I’m sweating. Breathing hard, too.
Unless you’re attempting a triple stint at Le Mans, driving a modern performance car quickly is actually pretty easy. Physically, I mean. Hustle a grippy car up a sweeping section of road and the only physical stamina you really require is the strength to reach for the air-con controls. Just in case you get a smidge warm.
But this? This is hard work. I’m sweating. Breathing hard, too. And my forearms hurt. And yet, as I pitch the gorgeous Porsche 356 into another corner and feel its narrow 15-inch tyres start to slide, ever so gently, I can’t help but think modern cars might have lost something. Because this is about as good as driving gets…
The 356 inflicting the physical discomfort/euphoria is no ordinary old Porsche. If you know your classic Porkers you’ll probably have already spotted the extra horizontal louvres sliced into the engine cover, the slimmer chrome bumpers and the worn leather straps that operate perspex windows.
All of which indicate this is a 356 Carrera GT.
Today Porsche will happily sell you a lightened, hardcore model adorned with an exotic engine taken from its motorsport department. It’s called the 911 GT3. But if you wanted that exact same thing back in the 1950s, well, you had to buy a 356 Carrera GT.
It’s lighter than a regular 356. More focused. And its engine isn’t the usual pushrod 1.6L unit but a more powerful and fiendishly complicated four-cylinder boxer designed by the legendary Dr Ernst Fuhrmann for the 550 Spyder.
It’s also tiny, almost dainty. It’s so small that it makes the modern GT3 we’ve brought along for this test look cartoonish and enormous. Philosophically the 992 GT3 is a direct descendant of the 356, but in appearance, it looks more like a distance cousin than great grandson.
It’s so small that it makes the modern GT3 we’ve brought along for this test look cartoonish and enormous.
We all know modern cars have become bloated and enormous but it’s not until you clock this pair side-by-side that the growth of time really hammers home. Next to the petite and unadorned 356, the modern GT3 looks like a fighter jet.
It’s impossibly wide, voluptuous and with its collection of slats, vents and intakes, it verges on sinister. And don’t even get me started on its tyres. Dropping to the ground to examine the rubber on offer is like seeing a goldfish swim into the shadow of a whale.
Like the 356, this particular GT3 is something special. Officially it’s dubbed (deep breath time) the Porsche 911 GT3 Touring 70 years Porsche Australia Edition. Like the 356 it’s rare – only 25 examples exist for the princely sum of $494,400 – and naturally they’re all sold.
Next to the petite and unadorned 356, the modern GT3 looks like a fighter jet.
But this GT3 is still worth exploring for a couple of reasons: it’s the first time Porsche has allowed a market outside of Germany to make a special edition based on a GT car, and the spec changes are tastefully done. It’s also our first chance to experience the 992 Touring package on Aussie soil.
The spec changes made to create a 70 Years edition are all cosmetic.
‘70 years’ decals feature on the door sills and dash inlay, a plaque is stuck to the B-pillar, the cabin is trimmed with unique leather work and the exclusive alloy wheels have their outer edge finished in body colour. Just don’t nick one a gutter. We shudder to think what the repair bill would be…
Oh yes, the paint. It’s an important visual change because it provides yet another link to the 356. Officially Porsche calls the colour Fish Silver Grey Metallic (in the metal it’s actually a beguiling shade of green) and it pays homage to the very first Porsche imported into Australia in the 1950s – a pretty 356 Cabriolet.
So it’s not just engineering philosophy linking this pair of Porsches. Time ties them together, too, and it’s this connection, forged over 70 years, that we want to tease out.
We start in the 356, mostly because it feels right to tackle them chronologically, but also because I sense it’s going to ask some uncomfortable questions about what’s happened to driver involvement over the last seven decades…
At low speed, it’s grumpy. Peevish.
Initially it feels wrong to drive the 356 hard. Porsche only made around 100 GS and Carrera GTs between 1958-59 and just three of those were right-hand drive. That rarity makes it incredibly valuable – at least $1.2 million in today’s market by Porsche’s estimation.
Plus, car years are like dog years and by any measure the 356 is a pensioner.
At low speed, it’s grumpy. Peevish. Drivability and tractability are not strong suits but I quickly realise this is my fault, not the car’s. Fuhrmann’s engine was built to tolerate the abuse and stresses of racing, not to be coaxed around at low speed. It idles, lumpily, at 1000rpm and below 4000rpm it feels concerningly flat.
It’s not until you get it on cam that it truly starts to come alive. It’ll spin all the way to 7500rpm and once you realise you need to keep it high in the rev range, it feels, and sounds, genuinely exciting. The exhaust has fewer baffles than a regular 356 and the soundtrack is unlike anything else I’ve experienced.
I was expecting undertones of Beetle, but the Carrera GT has a soundtrack all of its own. There’s plenty of volume but it’s the way the exhaust note hardens as the power builds that makes it so addictive.
Outputs aren’t huge. We only have 86kW and 135Nm to play with – but remember, the Carrera GT is light.
The body is based on the same Reutter-built steel shell as the 356A but everything that swings – the doors, the bonnet and the engine lid – are all made from alloy or aluminium.
Officially Porsche says the kerb weight is around 880kg but it feels lighter than that. By modern standards, though, this is a slow car. Acceleration is swift rather than fast (0-100km/h takes around 11.0sec) but not once did I find myself wishing for more speed or power.
Most of that is down to how physical it is to pedal quickly. The steering, which you tackle via an impossibly large and skinny Nardi wheel, is unassisted, slow and alive in your hands. The drum brakes, which initially feel heavy and ineffective, are surprisingly powerful once you learn they respond best to a bit of force.
And because the tyres are skinny 165-section Michelins, the level of grip on offer is actually quite low. But that’s part of its beauty. Because you don't have the power or grip to barreling into corners at Defcon 5 you can initiate slides and catch them with the confidence of knowing that if you really do balls it up, there’s a good chance you won’t write off something worth more than your house.
Providing you don’t live in Sydney, that is. It’s intoxicating, visceral, and a vivid reminder of the immediacy and feedback we’ve lost in many modern cars.