The Concise Biography of Prof. Ferdinand Porsche
PROFESSOR FERDINAND PORSCHE was born on September 3, 1875. From early in his adolescent years, Mr. Porsche manifested an aptitude and proclivity for designing automobiles — right at the dawning of the era when horseless carriages began their evolution to automobiles . . .
Designing One of the First Hybrid Vehicles
Almost from the genesis of that evolution into automobiles, Mr. Porsche started work with the local carriage factory of Jakob Lohner & Company at the turn of the twentieth century.
While there, he contributed to notable breakthroughs in early automotive engineering by way of his instrumental inception and development of the “System Lohner-Porsche.”
This ingenious innovation married an internal combustion engine to a series-hybrid drive train composed of four wheel-mounted electric motors.
The year, 1900. This radical innovation of automotive engineering thus pre-dates today’s hybrid vehicles by about 100 years. While Mr. Porsche did audit classes at the Imperial Technical School in Liberic, it is incredible, then, that he never received a degree of higher education in engineering.
Nevertheless, in spite of this astonishing fact, Mr. Porsche became the proud recipient of the Poetting Prize as Austria’s most outstanding engineer in 1905.
Gathering the Primal Seeds of the Finest Marque on the Planet
Ferdinand Porsche changed gears, positioned once again to make more automotive history. He was recruited to Chief Designer by Austro-Daimler, where he was promoted to Managing Director in 1916.
He then became the recipient of the prestigious honorary doctorate degree of Dr. techn h.c. from Vienna Technical University in 1917. As a result, Mr. Porsche was able to incorporate Dr. Ing. h.c. in his name, which stands for Doktor Ingenieur honoris cousa.
Then in 1923 Mr. Porsche left Austro-Daimler to become Technical Director of Daimler Moteren Gesellschaft in Stuttgart. His designs of race cars there began to dominate motorsport in the 1920s.
As would also be the case some three decades later for Porsche rennsport, Mr. Porsche’s mastery of automotive engineering was confirmed by the superiority demonstrated on the racetrack time and again by cars he had designed.
This led to Mr. Porsche’s honorary doctorate from Stuttgart Technical University, and in turn to his honorary title of “Professor,” as he is referred to even today.
Though it probably never occurred to him at the moment, Professor Porsche at that very place in space and time was poised on the eve of sowing the seeds of the finest marque on the planet — the Porsche automobile that was destined to bear his family name, and his name alone.
Granted, this preordained development wouldn’t actually take discernible shape and form for another 12 years or so, but it was a start nonetheless. That start did begin to take shape, however, around 1926.
While still working for Daimler Moteren Gesellschaft, Prof. Porsche lobbied hard for authorization to design nimbler, lighter-weight cars around the time Daimler merged with Benz & Cie to become Mercedes-Benz, which their jointly produced products first came to be called.
The Mercedes-Benz board, partial to relatively more bulky, less agile cars then as now, time and again scoffed at Prof. Porsche’s nimble design ideas.
Enduring almost three years of staff opposition to his agile “pre-Porschësque” designs, Ferdinand left Daimler-Benz to join Steyr in 1929.
Unfortunately, the Great Depression reared its ugly head right about then, forcing the financial collapse of Steyr, and the seemingly endless unemployment of Prof. Porsche.
Having No Luck Was the Best Luck of All (especially for all of us)
At the time, this lingering loss of income and the bitter prospect that there was no end in sight must have felt like utter defeat to Prof. Porsche, as it would to any one of us. However, as alluded to previously, it was a godsend.
It was a godsend because it gave Prof. Porsche no way out but to start his own company — and ultimately to manufacture the magnificent automobiles we all love and drive today.
Even if Prof. Porsche were to find work as yet another employee furnishing designs to yet another automobile manufacturer, granted it would put bread on the table — but it wouldn’t provide complete satisfaction to him.
To note Ferry Porsche’s recounting of the situation as quoted in Karl Ludvigsen’s Porsche – Excellence Was Expected, the bible of knowledge about Porsche and its automobiles, Ferry declared, “My father found that when he signed a contract with a firm, they could live another ten years on his designs, but he couldn’t!”1
As a consequence, not to mention thankfully for all of us Porschephiles today, the Professor officially established his own engineering design firm on December 1, 1930, its headquarters opening its doors in Stuttgart, Germany, beside the Neckar River, which is a tributary of the mighty Rhine.
The firm registered with the German government as Dr. Ing. h.c. F. Porsche Gmbh, Konstruktionen und Beratungen für Motoren und Fahrzeugbau. For short, it was known as the Porsche Engineering Office.
