Porsche 356: Expert tips on maintenance, modifying and more

Photography Courtesy Porsche

Ah, the one that started it all: The 356 was Porsche’s first production automobile and the car that set the stage for the timeless 911.

For expert advice on this game-changing model, we turned to Chris Casler, sales manager of European Collectibles. The company has sold numerous Porsche 356s over the years and also has its own restoration shop.

Expert: Chris Casler

European Collectibles

Many of the issues you see on these cars are related to the body. As with any 50-year-old car, rust is a common problem on a 356. Some of the most suspect areas are the floor pans, doors and battery box.

The lips around the inside of the doors and hood are an especially good indicator of how a particular car’s body has fared over the years. If there are bubbles–even slight bubbles–you could very well have a rust issue on your hands. If that lip feels smooth, almost like a ski slope, there’s a good chance that the car has seen Bondo in the past.

Water often leaks into the door itself and can cause rust problems in the bottom of the door–where very few people look.

It’s not uncommon for transmission synchros to go bad. From 1956 on, these cars came with a full-synchro gearbox. If there’s grinding on downshifts, it may be a sign that the transmission needs to be removed and refreshed with new synchros and bearings.

If the car has been sitting for a few years, almost everything in the brake system should be replaced: master cylinder, slave cylinder, hoses, etc.

These cars came with very precise steering from the factory. If there’s much play in the steering, the steering box needs to be replaced or rebuilt. If the worm gear is worn down–not terribly uncommon– your only choice is to replace the whole unit.

Working on the suspension will give you the most reward for your money. There are three main options when it comes to shocks. If you want to maintain the OEM performance and feel, go with Boge units. If you want a stiffer, sportier feel, install the available Bilsteins. And last but not least, if you want a fully adjustable experience, Konis are a good way to go.

While you’re in the area, double-check the date codes on your tires. These cars don’t usually see too many miles, so you may find old rubber that shouldn’t be on the road anymore.

As far as power goes, a 356’s potential is fairly handcuffed by which engine it starts out with. These cars came in many different trims with many different-sized engines. If you start out with one of the smaller engines–65 horsepower stock–you can’t add too much power before you start to see overheating issues. The smaller engines were built with smaller oil journals, so they don’t handle the extra heat very well.

Speaking of overheating, it’s a good idea to add a tall fourth gear if you ever have the transmission open for a rebuild. At 80 mph, a short fourth can drop your revs 750 rpm.

If you don’t have a taller fourth gear, don’t push your car hard in heat or up hills at speed. That’s just asking for some catastrophic engine damage. If you see temps climb while driving on a hot day, slow down 10 mph to lower the rpm. The temperature should drop within 5 minutes.

Another good upgrade to consider is a short-shift kit. You can find them for about $500, and they improve the drivability of the car.

These engines burn about 1 quart of oil every 1000 miles. Remember to check the oil regularly. If you can see the level on the dipstick, you’re within half a quart of the ideal level–these engines only hold a little over 4 quarts of oil. If the oil level is lower than the dipstick’s reach, add a half-quart at a time and recheck until you’re in the correct range. Overfilling oil will cause the car to smoke. If you’re traveling, always remember to bring a quart of oil with you.

If you’re shopping for a 356, you should absolutely bring any prospective purchases to a Porsche 356 expert. They will be able to spot the good and bad better than even your best non-Porsche mechanic. Roughly 50 percent of the cars we look at have been in an accident in the past.

Bottom line: Buying a good car will always be less expensive than taking on a project. If you aren’t going to complete a concours-level restoration, it really isn’t worth it. And a good restoration can easily turn into a six-digit expense.

Join Free Join our community to easily find more Porsche and 356 articles.
More like this
Tom1200 HalfDork
12/18/16 10:49 p.m.

Given these were never cheap to restore this is handy. Now that the prices are what they are it's even more important to do your homework.

I only wish I could put the advice to use but sadly the ship has sailed for me on 356 ownership. I'd have to sell everything in the garage to even come close to affording anything remotely rust free.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
12/20/16 11:00 a.m.

A million years ago I had a chance to buy a nice 356 SC. The original engine had been replaced with a Super 90. Even so, I hate to think what that car is now worth.

Tom1200 HalfDork
12/20/16 11:22 p.m.

David in 1986 I passed on a 356SC as well; the engine had just been rebuilt. I had $3000 so it was the 356 or a 125cc GP bike to race and a mini pick up to get it to the races. I went motorcycle road racing which I brought me many happy memories, I'd do not think the 356 would have been as happy of an experience. While driving around in the 356 would have made me smile it just couldn't overcome my desire to go racing.

TR8owner HalfDork
12/24/16 9:39 p.m.

They're pretty simple cars. Absolutely no mystique about them at all. If you can work on a VW beetle you can work on a 356. I owned two of them. Sold the last one in the mid 80's for $6500.

Tom1200 HalfDork
12/27/16 5:28 p.m.

A few years back at a PCA track day I drove one for a couple of laps, it was a students car, really wasn't any faster than my Datsun. It did oversteer in the same manner that the Datsun does, which of course I liked. I still find them one of the best looking cars ever made.

terracer New Reader
10/21/19 6:31 a.m.

I too had an opportunity to buy a 356 back in the day.. I was doing SCCA back then, racing first generation RX-7's and having the time of my life.  Purchasing the Porsche would've meant selling alot of my toys and i just wasn't prepared to do that at the time.  However, timing - as they say - is everything and i wish I had bought it.  The closest I will ever get to a 356 is the 1964 Karmann Ghia that currently resides in the warehouse at work.  This article has inspired me to resurrect her - thank you for that!  

Jordan Rimpela
Jordan Rimpela Digital Editor
10/21/19 9:24 a.m.

In reply to terracer :

We're glad to hear! Keep us updated. 

californiamilleghia HalfDork
10/21/19 10:02 a.m.

If anyone knows where a terrible 356 body shell is , I am game to put it back together for a track car  , 

crashed or rusty OK .......

We "resurrected "  a rolled over 356 coupe  pulled out of the forest  years ago , 


bosswrench New Reader
5/3/23 12:15 p.m.

I had a '56 Speedster that had been production-raced, with a Super 75 (DIN) engine and Webers. Those motors came with aluminum Nikasil cylinders. If you wore one out- as I found- replacements came with a fitted piston and rings- you couldn't find just a cylinder or a piston. Quite an education keeping it running on midwest streets. Aluminum doors, hood & deck, plus the bumpers, and wooden framed seats- only weighed about 1500 lbs w/gas & oil.

Mr_Asa UltimaDork
5/3/23 7:33 p.m.
californiamilleghia said:

If anyone knows where a terrible 356 body shell is , I am game to put it back together for a track car  , 

crashed or rusty OK .......

We "resurrected "  a rolled over 356 coupe  pulled out of the forest  years ago , 


My dad is friends with the folks that are running Havana 911.  If anyone in my circle would know who had them, they would.



You'll need to log in to post.

Our Preferred Partners