The steel-bodied 356 came in two basic body styles: coupe and cabriolet. Both had two doors, rear-mounted air-cooled engines and sixteen- inch wheels. The painted steel dashboard was reminiscent of many American cars of the forties and fifties. Bodies were built by Reutter, a Stuttgart coachbuilder, which was absorbed by the Porsche factory in December 1963. Some early cabriolet bodies were built by the coachbuilder, Gläser, located north of Munich.
Both styles had a distinct aerodynamic appearance. Their narrow wheels, rear lever shocks, low horsepower engines and non-synchronized gearboxes made them challenging to drive – challenging enough that all these systems received substantial changes within the first three years of production.
Major changes occurred primarily with the introduction of a new model. The first few years are a bit confusing, but they are as follows:
1950: These coupes and cabriolets correspond to the first order of bodies from Porsche to Reutter and Gläser. Their chassis numbers have four digits starting with the number 5. Production ceased mid-March 1951.
Model 51: For the second order of bodies, Porsche decided to assign a different series of five-digit numbers for coupes and cabriolets. Glaser cabriolets began with 103 or 104 and Reutter cabriolets 100 or 101. Reutter coupes started at 105 and went up from there. No significant changes occurred at the introduction of this model, which was constructed from mid-March 1951 through February 1952.
Model 52: The Model 52 was distinguished from earlier cars with its one-piece bent windshield (knickscheibe). They also had slightly larger hood handles with a hole and deep faced gauges with green and red graphics. They were produced only from March through September 1952. The final Gläser cabriolets were Model 52s.
1953: The 1953 model was produced from October 1952 through March 1954. Externally the bumpers were modified to the versions used through the end of 356A production. Side-by-side beehive taillights replaced the vertical arrangement used previously. Front signal lights were directly below the headlights. A Porsche crest adorned the horn button of the new steering wheel. The 519 gearbox with Porsche synchromesh on all forward gears and 11" aluminum brake drums were major advances. In 1953 the less expensive, more basic, America-series coupe and cabriolet models, inspired by importer Max Hoffman, debuted in the US.
1954: April through October 1954 was the abbreviated 1954 model year. The main visual differences were the horn grilles up front, the first standard fuel gauges and the dashboard knobs, which were no longer of VW origin. America-series cars continued to be offered in the US until the introduction of the Speedster.
1955: The new front hood handle was much larger and featured an enameled Porsche crest. The three-piece case Porsche engine replaced the two-piece modified VW unit used previously. The low-priced Speedster was introduced slightly prior to the 1955 model year, which commenced in November 1954. It was produced for the American market and featured a low removable windshield, lightweight removable soft top and side curtains.