The following giants joined the venerable Professor from the beginning, on the threshold of making quintessential Porsche history:
- Karl Rabe — chief engineer
- Erwin Komenda — body designer extraordinaire
- Josef Kales — engines
- Karl Fröhlich — transmissions
- Josef Zahradnik — steering and suspension systems
- Franz Xaver Reimspiess and Josef Mickl — aerodynamics
- Adolf Rosenberger — business manager
- Anton Piëch — lawyer — Ferdinand Porsche’s son-in-law
- Ferry Porsche — son of Ferdinand (full name: Ferdinand Anton Ernst Porsche)
To get the new company off the ground, as well as to hasten the end of the uncomfortable period of unemployment that he had been enduring, Prof. Porsche took on the firm’s first project: It was the Wanderer.
Designed to sell to the middle class, the Wanderer was a small automobile designed for a company that merged soon thereafter with three others in the conglomerate known as Auto Union (and much later as Audi). Nevertheless, Prof. Porsche’s company garnered more commissions for automobile designs.
“German”ating the Seeds of the Finest Marque on the Planet
As the Porsche Engineering Office continued to thrive, Prof. Porsche’s thoughts turned yet again to the smaller-car concepts that he nurtured while at Mercedes-Benz.
He wanted to design his own car at long last. The auspicious maiden voyage was initially financed by way of a loan against Ferdinand’s life insurance. Zündapp provided additional funding, but dropped out to concentrate its efforts on its prospering new motorcycle line.
Then, in 1933, Prof. Porsche’s dream actually began to take tangible shape. NSU Motorenwerke AG commissioned the Typ 32, but lost interest in the face of estimated high tooling costs. Even though NSU dropped out, not all was lost, as the Type 32 came to be known as the direct predecessor to the Volkswagen Beetle.
It did appear, however, as though the Type 32 would never get off the drawing board since no one else expressed interest in pursuing the project. Just when the concept seemed to have arrived stillborn, the Third Reich snatched up the idea as its own, finding the concept ideal for its massive propaganda effort.
It fit the Reich’s plans to a T because the now-famous autobahns were slated to criss-cross Germany, and a common “people’s car” based on the Type 32 concept was ideal for traversing these futuristic superhighways. Another superlative bonus was the convenience of its air-cooled engine that was impervious to freezing over in the harsh German winters.
The Porsche Engineering Office received a contract in June of 1934 to construct three prototypes based on the design of the Type 32, which had already begun its evolution into the first Volkswagen, the Beetle.
Then, in the spring of 1936, incredibly at the Porsche family villa in Stuttgart at number 48 on the Feuerbacher Weg, extensive testing began on the built prototypes right out of the villa’s backyard garage. Ironically, Daimler-Benz was the contracted company engaged to build 30 more prototypes.
A site near Fallersleben ominously dubbed by the Third Reich as Stadt des Kraft durch Freude-Wagens (City of the People’s Cars Built by Strength Through Joy) was chosen to erect the factory where the first production Volkswagens were to be built.
Prof. Porsche himself supervised the construction of the assembly lines. In the meantime, though, the Type 32 design’s development continued, evolving into the Typ 60, which was set for production once the factory was finished.
However, World War II erupted, delaying assembly for several years in the city which is known today as Wolfsburg. This is where the Volkswagen Company is headquartered and still operates manufacturing and assembly halls today.
It’s interesting to note that today Volkswagen pretty much owns Porsche now, a potentially terminal state of affairs for Porsche’s independence — that is, Porsche’s autonomy over evolutionary design could very well become a thing of the past.
But perish the thought. I guess we should only hope for the best in the meantime . . .
Reaping What He’s Sown
Just prior to the War, however, the Porsche Office had developed another automobile that was an even closer genetic forebear to all Porsche automobiles today.
Originally known as the Typ 64, it was the 60K10, whose ancestral DNA can be discerned in all Porsches in general, and in today’s 911, Cayman and Panamera models in particular.
Three 60K10 cars were built in 1939 for the purpose of participating in a race from Berlin to Rome, but the outbreak of WWII precluded the competition. The two-seater coupe consisted of a VW chassis and a 50-horsepower engine.
As the War raged on, the Porsche Engineering Office was forced to relocate its operations as the result of the Allied Forces’ thick bombing sorties over Stuttgart. So in 1944, the firm quietly moved to the tiny rural Carinthian village of Gmünd, deep in southern Austria, conducting its design and manufacturing affairs in seclusion — totally undetected until after the War.
While to this point in time Ferdinand conceived and realized the grand ideas and concepts for his automobile designs, it was son Ferry who started coming into his own in the company, executing his father’s brilliant ideas.
This was certainly the case in Gmünd, because France had falsely imprisoned Ferdinand Porsche and son-in-law Anton Piëch on trumped-up charges for 20 months without benefit of a trial.
The deplorable conditions in which the French Regime held Prof. Porsche captive directly led to his irreparable ill health until the day of his last breath. Consequently, Ferdinand never fully recovered and was unable to resume running his own company — thanks in large part to the inhuman hospitality of the French.
Passing the Torch
So it was up to dutiful son Ferry to keep the company alive — and that he did, first earning a commission from Italian industrial magnate Piero Dusio, who believed in the Porsche Engineering Office to design him a special car for Grand Prix racing.
