My dog Virginia made friends with a lot of people in my neighborhood, and one of Virginia's regular visitors was Lenny Citrano, whom some of you may recognize as that guy who usually plays a mafia goon in movies and TV shows. Lenny also owns a beautiful Porsche 356 SC, and he let me drive it.
I had no idea this lovely car was tucked away just a few houses down from me, and that's probably a good thing, since by now Lenny would likely have taken out a restraining order against me. Porsche 356s have always held a special interest to me, as I'm sure they do for many lifelong Beetle-lovers.
The Porsche 356-Beetle relationship is a fascinating one I think, and I'm not sure if there's really anything quite like it in all of motoring. The 356 is clearly descended from the Beetle — its fundamental mechanical design is the same as the Beetle, the design fits into the same general visual vocabulary, and it sounds, smells, and just feels right to someone used to a Beetle.
With one big exception: everything is better. It's sort of like what I imagine comparing a Neanderthal to a Homo Sapiens would be like — same basic plan, but everything sleeker, sexier, more advanced. The Beetle was an economy car, with many decisions made to save money in it building or operation. The 356 is the Beetle freed of these constraints and with a new mission: performance and fun.
The body is tighter, sleeker, and no longer burdened with having to be a family car. The Beetle's engine was designed from the start to be overbuilt and understressed — it's basically strangled to make sure it never works too hard, and as a result it's economical and long-lasting. The 356 engine gets rid of the restrictions and makes everything better — twin carbs, better heads, better cams, real oil filtration — and as result, this 1600cc boxer makes 95 HP. Not bad at all for 1964.
Even with all the freedom Porsche got by getting to make a fast, expensive Beetle, they still couldn't bring themselves to indulge in the decadence of two dash turn signal indicators.
Lenny bought his Porsche 29 years ago this Memorial Day, and he paid $16,000 for it. It took scraping every penny he had at the time, and he told me he remembers going to buy the car with $16,000 in cash in a paper bag. This was a pretty smart choice in hindsight, as the car is easily worth $80-$160,000 or so now.
Lenny has kept all maintenance records, and even more importantly, kept the 356SC in wonderful condition. In fact, I think it may be in ideal classic condition — just enough wear and patina that you can actually drive and use it.
I love the look of the 356. Again, a lot of this may be my residual Beetle-biases, but I'm a sucker for the jelly-mold curves and the double-glass lights and the body colored bumpers and the whole, clean simplicity of it all. It has a friendly, distinctive, almost frog-like face, yet it still manages to look like a proper bit of racing machinery, if it wants to.
This '64 356SC represents the final development of the 356 before the 911, and the refinement of the design shows. There's nothing extraneous, nothing out of place. The cropped windshield gives a great plucky sort of character without being as extreme as the Speedster's windscreen. It also looks about as handsome with the top up, a trick not every convertible can pull off.
I'm sure there's some out there who just don't get the grille-less eager look of a 356, but I really love it. And that butt! The twin air intakes and those little taillights with the funny little stick-up reflectors — the 356 may have one of the best asses in all of vintage motoring.
I'm still amazed at body-colored bumpers back in 1964. That's amazingly forward-thinking.
The interior of the 356 is tight, but more cozy than cramped, at least for a short guy like me. The painted-metal dash already has those basic Porsche idiosyncrasies we still see today — ignition switch on the far left, center tach — and also that great mid-60s willingness to not label any of the damn knobs.
Sure, you learn what they are pretty quickly, but when you first sit in the car there's no real visual information as to which knob turns on the lights, wipers, or lights your cigarette. Well, the lighter you can figure out pretty easy, but still.
The seats are just about perfectly worn-in, and are comfortable low-backs. They don't offer much in the way of lateral support, but even if you slide, there's not far to go. Interestingly, the seats just about meet to almost form a bench, since the handbrake is a little umbrella lever under the dash. If your dreams involve driving and snuggling, you can't beat this.
