Feel the need, the need for speedster

The 1958 Porsche 356

Feel the need, the need for speed with a look back at the 1958 Porsche 356.

The release of the new Top Gun movie this year got us all nostalgic. Not for Tom Cruise’s old face, not for fighter jets, not even for the iconic line “I feel the need, the need for speed”.

No, what we’re chasing down memory lane is Kelly McGillis’s stunning black 1958 Porsche 356 Speedster.

Of course, true fans of Top Gun, and of the 356, will know McGillis’ convertible in the original 1986 film was actually an Intermeccanica replica — with a fibreglass body and the motor of a VW Beetle. We guess the producers spent the budget on the planes. And Cruise.

But the Porsche 356 is a truly classic car and it’s one worth spending some time with while we wrestle with our nostalgia. The lightweight two-door was produced in coupe, convertible and roadster models between 1948 and 1965. The original model was powered by a four-cylinder VW rear engine. Only 76,000 were made, meaning these days these highly prized cars are thin on the ground, in demand, and priced accordingly. According to RACV, a 356 will set you back upwards of A$200,000 at auction, with a particularly scarce 1962 ‘Twin Grille’ roadster fetching $352,000 in 2018.

But at what price, such beauty? There’s no way Tom Cruise even gets out of bed for $352,000.

In 1951 the car won its class at the Le Mans 24 Hours, helping supercharge the 356’s popularity with racing enthusiasts. Over the next few years Porsche redesigned the vehicle, introduced a four-cam Carrera engine, and ramped up production. Over the next decade and a half, four models would be developed and released.

Enthusiasts reckon only about half of the 356s produced still exist. The car’s unibody construction makes restoration difficult, which is problematic in rust- prone climates. Little wonder, then, that the 356 is among the most replicated cars ever (it wasn’t just the producers of Top Gun who were at it).

The 356 was eventually replaced by the 901 and, eventually, the faster and heavier six-cylinder 911. So, anyone who falls into the crossover part of the Venn diagram of the Porsche and Top Gun fandoms will have been nodding in appreciation as a 1973 Porsche 911 S coupe appeared on the screen in Top Gun: Maverick. No Kelly McGillis though — the 911 was being driven by Jennifer Connelly. Apparently, the car wasn’t the only thing Hollywood updated. (Kinda weird that Maverick’s girlfriends all drive classic Porsches though, huh? Are we sure he’s not just in it for the cars?)

The new Top Gun movie has been a smash hit, and part of the reason for that is the nostalgia so many people have for the original movie. The new movie honours that by hitting all the familiar notes we want in a new Top Gun movie. In some ways, this is an excellent metaphor for Porsche itself. See a 911 on the streets, in a showroom or at a car show today, and it’s still a thing of beauty that will turn your head. Though the design is modern (and sexy as hell), the silhouette, the shape, the spirit of it harks back to the original 356. (It’s the same thing Tom Cruise is going for with his face, only it has been more successfully executed.)

There’s a very good reason the 356 is a beloved classic. Even after all these years, it can still take your breath away.

This article was published 13/10/2022 and the content is current as at the date of publication.