The first design to come out of Gmünd — the single-seated Cisitalia for Dusio — was one of the most innovative cars of its time, with its mid-engined configuration, two- or four-wheel drive on-demand capability, and the very first application of the Porsche-invented sychromesh design.
Finally the French — their maître d’ palms customarily extended and then greased a contre-coeur (i.e., against one’s will) with a sizable cut from the Cisitalia funds — shockingly saw fit to liberate Prof. Ferdinand Porsche.
Whatever was left of the proceeds from the Cisitalia commission barely kept the business in business, and in turn enabled Ferry Porsche and the company’s Chief Engineer, Karl Rabe, and Chief Body Designer, Erwin Komenda, to realize Prof. Ferdinand Porsche’s dream of a smaller, nimbler car of his own ever since his early days with Daimler.
For it was in a rickety old saw mill in Gmünd, Austria, that Porsche No. 1 was born, the first car to ever bear the sole name of Porsche, in May of 1948. A prototype built entirely by hand, the historic, revolutionary automobile was designated by the number 356-001.
All Porsches have a direct evolutionary bloodline and DNA heritage back to Porsche No. 1, a mid-engined roadster not unlike the Boxster, or the 550 Spyder which pre-dates the rear-engined 911 by about a decade.
Made of expensive aluminum and weighing in at only 1,330 pounds, the “bouncing baby” had a wheelbase of 84.6 inches and was composed of Volkswagen parts of steering and braking systems, transmission, suspension, and engine.
Porsche No. 1 set Gmünd on the map in timeless automotive history. It was not only the first proclaimed Porsche, but also the first 356. The prototype’s 1100 cc engine had a top speed of 84 mph.
Known as the Gmünd Porsches, over 50 cars were built in the sleepy, pastoral Austrian village, beginning in August of 1948. The first of these rare, historic cars was a coupe which bore the number 356/2-001, according to The Porsche Family Tree, published by the Porsche Club of America in 1995. These aluminum beauties were built entirely by hand on a wooden buck by not only Porsche, but also by the major coachbuilders in Austria and Switzerland.
Then the time came to leave Gmünd as the War had been over for about 4 years. Ferry returned the company to Stuttgart in 1949.
One major obstacle was the fact that the American forces had taken over the Porsche factory for housing and running its Post-War operations. As a result, Ferdinand and Ferry were unable to use the property as collateral for obtaining loans for the purpose of funding the company.
Realizing His Lifelong Dream at Long Last
Through sheer will in the face of all banks’ rejections of his loan requests, Ferry obtained the necessary funds by obtaining pre-sales of the first 356s.
Thus Prof. Ferdinand Porsche’s dream of mass-producing his very own long-rejected agile, nimble, smaller car had finally been fulfilled. The factory in Stuttgart began producing 356s of steel with a central-tube chassis instead of the much more costly aluminum bodies originally produced in Gmünd.
Ferry’s realistic goal was to create about 1,500 units of his father’s realized dream, but to his surprise more than 78,000 356s were produced over the next 17 years.
Then, to our utter misfortune, Professor Ferdinand Porsche suffered a stroke, never fully recovered, and passed from our existence on January 30, 1951.
The French’s unconscionable punishment of Prof. Porsche while in their captivity was the contributing factor to his premature demise. But the fact of the matter remains that each and every time you and I fire up our own Porsche, Prof. Porsche is reborn again and again and again in spite of France.
Prof. Porsche is reborn because Porsche AG — thanks to the unexpected success of the Boxster, Cayenne and Cayman — has been able to remain uniquely independent and autonomous in the automotive world.
As a result, Porsche AG is able to carry the torch and perpetuate the genetic continuity that Prof. Porsche established from the very beginning. However, Volkwagen’s takeover of Porsche places Porsche’s evolutionary design autonomy in potential long-term jeopardy.
Consequently, we at StuttgartDNA™ urge each and every one of you to support Porsche AG in its quest to remain independent and prosperous so that Prof. Porsche’s principles, concepts and ideals can thrive and continue to live on in perpetuity as we know them today.
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Suggested further bibliographical reading, research and study:
“About Face” (article about Erwin Komenda), Excellence magazine, No. 147, June 2006
The Concise Biography of Ferry Porsche by Larry Domasin — StuttgartDNA.com (2020)
Gabriel’s Horn, November 2009 issue, Porsche Club of America – San Gabriel Valley Region
Great Cars: Porsche (DVD), Michael Rose Productions (2004)
Porsche: Excellence Was Expected by Karl Ludvigsen — Bentley Publishers (2003)
The Porsche Family Tree – Porsche Club of America (1995)
Porsche No. 1: Genesis of the Marque of Excellence by Larry Domasin — StuttgartDNA.com (2020)
Porsche: The Incredible Porsche 911 (DVD), The History Channel (1994)
Porsche: Victory by Design (DVD), Goldcroft Films, LLP (2003)