The trunk is up front where God wants it, and even has the original rubber mat, still in great shape. In two dimensions, it's a decent amount of space, but in our cruel 3D world the limitations become clear. It's pretty shallow. Lenny told me that he's packed it without luggage — using the car as the suitcase itself, laying his clothes flat in the trunk, and it works pretty well that way. Also, the tiny rear almost-seats fold flat and give a good bit of cargo space. So, with two people, you can actually cram luggage in there.
Sitting in the back seats was just barely possible, for me, but again, I'm pretty fun-sized myself. You wouldn't want to cram any full-sized adult back there for very long.
The top is nicely insulated and even has a great mouse-fuzz headliner inside. Inside, top up, it's pretty snug, but not in a bad way.
I've always sort of felt there's certain sweet spots for power for cars of a given vintage and weight, and I've always thought that for lighter, smaller cars, around 90 HP gives just the right level of power and fun. I used to have an '82 GTI-spec Rabbit convertible that made about 90 HP, and it always felt about right, power-wise. This 356 SC makes a solid 95 HP, and it feels just perfect.
That lavish 95 HP is the most any 356 pushrod engine ever made, and for someone used to 50-60HP VW flat-fours, it's magical. It's a responsive engine, and like all air-cooled VW-style engines, it likes revs (well, revs under, say 5000). The acceleration feels punchy and quick, and those 95 Teutonic ponies are more than enough to move the mere 2000 lbs or so of Porsche.
After the mid-50s or so, Porsche was using an engine still derived from the VW template, but almost every part was their own — crankcase, camshaft, carbs, everything. And everything was, as I've said, just that much better, and designed for performance instead of letting you save your money to send that ingrate kid to college.
By modern standards, I suppose it's not really all that quick, but you sure as hell won't give a shit when you're behind that big, skinny wheel. Driving the car feels like you're in a fast little bathtub, and the sense of acceleration reminds me of a watermelon seed squeezed out from between your fingers.
Bottom line: it feels fast, but it's not going to get your license revoked. That said, it'll have no trouble keeping up with modern traffic. I should mention that this engine is using a pair of non-standard Dell'Orto carbs, instead of the original Solexes. I'm not really sure how much of a difference this makes, to be honest.
The 356s got all-around discs for the first time the year of Lenny's car, 1964, and it was a good choice. The combination of all-around discs and a light front end make this car feel really confident under braking.
The brakes are hydraulic and unassisted, not that different from their Beetle ancestor that way, and they really don't need any assist. The pedal feel is firm and you can feel what's going on at those wheels through the pedal. They're easily some of the best vintage-car brakes I've tried in quite a while. In fact, they might be the best brakes of any of the cars in these classic reviews, since brakes are usually the weak spot and the time I almost soil myself as I consider how I'd feel if I banged up some nice person's prized car.
The 356 is, at its heart, a sporting car, and in the 1960s that still meant some ride sacrifices for the sake of handling. It's not uncomfortable by any means, but if you're expecting a Citroën/Caddillac style magic-carpet floating experience, this car just isn't that.
You feel road bumps, the seats are a little bouncy, and the overall ride is a little firm. Personally, I rather liked the somewhat active feel of the car, but I'm sure it's not everyone's flagon of pilsner. I don't think you'd have any trouble doing a long trip in the car, but there's probably better cars for sleeping in.
But why would you want to sleep if you were riding in this little gem?
First, let's just get this out of the way right away — I know the 356 (or any car with a rear weight bias like this) can get you into real trouble, handling-wise. I've driven Beetles long enough to know how quickly the oversteer can embarrass and humble you if you don't respect it. You don't lift in a turn, and you go in slow and come out quick. You have to play within its rules, or you'll pretty quickly find your taillights shining where your headlights ought to.
That said, if you give it the right amount of respect, it's an incredibly entertaining and rewarding car to drive. That light front end and overall featherweight give a constant sense of nimble agility. The car steers where you want it to go and responds to inputs so slight you thought you imagined them. After a while, you can feel how intuitive it can be. It's got Beetle-style transverse torsion bars all around, and was still using swing axles at the rear in '64, like most of its rear-engined brothers.
