The Last Car in the World Will Be a Sports Car

Ferdinand Porsche (1875 - 1951)

The history of a respectable carmaker is the destiny of three generations of one family.

For automobile engineers to build a powerful racing car that would triumph over all others is a great challenge. But a just as common and large vision is to build a genial, inexpensive car that most people could afford and be satisfied with. It is interesting that even today carmakers which have long years of experience with motor sports are making really good cars.

Ferdinand Porsche (1875 – 1951), the famous engineer and racer, also first came up with the super sporty Mercedes-Benz cars, and in the end, became famous for the VW Bug. The car engineer of the 20th century, as an academic commission called Ferdinand Porsche, was born in September 1875 in Vratislavice nad Nisou, not far from Liberec, Czech Republic. His father had a tinsmith’s workshop and hoped that his son would inherit it, especially after his first-born son Anton, two years older than Ferdinand, tragically died. Ferdinand, however, was fascinated by electronic technology, which in the 1870s was undergoing a stormy development. As a 13-year-old Ferdinand mounted light bulbs on his skates, hiding the battery in a pocket, and astonished his classmates at the skating rink. When at fifteen he installed electric lighting in his father’s workshop connected to a home generator, his father finally decided that he should go study – first to Liberec after three years to Vienna. In 1898 a world’s fair was held in Paris, where the only Austria-Hungary automobile of Jakob Lohner was on display. This was actually an electric car with motors in the front wheels – a Porsche patent. In 1906 Porsche joined the company Austro-Daimler as an engineer, where he mainly built race cars. From 1929 he began to work at the Austrian company Steyr, but due to the Great Depression the luxury convertible he worked on never got into serial production.

For automobile engineers to build a powerful racing car that would triumph over all others is a great challenge.

Own Firm in Stuttgart

From April 1931 Ferdinand had his own company in Stuttgart, at Kronenstrasse 24. He put 24-thousand Reich-marks into it, which secured him a 70-percent share; the rest was divided by his son-in-law Anton Piech and Adolf Rosenberger. In 1933 engineer Hans Ledwinka built in Kopřivnice a prototype of the Tatra 570, in which perhaps can be seen that Porsche and Ledwinka knew each other and had the same opinion about many construction solutions. Likewise, engineer Béla Barényi also had a few designs or sketches of a folk car, which were very similar to Porsche’s ideas.

Ferdinand Porsche in 1949 with two grandsons, on the left Butzi, on the right Ferdinand Piech

And Ferdinand Porsche himself also had several designs behind him. For example, one for the Zundapp company from 1931. Who knows what might have happened if at Zundapp they had not insisted on the absurd radial engine… It was 1 March 1933, when Hitler invited Ferdinand Porsche to visit him, but they didn’t agree on anything. Porsche even visited Moscow on invitation, but life under communism did not interest him. In January 1934 Porsche sent his project for a people’s car to the Ministry of Transport and three months later he again met with Hitler. Hitler’s ideas were truly pie-in-the-sky: he wanted a diesel air-cooled engine with a 4×4 drive and a price under 1000 marks. In 1936 Porsche showed Hitler two prototypes and came up with the unreal price of 960 marks. A factory was built in Wolfsburg with a state subsidy, and in 1939 it was shown that for each auto made the carmaker would lose 1080 marks. The war changed their plans, however, and preference was given to cars for the military.

Ferdinand Porsche shows Hitler a model of the people’s car.

Prison and a Woodworking Shop

At the end of the war, Ferdinand Porsche was interned at the Kransberg camp by the Americans. But they soon released him, since no serious accusations were made against him. This, however, affected an influential man called Jean Pierre Peugeot. He pushed hard so that Ferdinand, his son Ferry (1909-1998) and Anton Piech (1894-1952) got two years of imprisonment. At the same time, it was Peugeot, whom Ferdinand Porsche had kept in Wolfsburg, thus saving him from a certain death when the Nazis bombed his factory in France.  He probably slandered Porsche to prevent being accused of collaboration himself. Louis Renault was also accused; his car company was confiscated, and he died in prison under unclear circumstances. Ultimately, however, the testimony of members of the Peugeot board of directors helped the 72-year-old engineer.

