The Concise Biography of Dr. Ferry Porsche
IT IS A FUNDAMENTAL DARWINIAN PRECEPT that every organism possesses the relentless instinctive impulse to engage in life’s struggle of passing along one’s genes in order to perpetuate survival of the species.
Ferdinand (Ferry) Anton Ernst Porsche is one such archetypal being.
But in this instance the genetics in question pertain to a particular breed of automobile. That automobile is the Porsche, one of the finest marques on the planet.
This struggle to ensure survival of the marque endures to this very day, as perpetuated by the tireless efforts of Porsche AG around the world and Porsche Cars North America.
Born on September 19, 1909, of Austrian descent, Ferry Porsche is the torch-bearer who kept the Porsche flame alive which, as a result, will most likely endure in perpetuity.
When he was born in the Austrian city of Wiener Neustadt, where his father was Austro-Daimler’s Technical Manager, Ferry had a sister, Louise, who was already 5 years old upon his birth. She too figures prominently in this Darwinian struggle for genetic survival of the marque.
Ferry was named Ferdinand after his father, Anton in honor of his grandfather, and Ernst after his maternal uncle. His parents nicknamed him “Ferry” instead of the more common nickname for Ferdinand of “Ferdy.”
It is apropos, then, that Ferry was named Ferdinand after his father, Professor Porsche, since both made automotive engineering, design and manufacture their life’s work. In fact, a quote of Ferry’s that is often attributed to him is as follows: “One could say that I was born with the automobile.”
Furthermore, it’s been said that the Professor learned of son Ferry’s birth via telegram, as the Professor was attending an auto race in which a race car of his own design was competing.
Ferry also received his first lessons in automotive mechanical engineering at his father’s side while both tinkered in various workshops together. Having learned to drive an automobile at the tender age of 10, Ferry got behind the wheel of his first racecar at age 12. The race car in question, having just won its class at Sicily’s Targa Florio in 1922, was the Austro-Daimler Sascha.
Meanwhile, the race car designs of Ferdinand Porsche, Sr., began to dominate motorsports throughout the 1920s. As would also be the case some three decades later for Porsche rennsport, the senior Porsche’s mastery of automotive engineering was confirmed by the superiority demonstrated on the track time and again by cars he had designed.
This led to Ferdinand Porsche’s honorary doctorate from Stuttgart Technical University, and in turn to his honorary title of “Professor,” as he is referred to even today.
Around this same time, Austro-Daimler was experiencing hard times. Disenchanted with the company’s financial woes, Professor Porsche decided to move on to greener pastures.
So, in 1923, the family pulled up roots once again, leaving Wiener Neustadt in their Austrian homeland. This move was soon to prove to be pivotal not only to the family, but equally importantly to every future Porschephile on the planet.
Ferry Porsche Biography — Manifest Destiny: Stuttgart
The Porsche family made the auspicious decision to migrate to Stuttgart, Germany.
There in Stuttgart-Untertürkheim, Professor Porsche assumed a new position with Daimler Motoren Gesellshaft, the headquarters of the company’s design division. In short order, the Professor rose to become Technical Director of the division.
Ferry benefited from this arrangement too. He was allowed to accompany his father to the factory as the result of his emerging perceptible fascination with automotive design.
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 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.
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, on the contrary, 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.
In the meantime, Ferry finished the equivalent of high school studies in 1928 and got his first job with the Bosch Company. While he continued his studies informally in engineering and physics, Ferry never enrolled in nor assumed formal studies at the college or university level.
Because the family relocated often as the result of the Professor’s itinerant design positions with several automotive manufacturing companies, Ferry studied at various schools throughout this time, with a concentration on the subject of mathematics.
Indeed, this incessant, wearisome moving from job location to new job location led the father to conclude and to declare to the son, “It makes no sense for me to keep going to one company after another.”
Although neither father nor son may have realized it at the time, this epiphany epitomized the definitive turning point in both of their lives — and in all of ours.
Quoted in Karl Ludvigsen’s bible on the Porsche marque, Porsche: Excellence Was Expected, Ferry discussed his father’s employment by other automotive manufacturers: “My father found that when he signed a contract with a firm, they could live another 10 years on his designs, but he couldn’t!”
To Ferry, Professor Ferdinand Porsche declared, “It makes no sense for me to keep going to one company after another.” Thus Professor Porsche took the leap of faith of founding his own design engineering office in April of 1931 — in Stuttgart, Germany.
“German”ating the Seeds of the Finest Marque on the Planet
Stuttgart was the Detroit of the German automotive industry back in the day, where all of the major automotive companies were either headquartered or operated their design wings. The newly founded Porsche office settled there too, beside the Neckar River, a tributary of the mighty Rhine.
The Porsche design firm was registered with the German government as Dr. Ing. h.c. F. Porsche Gmbh Konstruktionen und Beratungen für Moteren, Fahrzeuge, Lufftfahrzeuge und Wasserfahrzeugbau, which basically translates to a firm “for the construction and consultation for engines, automobiles, airplanes and motorboats.”
The Porsche Engineering Office was launched against the swelling tide of two major geopolitical blitzkriegs emerging on the horizon: the burgeoning German economic crisis and the advent of the Nazis looming ominously, on the verge of usurping national political power.
Despite these threatening events, the Porsche Office obtained significant contracts from such German automotive companies as Zwickau, Wanderer, and Zündapp, as well as the nascent National Socialist regime itself beginning in 1933. Then there was the most important contract ever executed — the agreement concerning the legendary mid-engined German Silver Arrow race cars of Auto Union.
