Sunday, June 10, 2007


The Porsche sports car was born amid the physical ruin and economic chaos of post World War II Europe. From modest circumstances, the “son” Ferdinand Porsche designed and built a prototype Porsche roadster, developed it into a production model, and launched an automobile manufacturing company. On the of innovative engineering and excellent build quality, Porsche cars, both for the street and for racing, have achieved continual successes for 50 years.

The hand-built aluminium prototype, which the Porsche built in its World War II exile headquarters in Gmund, Austria, was completed on June 8, 1948. The history of Porsche automobiles goes back much farther, however, all the way back to 1900. The history of Porsche is really the histories of two men: Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, ‘the Professor’, and his son Ferdinand ‘Ferry’ Porsche. While the son designed the Porsche Type 356 and founded the car manufacturing company, the entire enterprise had its foundation in the father’s life work.

The Engineer Father
Ferdinand Porsche, was born in Reichenberg (in what was then North Bohemia, later Czechoslovakia) in 1875. The young Porsche demonstrated excellent mechanical aptitude and, at age 18, was recommended for a job in Vienna with Bela Egger (later Brown Boveri). In Vienna, he sneaked into night classes at the Technical University, the only ‘formal’ engineering education he ever obtained.

After five years in Vienna, he landed his first job in the automotive field with Jacob Lohner. In 1900, the ‘System Lohner-Porsche’ electric carriage made its debut at the World’s Fair in Paris. This automobile set several Austrian land speed records. It did over 35 mph. Porsche then harnessed Daimler’s and Panhard’s internal combustion engines to power wheel-mounted electric motors in the new ‘System Mixt.’ More speed records were won, acclaim followed, and in 1905 Porsche won the Poetting Prize as Austria’s outstanding automotive designer. He was now a famous engineer in Europe.
Austro-Daimler (a licensee of the Stuttgart-based Daimler firm) lured Porsche over in 1906 to be its chief designer. In 1910 Porsche designed an 85-horsepower, streamlined car for the Prince Henry Trial. Examples won the top three places in the 1910 trial, and Model 27/80 has ever since been known as the ‘Prince Henry.’

For most of the next decade, Austro-Daimler concentrated on war materiel including aircraft engines, huge trucks, and motorized cannons. In 1916,
Porsche became the firm’s managing director. [Caption: Ferry Porsche in the late 1980’s beside a 356 in the Company’s museum in Stuttgart. Off an initial
order for five cars, over 78,000 356’s were ultimately built.]

The next year, Porsche received what became his most cherished honour, an honorary doctorate from Vienna Technical University, the same institution where 24 years earlier he had sneaked into night classes. This degree was designated by the now-famous ‘Dr. Ing. h.c.’ which was forever to be part of the professor’s persona and eventually part of his firm’s name. While Austro-Daimler principally pursued large luxury sedans in the ‘20s, Dr. Porsche moved toward light cars and racing. Porsche had competed in hillclimbs, speed trials and rallies since his first days in the industry. By 1922, Dr. Porsche had embraced racing as a way to improve his cars and the resultant ‘Sascha’ won races throughout Europe with 43 wins in 51 starts. (Today a Sascha is in the Porsche firm’s museum.) Eventually, Porsche and Austro-Daimler’s board differed on the future direction of its cars and Dr. Porsche triggered his reportedly formidable temper and left Austro-Daimler in 1923.

Within several months, he was in Stuttgart as Daimler’s Technical Director. His early work at Daimler earned him a second honorary degree, this time from the Stuttgart Technical University. A series of intimidating racing cars followed: the two-litre, eight-cylinder cars for 1925-27 in which Rudolf Caracciola won 21 races in 27 starts. After the 1926 merger of Daimler and Benz, the big 6.2-liter K, 6.8-liter S, and then the 7.0-liter SS, SSK, and SSKL models followed, dominating racing in 1928-1930. While Porsche’s racing activities were successful, his push for small, light Daimler-Benz cars was not. The board objected. In 1929, Porsche left for a brief stay at Steyr, but the Great Depression was on and car manufacturing was not the place to be. Steyr collapsed. At age 55, Porsche had no job; despite his broadly-acknowledged brilliance, his well-earned reputation for stubbornness was not going to help him find a good job in those hard times

Founding the Firm
He returned to Stuttgart, an automotive centre with firms such as Hirth, Mahle, and Bosch in addition to Daimler-Benz. In January 1931, he launched his consulting firm, ‘Dr. Ing. h.c. F. Porsche GmbH Konstructionsburo Fur Motern, Fahrzeug, Luftfahrzeug, and Wasserfahrzeugbau’ (‘Motors, Vehicles, Airplanes, and Boats...’). The staff was composed of men with whom the Professor had previously worked. Karl Rabe, chief engineer, was joined by Erwin Komenda (body design), Karl Frolich (transmissions), Josef Kales (motors), Josef Zahradnik (steering and suspensions), Francis Reimspiess, Han Mickl (aerodynamics), Adolf Rosenberger (business manager), and two relatives: Anton Piech (a lawyer; Ferdinand Porsche’s son-in-law and later father of Ferdinand Piech, now chairman of Volkswagen), and Porsche’s own son, Ferry.