Dashboard of the model 356

They testified that it was Porsche who personally saw to it that Peugeot employees during the war did not have to go to compulsory work to Germany. In 1947, after 22 months in prison together with his son-in-law Anton Piech, Ferdinand Porsche returned from France. His daughter Louisa Piech (1904 – 1999), who led the company with her brother Ferry Porsche in Gmünd, Austria, had to pay a security of a million francs. Money came from orders for the Turin Cisitalia team, who ordered race cars. The carmaker Porsche settled in southern Austria and its production hall was a former sawmill. At the beginning it was banned from making cars. In contrast, the British decided to expand the carmaker in Wolfsburg, Germany, after the war. Here the war did not destroy too much, and many machines were hidden below ground during bombardment. In 1945 they had already made 1785 cars, first of all, paradoxically, several of them in the colour of the Afrika Korps for the American army, and in 1946 they made 10 thousand. The employees of the carmaker were literally living from hand to mouth. The Porsche company profited from every Bug made, however, because VW had to pay for the patents. And the VW sales network belonged to the Porsche-Piech families. Aside from the racing car, the company Cisitalia ordered from Porsche a water turbine and a small tractor. Cisitalia made sports cars in Turin on the foundations of the Fiat brand, which also inspired the Porsches.

Ferdinand Piech shows the technical commissar the series of the legendary Porsche 917 model.

The First Real Porsche

Ferdinand’s son Ferry decided to build a sports car at the foundations of the Bug. The project was given serial number 356. Erwin Komenda (1904 – 1966), who designed the VW, designed the shape of the shape of the body. They paid heed to the aerodynamics by using yarn stuck to the bodywork, via with they could watch how the air flowed over it.

There was a lack of parts in Austria, and we had to smuggle the spark plugs in from Germany in our trouser pockets.

Production was very hard work; body parts were made by hand on wooden models. It was originally intended for the engine to be in the middle, but it finally remained in the back. The virtually piece-by-piece production began in the second half of 1948. There were both coupe and convertible versions. “There was a lack of parts in Austria, and we had to smuggle the spark plugs in from Germany in our trouser pockets,ˮ Ferry Porsche later recalled. The bodies were painted outside the workshop. The first cars were exported to Switzerland and the premiere was held in Geneva in March 1949. By 1950, they had made 44 coupes and 8 convertibles in Gmünd. The first series had the typical divided windscreen. In 1950, the company moved back to Stuttgart where it was headed by Ferry Porsche, while his sister Louisa Piech established the VW branch in Salzburg. The first drivable car was completed in the company’s old mansion on Easter 1950. Ferry Porsche’s original dream was to produce 500 units of the sports cars and by 1965 they had made 76,000. Initially, the Porsche 356 had 40 horsepower, while the latest Carrera 2 models had 155 horsepower.

Birth of a Legend

Several designs for the successor to the 356 were created, and in 1961 they built the T7 prototype. In addition, they initially considered installing the engine lower, but it was too noisy and was poorly cooled. Butzi and Komenda reportedly failed to agree on which design was best. Finally, Ferry’s father took his sons drawings and took them to the company Reutter, where they made the first bodywork. In 1963, the Porsche 901 was first released in Frankfurt, and after 82 units were named it was renamed as the 911. The body shape was now designed by Ferry’s oldest son, Ferdinand Alexander Porsche (1935 – 2012), whose nickname was Butzi. He was assisted by, or even opposed by Erwin Komenda. “Mr. Komenda was very strict, whenever he could he tried to use a well-known argument on me: this is simply not done …ˮ, Butzi recalled about his beginnings in the family business.

A Porsche 911 Targa from 1975

The original air-cooled six-cylinder, two litre (92 x 74 mm) engine was designed by Butzi’s cousin Ferdinand Piech. The engine was 130 hp at 6100 rpm and a torque of 178 Nm at 4600 rpm. The Porsche 911 has become a legend and is still being produced, now in its eleventh generation. It has a six-cylinder horizontal engine that was originally air-cooled. In the basic version, the Porsche 911 today has 370 hp and the version with atmospheric suction is no longer made.

Text: Martin Vasiľ, Photo: Porsche