Type 356 (PRE-A) – 1950-1955
One word of caution where early cars are concerned: although there are general rules of thumb to differentiate between various model years, these are far from absolute. There are indeed numerous exceptions to the rules, due essentially to the fact that Porsche was at first a very small operation and supplies were not always readily available so the Factory had to manage with what they had on hand. This is evidenced by photos taken at the time (not photos of restored cars). So remember that there are no absolutes but only general rules of thumb for the early cars.
The most significant feature of the pre-A is the windshield: look at the windshield and you will always be able to tell if the car was made before 1956 or not. Everything else takes a back seat to this foolproof reference point.
The pre-A windshield (in its 2 configurations) is unique and easily recognizable. As seen from above the car, it is shaped like a wide open V (whereas all post-1955 windshields are curved), except for the Speedster of course.
This rule applies to both the steel top version (coupe) and soft top version (cabriolet), but not to the Speedster, which always had a special curved windshield.
Since it would be no fun if things were that easy, there are two different types of pre-A windshield (both in the shape of a wide open V): the SPLIT windshield and the BENT windshield (the latter not to be confused with the curved windshield). Both have the same shape, but the split windshield is made of 2 pieces of glass joined in the middle by a big vertical rubber strip while the bent windshield is a single piece of glass with a vertical crease in the middle.
Split windshields were used for about 2 years (April 1950 – April 1952) and bent windshields until the introduction of the 356A in 1956. So remember: pre-A = 1950-1955 with split windshield (1950-1952) and bent windshield (1952-1955).
In order to accommodate these windshields, the edge of the roof has a typical “peak” in the centre.
Once you have determined that the car you are looking at is a pre-A, how can you more accurately pinpoint the specific model year, apart from the change of windshield in 1952?
A number of visible and not so visible changes were made over those six years.
Between March and September 1952, the split windshield was replaced by the bent windshield and, on cars exported to North America, the early “body” bumpers were replaced by “interim” bumpers. The early bumpers appeared to be attached to the body but were in fact removable. The interim bumpers are mounted slightly away from the body and are larger. They are similar to the late pre-A and A bumpers but they wrap around the front and rear fenders to a much larger extent.
A slightly different hood handle appeared in mid-1952. The first hood handle was thin and short and had no hole. It was replaced by the same type of handle, except that the new one had a hole and had more of a “hump” to accommodate the hole. Here again, there was some overlapping as some earlier models had the hole while some later models had no hole. Anyway, the change occurred some time in 1952.
From 1950 to mid-1957, the rear license plate light assembly is mounted above the license plate (commonly called “shine down” as opposed to “shine up” after mid-1957).
1953 cars are easy to spot as opposed to earlier and later pre-A’s. In the front, the turn signals were moved directly below the headlights (while they were more “in-board” on earlier models) and are of the stand-alone type (as opposed to 1954 and later).
In the rear, the round and rectangular taillights were replaced by two round (called “beehive”) taillights side by side on each fender for the 1953 model year.
For 1954, another change was made which makes this vintage easily recognizable. The turn signals on the front were mounted in combination with a horn grille below each headlight. This grille was designed to allow cooling air to reach the front brakes as well as to provide an opening for the horn. This feature cannot be considered on its own however as it was carried over until the introduction of the 356B in 1960, which had a different grille and turn signal.
You may get a little confused when you look at a 1955 model, but this confusion is in itself your indication of the 1955 vintage. I mentioned before that there were two types of pre-A hood handles, one without a hole and one with a hole and a hump, both of them without a crest. A new type of hood handle appeared for 1955: the A hood handle, on a pre-A model. This handle is bigger and much longer and has a crest on it. So if you see a pre-A body with an A hood handle, you know it is a 1955 model. In addition, a number of 1955 models had the “Continental” script on the front fenders.
In summary, pre-A = 1950-1955. Major characteristics: split or bent windshield, shine-down license plate light, 16-inch wheels, small polished-aluminum hood handle (except 1955).