The 356 is a lightweight and nimble-handling, rear-engine, rear-wheel drive, two-door available both in hardtop coupé and open configurations. Engineering innovations continued during the years of manufacture, contributing to its motorsports success and popularity. Production started in 1948 at Gmünd, Austria, where approximately 50 cars were built. In 1950 the factory relocated to Zuffenhausen, Germany, and general production of the 356 continued until April 1965, well after the replacement model 911 made its autumn 1963 debut. Of the 76,000 originally produced, approximately half survive.
The original price in 1948 for the 356 coupe was US$3,750. The 356 cabriolet cost US$4,250. 
Prior to World War II Porsche designed and built three Type 64 cars for a 1939 Berlin-to-Rome race that was cancelled. In 1948 the mid-engine, tubular chassis 356 prototype called "No. 1" was completed. This led to some debate as to the "first" Porsche automobile. Although the original Porsche 356 unit had a rear-mid engine placement, the rear-engined 356 is considered by Porsche to be its first production model.
The 356 was created by Ferdinand "Ferry" Porsche (son of Ferdinand Porsche, founder of the German company), who founded the Austrian company with his sister, Louise. Like its cousin, the Volkswagen Beetle (which Ferdinand Porsche Sr. had designed), the 356 is a four-cylinder, air-cooled, rear-engine, rear-wheel drive car with unitized pan and body construction. The chassis was a completely new design as was the 356's body which was designed by Porsche employee Erwin Komenda, while certain mechanical components including the engine case and some suspension components were based on and initially sourced from Volkswagen. Ferry Porsche described the thinking behind the development of the 356 in an interview with the editor of Panorama, the PCA magazine, in September 1972. "...I had always driven very speedy cars. I had an Alfa Romeo, also a BMW and others. ….By the end of the war I had a Volkswagen Cabriolet with a supercharged engine and that was the basic idea. I saw that if you had enough power in a small car it is nicer to drive than if you have a big car which is also overpowered. And it is more fun. On this basic idea we started the first Porsche prototype. To make the car lighter, to have an engine with more horsepower…that was the first two seater that we built in Carinthia (Gmünd)".
The first 356 was road certified in Austria on June 8, 1948, and was entered in a race in Innsbruck where it won its class. Porsche re-engineered and refined the car with a focus on performance. Fewer and fewer parts were shared between Volkswagen and Porsche as the 1950s progressed. The early 356 automobile bodies produced at Gmünd were handcrafted in aluminum, but when production moved to Zuffenhausen, Germany in 1950, models produced there were steel-bodied. The aluminium bodied cars from that very small company are what are now referred to as "prototypes". Porsche contracted Reutter to build the steel bodies and eventually bought the Reutter company in 1963. The Reutter company retained the seat manufacturing part of the business and changed its name to "Recaro".
Little noticed at its inception, mostly by a small number of auto racing enthusiasts, the first 356s sold primarily in Austria and Germany. It took Porsche two years, starting with the first prototype in 1948, to manufacture the first 50 automobiles. By the early 1950s the 356 had gained some renown among enthusiasts on both sides of the Atlantic for its aerodynamics, handling, and excellent build quality. The class win at Le Mans in 1951 was a factor. It was common for owners to race the car as well as drive them on the streets. They introduced the four-cam racing "Carrera" engine, a totally new design and unique to Porsche sports cars, in late 1954. Increasing success with its racing and road cars brought Porsche orders for over 10,000 units in 1964, and by the time 356 production ended in 1965 approximately 76,000 had been produced.
The 356 was built in four distinct series, the original ("pre-A"), followed by the 356 A, 356 B, and finally the 356 C. To distinguish among the major revisions of the model, 356s are generally classified into a few major groups. The 356 coupés and "cabriolets" (soft-tops) built through 1955 are readily identifiable by their split (1948 to 1952) or bent (centre-creased, 1953 to 1955) windscreens. In late 1955 the 356 A appeared, with a curved windshield. The A was the first road going Porsche to offer the Carrera four-cam engine as an option. In late 1959 the T5 356 B appeared; followed by the redesigned T6 series 356 B in 1962. The final version was the 356 C, little changed from the late T6 B cars but disc brakes replaced the drums.
Prior to completion of 356 production, Porsche had developed a higher-revving 616/36 version of the 356's four-cylinder pushrod engine for installation in a new 912 model that commenced production in April 1965. Although the 912 used numerous 356 components, Porsche did not intended for the 912 to replace the 356.
When the decision was made to replace the 356, the 901 (later 911) was the road car designed to carry the Porsche name forward. The 912 was developed as the "standard version" of the 911 at the 17,500DM price of a 356 1600 SC, while the complex but faster and heavier six-cylinder 911 was priced more than fifty percent higher. Customers purchased nearly 33,000 912 coupés and Targas powered by the Type 616 engine that had served Porsche so well during the 356 era.
From the earliest, 1,100 cc Gmünd beginnings, the overall shape of the 356 remained more or less set. In 1951, 1,300 and 1,500 cc engines with considerably more power were introduced. In late 1952 the split windscreen was replaced by a slightly V-shaped, single windshield, which fit into the same shape opening. In 1953, the 1300 S or "Super" was introduced, and the 1,100 cc engine was dropped.
In late-1954 Max Hoffman, the sole US importer of Porsches, convinced Porsche to build a stripped down roadster version with minimal equipment and a cut-down windscreen.
Towards the end of the original 356's time (in 1955, when the 356 A was about to be introduced) Hoffman, wanting a model name rather than just a number, got the factory to use the name "Continental" which was applied mostly to cars sold in the United States. Ford, makers of the Lincoln Continental, sued. This name was used only in 1955 and today this version is especially valued. For 1956, the equivalent version was briefly sold as the "European". Today all of the earliest Porsches are highly coveted by collectors and enthusiasts worldwide, based on their design, reliability and sporting performance.
