In 1952 there were only four Porsche 356 Cabriolets sold in the United States out of 294 produced by the Porsche Werke in Zuffenhausen. Back in '51, about the only way to buy a 356 in this country was through New York importer Max Hoffman.

The early cabriolets were among his best-selling cars, helping to give Porsche a foothold in the emerging postwar American sports car market. Today the cabriolets are considered among the most valuable Pre-A models due to their limited numbers and unique body styling, different from that of the later 356A cabriolets introduced in October 1955.

The Pre-A cabriolet or "Dame" (literally "Lady" in German) was introduced to the American market through Hoffman in 1952 as Porsche's luxury model. The cabriolet was replete with fully upholstered and carpeted interior, more comfortable seats, a fully lined convertible top and amenities such as an interior dash light and optional Telefunken radio, one of the earliest car radios to offer push-button tuning.

Among the distinguished characteristics of Pre-A models is the wider, more graceful rear fender that covers more of the tire.

Cars in the serial number range of 15001 to 15116, this example being 15051, were considered interim models with running changes made throughout the 1952 production run. Early cars had the upright shifter and non-synchro gearbox (changed to the later synchro gearset on the car), rectangular Hella taillight lenses, beehive turn indicators (later models had four beehive taillights), and single back up in the center of the license plate illuminator. Each cabriolet body was virtually hand-built for Porsche by Reutter, making this one of the scarecest Pre-A models.

The early cabriolet pictured here was reputedly in the hands of a single collector for many years. At some stage the original engine for this Porsche (1500S with a roller-bearing crank) was replaced by a slightly later 1500 (plain bearing) engine. A professional restoration was completed about two years ago. More recently, the car underwent a major service including an engine tune and carburetor overhaul. In addition, the transmission was also fully rebuilt with later internals used in the gearbox owing to the unavailability of early components. This cabriolet is also equipped with an original radio. Early examples of the 356 with their simple, unaffected styling, modest performance and VW-driven underpinnings are the cars most true to the original Porsche ideal.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1952 Porsche 356 Pre-A

The early 356 Cabriolets shown here sold for $35,650 (including buyer’s commission) at Christie’s auction in Tarrytown, NY, in April, 1998, somewhat above the pre-sale estimate of $25,000-30,000. Although this was a pretty face, the restoration was of uneven quality. Bright shiny paint contrasted sharply with door bottoms that were misaligned with rocker panels. Mistakes that serious force you to worry about the quality of the body work that you can’t inspect.

Pre-A 356s, even among the most hearty enthusiasts, are rarely driven. If shod with their original 3.25 x 16-inch wheels and proper period tires, these cars have a genuine “vintage” feel which is scary at anything above 35 mph. To make matters worse, they are fragile and, due to a lack of replacement parts, expensive to repair. As a result, there are two ways to enjoy this model: as a dead-stock museum piece, or as a fully modernized driver with unique style.

This car qualifies as neither. It no longer has the original, rare (and highly troublesome) roller-bearing 1500 Super motor, but rather a 1953 plain-bearing engine. Although the newer engine is a bit more durable than the original, it is still fragile compared to the big oil-pump motors of the B/C series (1960-65).

The only real advantage to the 1953 motor is that it looks quite similar to the original, with its tiny single-barrel carbs, through-the-shroud accelerator linkage, cross-mounted balance tube, diagonal-mount coil and flat-top distributor. Any B/C motor would look different in each of these areas.

Because so few pre-A 356s come up at auction, it is hard to peg a value. And this car, being neither a reliable driver nor a completely original car, would seem a tough sell. I’d say the seller was wise to accept the winning bid, and, for value’s sake, I hope the new owner has the original 1952 engine in his garage.

Market opinions in italics by Jim Schrager.

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