FERDINAND PORSCHE, 1875 ? 1951
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
Passing the Torch
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