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Best Porsche cars ever: we drive the icons

In its 75 years, Porsche has built some of the most iconic cars ever. We look at the best.

Seventy five years is a significant anniversary on its own, but for Porsche, it’s twinned with 60 years of the brand’s most iconic car, the Porsche 911, and the firm has been in suitably celebratory form. For this year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed Porsche raided its own museum, showing off a collection of some of its most significant models – from the very first, 356 number 1, to the most recent iterations of the 911, with which that initial car shares some familial DNA.

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As well as celebrating the past and present, the company chose Goodwood to reveal a glimpse of its future, with its Vision 357 Speedster. As ever, this offers more than a reverential nod to Porsche’s history and purist, sporting driving appeal – the latter something that’s always been demonstrated via the brand’s motorsport activities. Unsurprisingly, Porsche’s racing cars featured prominently on the FoS’s famous driveway. Rightly so, because racing has long dictated the trajectory of the road-car line-up, with developments such as turbocharging, four-wheel drive, hybridisation and full electrification all having been track-proven before reaching showrooms. 

Despite a range that now includes SUVs and luxury saloons – increasingly being electrified via hybrid or pure-EV powertrains – Porsche still describes itself as a sports-car company. Certainly the 911 remains its most enduring and important car, representing the firm’s engineering prowess; taking what should be a sub-optimal layout, with the rear-weight-biased engine layout, and finessing it to the point where the compromises have been banished, all while retaining interior space, traction and aerodynamic form.

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This is by no means an exhaustive list of the most significant Porsches, because to do that would fill the entire magazine and more – but here’s our ‘top 10’ pick of some of the greatest, with their importance outlined. In most cases, we’ve driven them, too.

1948 Porsche 356 nr.1

Key specs
Engine4cyl boxer
Capacity1.1 litres
Power35bhp
Top speed84mph

Where to start when talking about significant Porsches? Right at the beginning, with the brand’s first prototype sports car, the 356/1, or 356 nr.1 Roadster. It’s rare to see such an important model outside the firm’s museum, and while Goodwood certainly isn’t a stranger to historically momentous cars, 356/1 really is the genesis for Porsche as a producer of road machinery. Every street or track model since is able to trace its roots to this very car. 

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Ferdinand Porsche had, in the pre-war years, designed and built cars, prototypes and racers for clients, most notably being commissioned during the thirties to engineer the Volkswagen Beetle. This would influence Porsche’s own road car, laying the rear-mounted, flat-engined foundations that define the company’s most famous model, the 911, to the present day. Unsurprisingly, then, 356/1 uses a VW-derived engine, turned around. Unlike the production 356s that would follow it in the late forties, however, the flat-four is mounted in front of the rear axle. 

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Ferry Porsche, Ferdinand’s son, built 356/1 to be simple and light, meaning that even with only 35bhp, it would be capable of an 80mph-plus top speed. Ferry famously described the roadster’s conception by saying: “I looked around and I didn’t see anything I liked, so I built my own car.” Good job he did, too, because his singularity of thought set the pattern for what the company has been doing ever since. What Ferry couldn’t possibly have predicted was that his ideal of a sports racer would be the foundation of a car brand that would, very quickly, dominate in racing and go on to become one of the world’s most recognised and coveted automotive manufacturers. 

Over the 1.1-litre, air-cooled, four-cylinder, VW-derived engine and simple suspension, the 356/1 features a light body that was designed by Erwin Komenda, then handcrafted in aluminium by Friedrich Weber. As with the early Porsches that followed, it was built in Gmünd, Austria. What’s remarkable is that its simple shape is immediately recognisable as a Porsche today, and the organic, smooth lines defining the design are still evident in the shape of the company’s current cars.

The interior is similarly prosaic, with a pair of low-backed seats that hold you with surprising authority, while in front of the driver is a thin-rimmed, lightly spoked steering wheel behind which sits a solitary, large, clear instrument. Here that’s a speedometer, rather than the central rev counter that would later become a Porsche signature, but the interior, as with the rest of the car, is defined by its simplicity. 

That’s not to say it’s austere; indeed, inside the 356/1 is the very definition of purity of purpose. Sadly, today, we’re not driving, but just to get near, let alone sit in, the car from which every Porsche evolved is very special indeed. For other models in this selection we can add drives to our experience – and in many cases it really is ‘pinch yourself’ stuff – but all trace their heritage to the car that started the company.

Click on to the next page read more of our list of the best Porsches ever...

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