In late 1955, with numerous small but significant changes, the 356 A was introduced. Its internal factory designation, "Type 1", gave rise to its nickname "T1" among enthusiasts. In the US 1,200 early 356s had been badged as the "Continental" and then a further 156 from autumn 1955 to January 1956 as an even rarer T1 “European” variant after which it reverted to its numerical 356 designation. In early 1957 a second revision of the 356 A was produced, known as Type 2 (or T2). Production of the Speedster peaked at 1,171 cars in 1957 and then started to decline. The four-cam "Carrera" engine, initially available only in the spyder race cars, became an available option starting with the 356 A.
Within the last 25 years, replicas of the 356 A have become very popular.
1963 Porsche 356 B 90 coupé (T6, with twin grilles on the engine lid)
In late 1959 significant styling and technical refinements gave rise to the 356 B (a T5 body type). The mid-1962 356 B model was changed to the T6 body type (twin engine lid grilles, an external fuel filler in the right front wing/fender and a larger rear window in the coupé). The Porsche factory did not call attention to these quite visible changes with a different model designation. However, when the T6 got disc brakes, with no other visible alterations, they called it the model C, or the SC when it had the optional extra powerful engine. A unique "Karmann hardtop" or "notchback" 356 B model was produced in 1961 and 1962. The 1961 production run (T5) was essentially a cabriolet body with the optional steel cabriolet hardtop welded in place. The 1962 line (T6 production) was a very different design in that the new T6 notchback coupé body did not start life as a cabriolet, but with its own production design—In essence, part cabriolet rear end design, part T6 coupé windshield frame, unique hard top. Both years of these models have taken the name "Karmann notchback".
The last revision of the 356 was the 356 C introduced for the 1964 model year. It featured disc brakes all around, as well as an option for the most powerful pushrod engine Porsche had ever produced, the 95 hp (71 kW) "SC". Production of the 356 peaked at 14,151 cars in 1964, the year that its successor, the new 911, was introduced to the US market (it was introduced slightly earlier in Europe). The company continued to sell the 356 C in North America through 1965 as demand for the model remained quite strong in the early days of the heavier and more "civilized" 911. The last ten 356s (cabriolets) were assembled for the Dutch police force in March 1966 as 1965 models.
The 356 originated as a coupé only 1948-1955. Over time a variety of other styles appeared, including roadster, convertible, cabriolet, and a very rare split-roof.[clarification needed]
The basic design of the 356 remained the same throughout the end of its lifespan in 1965, with evolutionary, functional improvements rather than annual superficial styling changes.
The car was built of a unibody construction, making restoration difficult for cars that were kept in rust-prone climates. One of the most desirable collector models is the 356 "Speedster", introduced in late 1954 after Max Hoffman advised the company that a lower-cost, somewhat spartan open-top version could sell well in the American market. With its low, raked windscreen (which could be removed for weekend racing), bucket seats and minimal folding top, the Speedster was an instant hit, especially in Southern California.
It was replaced in late 1958 by the "convertible D" model. It featured a taller, more practical windshield (allowing improved headroom with the top erected), roll-up glass side-windows and more comfortable seats. The following year the 356 B "roadster" convertible replaced the D model but the sports car market's love affair with top-down motoring was fading; soft-top 356 model sales declined significantly in the early 1960s.
Cabriolet models (convertibles with a full windshield and padded top) were offered from the start, and in the early 1950s sometimes comprised over 50% of total production. A unique "Karmann hardtop" or "notchback" 356 B model was produced in 1961 and 1962, essentially a cabriolet-style body with a permanent metal roof.
Porsche designers decided to build the 356's air-cooled pushrodOHVflat-four around the engine case they had originally designed for the Volkswagen Beetle. They added new cylinder heads, camshaft, crankshaft, intake and exhaust manifolds and used dual carburetors to more than double the VW's horsepower. While the first prototype 356 had a mid-engine layout, all subsequent 356 engines were rear-mounted. The four-cam "Carrera" engine appeared in late 1955 as an extra cost option on the 356 A, and remained available through the 356 model run.
The 356 has always been popular with the motor press. In 2004, Sports Car International ranked the 356 C tenth on their list of top sports cars of the 1960s. It remains a highly regarded collector car, regularly bringing between US$20,000 and well over US$100,000 at auction. The limited production Carrera Speedster (with its special DOHC racing engine), SC, Super 90 and Speedster models are among the most desirable. A fully restored Carrera (of which only about 140 were made) can sell for around $300,000 at auction.
Thousands of owners worldwide maintain the 356 tradition, preserving their cars and driving them regularly. The U.S.-based 356 Registry's website states calls it, "[W]orld's largest classic Porsche club."
The 356 Speedster is among the most frequently reproduced classic automobiles.
Several companies build near-exact replicas from the ground up, fabricating turn-key cars to the buyer's exact specifications.
The Porsche 356, close to stock or highly modified, has enjoyed much success in rallying and car racing events.
Several Porsche 356s were stripped down in weight, and were modified in order to have better performance and handling for these races. A few notable examples include the Porsche 356 SL, and the Porsche 356 A Carrera GT.
In the early 1960s Porsche collaborated with Abarth and built the Porsche 356 B Carrera GTL Abarth coupé, which enjoyed some success in motor sports.
Number 53456, the first 356 Carrera ever produced (a modified 3 May, 1955 exemplar owned by Porsche engineer Reinhard Schmidt as first owner), was analyzed in February 2018 by Quattroruote's subsidiary Ruoteclassiche. It was estimated that its price was about € 335000.