Ferdinand Anton Ernst Porsche had been born in 1909 in Weiner Neustadt, Austria, the second child in the family behind a five-year older sister, Louisa. His first nickname was ‘Ferdy’ but (as he recounted 50 years later) his governess did not like the sound of the name and changed it to ‘Ferry’, actually a nickname for Franz.

Growing up, young Porsche was allowed to play in the Austro-Daimler factory. He was interest-ed in matters automotive and paid attention to what he saw and heard in the factory. At an early age he accompanied his father to races for both Austro-Daimler and Daimler-Benz (including Indianapolis in 1923) and he had a half-sized two-cylinder car. Educated in Wiener Neustadt and then Stuttgart, Ferry was an excellent math student. In 1928, not yet 19 years old, he began an apprenticeship at Bosch. In 1930, he was tutored daily in physics and engineering in preparation for working in the new Porsche consulting firm.
The ‘30s were alternatively exhilarating and depressing for the Porsches: times of impending financial disaster mixed with huge engineering successes, followed by the War and the destruction of the European economy.

The Volkswagen
The new Porsche design firm had projects soon after opening, such was Professor Porsche’s reputation. First was a new medium-priced car for Wanderer. Later, Porsche decided to undertake a new small car; one designed to be small from inception and not a scaled-down bigger car. Professor Porsche funded the project with a loan on his life insurance. It was an important design, being the direct antecedent of the Volkswagen. Later Zundapp was recruited to sponsor the project and three prototypes were built.

Zundapp lost interest when its motorcycle business boomed; then NSU took on the project. After NSU bowed out in the face of huge tooling costs, the small car project lay fallow until Germany’s newly elected chancellor, Adolf Hitler; decided every German family needed a radio (to be able to listen to his speeches) and either a small car or a durable tractor. In the mid- and late-’3Os, Porsche’s design work was overseen by Ferry Porsche, the de facto managing director. In June of 1934, the Third Reich signed a contract to build prototype Volkswagens. By the winter of 1936, three prototypes had been built in the garages of Professor Porsche’s home. In early 1937, the Nazi ‘oversight’ organization, the RDA (Reichverband der Deutschen Automobilindustrie) recommended further development and that 30 additional prototypes be built by Daimler-Benz. During the testing of the VW3O, the Reich selected an estate northeast of Hanover to become the site of the Volkswagen factory. ‘Die Autostadt’ was born; today it is Wolfsburg, still the worldwide headquarters of Volkswagen.

While the Professor undertook co-general management (with a Nazi administrator) of the new plant, his son stayed in Stuttgart and ran the design business. The government gave the car a propaganda-oriented name, the ‘KdF’ - short for Kraft dur Freude (‘Strength through Joy’ ), the recreation arm of the Labour Front. Refinements to the car were undertaken. Production started but was quickly switched over to the Kubelswagen and Schwimmwagen (a ‘jeep’ and its amphibious counterpart) for the suddenly escalating World War II. In 1944, allied bombing destroyed over half of the plant. Only because two huge electricity-producing turbines were unscathed did the British rebuild the plant and restart production of the Volkswagen after the War.

The Auto Union P-Wagen
Back in the early ‘30s the Porsche firm launched a second internal project to design a car to meet a new Grand Prix formula. Hitler had announced a 500,000 RM ($250,000) subsidy for a German firm that would build and campaign cars in the new formula. Daimler-Benz applied and won; Auto Union applied and lost. Auto Union reapplied and took Professor Porsche and his designs to meet with Hitler and his staff. In the now-famous meeting, Porsche convinced Hitler of the merits of the Porsche design. Soon the Grand Prix wars of the Silver Arrows were on, and Mercedes and Auto Union took turns at ascendancy.