Lenny was nice enough to let me take it in a reasonably spirited way through Griffith Park's twisty roads, and I loved how it felt. That little oversteer tug as you're in a turn is both a gentle warning and maybe a little challenge to try and use it to take that turn just a little tighter.
The 356 is a nimble, fun car to drive, as long as you remember that heavy ass.
The 4-speed gearbox — really a transaxle — keeps to the 'better-Beetle' engineering theme of the car, as the gearbox feels familiar, right down to the old-VW preferred placement of reverse to the left of 2nd. This, though, is no VW part, the 741 transaxle being more robust than contemporary VW units. The cable-operated clutch is firm but has a good, direct, mechanical feel, though the clutch point is clearly something that is learned with practice and muscle-memory, since if you get it a bit wrong the car convulses like it's having a seizure. I'm embarrassed to say I did this a few times.
The ratios are well-chosen for the engine, and the gear lever engages with a satisfying mechanical clunk, despite the relatively long linkages.
There's really no reason why you couldn't daily a 356, as long as your job wasn't, you know, delivering gravel or livestock or something like that. It's easy enough to drive that you could easily commute to work in it, and it would even get pretty decent gas mileage — something in the ballpark of 25 MPG or more.
If you consider it a 2-seater, there's enough storage space behind the seats for a pretty good-sized grocery shopping trip, and that's not counting the 3 or 4 pizzas you can stack in the front trunk.
If you can daily an old Beetle (you can) then you can easily daily a 356. Sure, if you hit something it's a much, much bigger and more expensive deal to get it fixed, but you'll also be able to get in pretty much anywhere you want in a nicely maintained 356 and hold your own in almost any lineup of desirable cars.
The six-volt electrics of Lenny's 1964 car would probably be the biggest issue for modern life, since you'll probably want to charge your phone or have a modern-ish radio in there, or maybe even see at night, but that's a common upgrade. The heater is not too bad, but I wouldn't expect much from the defroster system. Carry a rag.
If you're near an old 356, look underneath it. You should see two puddles: the dark one is oil and the one that smells like unicorn sweat and elf ejaculate is raw, unprocessed charm, which 356s are saturated in. Porsche 356s are like BMW 2002s Alfa GTVs and a few other select classics — I've never met another car person who doesn't at least respect them. And most genuinely like them.
It's got a look that's both friendly, cute, and sporty, all at the same time. Its looks are vintage, but so clean and well-designed that it never looks dated. It has a willing, plucky charm and a distinctive sound, and they usually even smell fantastic. When it's a convertible you can multiply all that by whatever number comes after that feeling of your face in the wind.
If you meet someone who can't appreciate a nice old 356, then get the hell away from them because they probably want to implant their alien eggs in your chest.
Original, numbers-matching, well-maintained 356s (like Lenny's here) are in huge demand. Even basket cases with VW engines routinely go for $20,000 and up, and one like Lenny's can command prices well into the mid six-figures. Easily.
Lenny said he routinely gets people he sees at random in parking lots offering him $80K in cash right then and there — but he knows he could do much better, if he ever wanted to sell it.
He doesn't seem like he wants to sell it. I can tell by the way he looks at it.
Engine: 1.6-liter twin-carb air-cooled flat-four
Power: 95 HP @ 5,800 rpm / ~91 LB-FT @ 4,200 rpm
Transmission: 4-speed manual, 4th is overdrive
0-60 Time: around 9-10 sec, depends on who you ask.
Top Speed: ~120 mph
Drivetrain: Rear wheel drive
Curb Weight: ~2,000 pounds
Seating: 2 people + 2 kids or amputees
MPG: 25 mpg city/30 mpg highway (U.S.)
MSRP: Around $4000 in 1964 ($~30K in 2014 dollars)/ average price around $120,000 today