understanding that a standard 1963 machine could be nothing like the Rennsport Porsche restomods I’ve driven in recent years. The tatty Beetles of my youth hung over me, but it turns out the 356B sits somewhere between the two models, erring more towards the 911 end of the spectrum. It’s far more responsive than I expected, it handles sweetly and the whole car is beautifully put together. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool MG enthusiast but the Porsche is lightyears ahead of its period competition – it exudes quality.’
The 356B chimes with Darryl’s nostalgia for aircooled Entertainment
TECHNICAL DATA 1963 Porsche 356B Super 90 Cabriolet
- Engine 1582cc horizontally-opposed air-cooled four-cylinder, pushrod ohv, twin Solex 40 PJJ-4 twin-choke carburettors
- Max Power 90bhp @ 5500rpm;
- Max Torque 89lb ft @ 4300rpm
- Transmission Four-speed manual with synchromesh, rear-wheel drive
- Steering ZF worm and peg
- Suspension Front: independent by parallel trailing arms with transverse torsion bars, Koni telescopic dampers and anti-roll bar. Rear: independent by swing axles with trailing arms, transverse torsion bars and Koni telescopic dampers
- Brakes Front and rear: Porsche hydraulic drums
- Performance Top speed: 104mph;
- 0-60mph: 11.0 sec
- Weight 880kg (1939lb)
- Fuel consumption 24mpg
- Cost new £2876 inc purchase tax
- Asking Price £139,500
‘It’s such a neutral and compliant machine, which really speaks to the depths of its engineering’
Drum brakes all round, but no stopping issues.
‘The steering is light and precise; the chassis is unerringly neutral’ Blaupunkt stereo comes in for praise.
Drum brakes all round, but no stopping issues. Drum brakes all round, but no stopping issues. Modest on paper; stirring in practice Twin Solex carbs originated in the Carrera.