The car Porsche designed was very innovative: a V-16 4.5-liter engine placed ahead of the rear transaxle, tube frame, aluminium skin weighing 99 pounds, gas tank between the cockpit and the engine (in the centre of the car so that weight gain or loss with gas load did not unduly impact handling), a front suspension of torsion bars and trailing arms, and a rear suspension of swing axles, semi-elliptical springs and tube-type shocks.
The 750-kilo formula Auto Union P-wagens were fearsome race cars. With fewer than three pounds per horsepower and ultimately 650 horse-power from six litres, the cars could lay rubber accelerating from 100 mph. In various iterations, they were hillclimb champions, won Grand Prix races, and set land speed records.

Professor Porsche was heavily involved with designing the P-wagens. Then as his involvement shifted more to the KdF/Volkswagen, his son took over development. After the formula change in 1938 (3-liter supercharged or 4.5-liter normally aspirated engines), Auto Union took full control of the team under Eberan von Eberhorst, who continued to work with the Porsche firm.

Post War Prison
Toward the end of the War; Porsche people were working in Stuttgart, Wolfsburg, the family farm in Zell am See (Austria), and in Gmund (Austria) where the Third Reich sent the firm to avoid the Allied bombing of Stuttgart. The younger Porsche had long foreseen the outcome of the War. He had grown up anti-military and stayed apolitical through the Nazi years. The old Professor was simply politically naive; he was consumed with engineering, and it’s obvious that he did not mix engineering with morality. If there was a sponsor for an engineering project, be it a race car or a tank, he wanted to design and build the best there ever was.

When the Allies arrived in mid-1945, it was no surprise. That November; the French invited Professor Porsche to visit them at their occupation headquarters in Baden-Baden. There he was offered the opportunity to redesign the Volkswagen to be ‘more French’ and to move equipment from Wolfsburg (which the French would claim as war reparations) to build cars in France. The offer was probably a sincere one; the French had already nationalized Renault, and had arrested Louis Renault as a Nazi collaborator.

Disagreement within the government ensued. French automakers, led by Jean Pierre Peugeot, wanted no part of a French Volkswagen. On December 15, 1945, while the invited guests of the French in Baden-Baden, Professor Porsche, Ferry Porsche and Anton Piech were arrested as war criminals. Ferry was soon released, but the Professor and Pitch went to prison in Dijon. No charges were brought and no trial was scheduled, but ‘bail’ was set at 500,000 francs each.

After his release, the younger Porsche went to work to secure a commission for the family firm, still in Gmund. With help from Carlo Abarth, Porsche secured a contract with Piero Dusio, a wealthy Italian industrialist, for a new Grand Prix race car. The Type 360 Cisitalia, a 1.5-liter supercharged car smaller than, but reminiscent of, the Auto Unions was the result. The fees Porsche eamed for its design bought the release of Professor Porsche and Piech. They were freed August 1,1947 after almost 20 months in captivity, mostly in terrible conditions in the medieval Dijon prison. The Professor’s health was poor.

The First Porsche
While the Professor was in prison, the little Porsche firm did whatever it could to stay in business. Aside from the Cisitalia project, it repaired cars, built and sold water pumps and winches, and designed its own sports car, the first car to carry the name Porsche. Type 356 was the project number. The prototype followed the tradition of the Auto Union and Cisitalia Grand Prix cars with mid-chassis engine placed ahead of the transaxle, in this case using modified Volkswagen drive train components.

Upon his return to the company from prison, Professor Porsche reviewed the designs his son and his team had produced. He approved of them, commenting frequently to the workers that he would have designed both the Cisitalia Grand Prix car and the Porsche prototype the same way Ferry did. That winter, a Zurich car distributor ordered five Porsches and the Type 356 was put into production in the old saw mill in Gmund. Built entirely by hand, these cars adopted a more Volkswagen-like layout in order to have vestigial back seats: the engine was moved behind the transaxle. While in Gmund the little firm ultimately built and delivered 49 of the aluminium skinned 356s plus five additional chassis which were delivered to the Beutler firm in Thun, Switzerland, for fitting with their cabriolet bodies. In the Spring of 1949, Heinz Nordhoff hired the Porsche firm as consultants for further development of the VW, and contracted to pay Porsche a royalty on every car built. Porsche also became the Austrian distributor for VW.

With finances now more secure, Porsche made plans to return to Stuttgart and in September 1949, reopened offices in space rented from the Reutter body works. Steel-bodied 356’s went into production there soon after. Initial plans were to build up to 500 cars a year Eventually more than 78,000 356s would be built in 17 years.

Passing the Torch
In September of 1950, Professor Porsche celebrated his 75th birthday. A huge party was staged, and the courtyard of the family villa was filled with friends and associates from years past.. .and with Porsches and VWs. In November Ferry took his father for one last look at the Wolfsburg Volkswagenwerk, now literally humming full speed with production of the popular VW Beetle. It was the first time the Professor had seen the plant since the end of the War.
Later in November, Professor Porsche had a stroke. He never recovered, and he succumbed January 30, 1951. His legacy, that of an untrained and largely uneducated young man who became one of the greatest automobile engineers of all time, lay in the countless design innovations now distilled down to one car which his son had designed and which would live on; the Porsche sports car. Ferry Porsche was an engineer cut from the self-made mold of his father. As a man and a manager, he was distinctly different. Ferry was mild-mannered and unassuming; he preferred teamwork and consensus. But, like his father he worked hard and he inspired others to bend to the tasks before them.

Founded on his design and built on his skills, the Porsche firm prospered. The little Type 356 became a success: an engineer’s cult car in America the gentry’s quirky toy in Europe. Racing entered the picture almost immediately. Some of the lightweight aluminium coupes built in Gmund were adapted for racing as early as 1951. Prototype Type 550s followed in 1953 and by 1954, with the Fuhrman four-cam Type 547 motors in them, the Spyders were winning the 1500-cc class frequently and winning overall occasionally. They became known as ‘giant killers, the little cars that could.’

The Spyders were developed steadily through 1962 when the Carrera Abarth was born, with an Italian aluminium body reminiscent of the 356 design, but racier. By 1964 Ferry’s son, Butzi Porsche, had designed the 904, and (perhaps more important to the long-term prospects of the company) had designed the successor street car to the 356: the Porsche 901/911. In 1970, the 911 accounted for sales of almost 17,000 cars.

Then it was Ferdinand Piech’s turn to power the company forward. Son of Anton Piech and Ferry Porsche’s sister Louisa, Piieh took over the racing department for the 1966 season. In quick order; Porsche launched the tube-frame fibreglass 906, 910 and 907; all six-cylinder; two-litre or small bore eight-cylinder (Type 771) 2.2-2.3-liter powered cars. The 908 of 1969 was the first attempt to race for overall victories, not class wins, with its eight-cylinder, three-litre boxer motor. Then came the giants: the 917’s of 1970-71, the 917/10 turbos of 1972, and the 917/30 of 1973, a four-year run of racing dominance unparalleled in automotive history. The 908 won Porsche’s first championship in 1969; the 917K coupe won Porsche’s first overall victory at LeMans in 1970 and World Championships in 1970 and 1971; the turbocharged 917/10’s and 30’s won the CanAm and the Interserie Championships in 1972 and 1973.

After 1972, direct management of Porsche was turned over by the Porsche family to ‘professional managers’, early examples of which were long-standing, highly-valued employees. The firm alternately prospered and declined through the late ‘70s, the ‘80s and the early ‘90s. Ferry had aged and took a less active role in management. None of his four sons had the stamina or aptitude to succeed him, and Ferdinand Piieh, a difficult man in the mold of his grandfather; went to run Audi and then Volkswagen.

Notable racing successes followed: RSR’s, 934’s, 935’s, then the dominating 956’s and 962’s. So did production car failures: the 914, the 924, the 2.7-liter CIS engines. Some were unworthy designs; some were just commercial failures.

By the mid ‘90s, as rumours of merger or sale to Daimler-Benz intensified, Porsche gained new life. The Type 993 introduced in 1994 met with a strong world economy and took sales of the 911 line to new highs. The Boxster replaced the 944/968 models and has been a sell-out since it was announced. The future of Porsche as an independent car maker now seems more secure than at any time in the recent past.
Today, Porsche stands alone as the last independent manufacturer of sports cars. Ferrari is part of Fiat; Ford owns Jaguar; all the other famous names are defunct. That Porsche has survived is a tribute to its cars and to the loyalty they inspire in their owners.

Ferry Dies in his Company's 50th Year

March 27, 1998, at age 88, Ferry Porsche died at the family farm in Zell am Zee. In his eulogy at the official memorial service in Stuttgart April 3rd, Dr. Wendelin Wiedeking, current chairman of Porsche AG, told the assemblage that his promise to Ferry had been that Porsche would remain an independent company. It is fitting that this firm, built on the fiercely independent and innovative engineering of two automotive geniuses, father and son, should forever be independent.

We at Porsche - Ferry Porsche with John Bailey, G.T. Foulis and Co. Ltd., (London), 1977
Cars are My Life - Ferry Porsche with Gunther Molter; Patrick Stephens Limited (Haynes Group) 1989
Porsche: The Man and His Cars - Richard Von Frankenberg, G.T. Foulis and Co. Ltd., (London), 1969
Excellence Was Expected - Carl Ludvigsen, Princeton Publishing, Inc., (Princeton, NJ), 1977

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