The following automotive 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
Conversely, Ferry himself did not join his father’s firm right away. He was shrewd enough to relegate himself to the requisite trials by fire in order to acquire invaluable automotive knowledge by seeking experience with other firms first. In 1928 right out of school, Ferry embarked upon a one-year internship with the Bosch Company in Stuttgart.
At the same time Ferry continued his studies in engineering and physics despite the fact that, not unlike his father, he never sought a formal education at a college or university. Ferry did, however, serve another year of internship at Bosch, taking further intensive studies in automotive engineering.
Truth be told, Ferry gained additional indispensable experience at a variety of other firms in such areas as automotive testing, the supervision of design engineers, and, at Auto Union in Zwickau, for instance, client relations and management.
Ostensibly, then, in 1932, Ferry at long last possessed the serene confidence in his knowledge of automotive engineering and design to join his father’s firm. This is one of the key Darwinian milestones in the saga of the Porsche marque, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Once a new employee in his father’s Stuttgart office, Ferry’s first task among others was drafting a connecting rod for the Wanderer vehicle, the design of which was one of the company’s first contracts.
Ferry went on not only to assist in the design of this car, but also to test the 1932 Wanderer as well as race it in the 1934 Baden-Baden trial. This took place on an extremely long cross-country course of 2,000 kilometers along the open roads of Germany.
Then came the first tangible payoff of Ferry joining his father’s firm. At first, it may not have been readily apparent, but it eventually manifested itself in 20/20 hindsight.
For in 1934, father Ferdinand’s lifelong dream to design and build nimbler, lighter-weight cars was about to sprout and flourish, with son Ferry there to make sure the realization of that dream didn’t arrive stillborn this time. This was the definitive turning point.
To wit, NSU Motorenwerke AG commissioned the Typ 32, but gradually lost interest in the wake of the project’s escalating tooling costs. Even though NSU dropped out, not all was lost — the Type 32 came to be known as predecessor to the Volkswagen Beetle.
In the meantime, after having met her while working at Daimler-Benz, Ferry wed Dorothea Reitz in 1935, and eventually had four children: Ferdinand Alexander (Butzi), Gerhard, Hans-Peter and Wolfgang.
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 after all, the Third Reich’s Imperial Federation of the Automobile Industry (i.e., Reichsverband der Automobilindustrie [RDA]) snatched up the idea as its own, finding the concept ideal for its mammoth propaganda effort.
The Type 32 fit the Reich’s plans to a T because the now-famous autobahns were then 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 the Type 32’s air-cooled engine that was impervious to freezing over in the harsh German winters.
In fact, the Type 32 was later officially renamed the Typ 60 and ultimately the Kdf-Wagen or the Volkswagen, or “People’s Car.”
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, at the Porsche family villa in Stuttgart, incredibly, 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.
Ferry, in fact, was placed in charge of test-driving the vehicles. Since most of the Type 32 R&D transpired in the family garage, Ferry was immersed in its development, allowing him to cut his teeth further in the automotive industry.
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. The Professor was later appointed a Director at the factory — along, of course, with a watchdog handler Nazi officer from the Party. In the meantime, though, the Type 32’s design development continued, evolving into the Typ 60, which was set for production once the factory was finished.
Since the Professor was so preoccupied with the factory’s construction, though, Ferry was named Deputy Manager of the Porsche design department, which had relocated and opened in Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen in 1938.
The decision was then made to convert the company to a limited partnership, to be known as a Kommanditgesellschaft or KG. Professor Ferdinand’s son Ferry, daughter Louise and her husband Anton Piëch served as leading partners in the limited partnership.
Then, World War II erupted, delaying assembly of the People’s Car for several years in the city which is known today as Wolfsburg, where the Volkswagen Company is headquartered and still operates manufacturing and assembly halls today.
It’s ironic to note parenthetically that Porsche is now under the control of Volkswagen, the first time in history that Porsche has had to answer to anyone but the two families. We can only hope that this doesn’t dilute the brand.
As the War raged on, the Porsche Engineering Office was forced to relocate its operations as a result of the Allied Forces’ thick bombing sorties over Stuttgart. Ferry made the savvy decision to go speak directly with the powers that be in Salzburg in search of potential Austrian sites, wisely bypassing the cumbersome, inquisitional bureaucracy of the Reich.
Ferry’s initiative paid off. He secured two locations. The first one was to serve as a storage facility at a flying school in Zell am See, not far from the Porsche family farm retreat known as “Schüttgut,” just south of Salzburg.
The second site was to become historic hallowed ground in the Porsche pantheon — the sawmill in Gmünd, the birthplace of the Porsche automobiles that we all know, love and take extreme joy in driving today.
So in late fall of 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.
The covert move was further camouflaged by the fact that Ferry ran the company, business as usual, from Stuttgart, while Professor Ferdinand Porsche continued to run the factory at Wolfsburg, where the Kübelwagen, a small type of German military Jeep®, superseded wartime production of the VW Beetles.
In voluntary exile in Gmünd, the Porsche office employed about 140 factory workers at the converted sawmill. On premises were winches for farming and ski lifts, and lathes and water pumps among other mechanical devices. These were designed and manufactured initially as the bread and butter of the company.
The unmarried factory men stayed at what is known today as the Kohlmayr guesthouse, still located on the main square of Gmünd. For the workers with families, the company erected homes in a prototypical modular design that was common to German modular homes at the time.
The Porsche clan constructed two family homes adjacent to the gravelly fork in the nearby river for which the name Gmünd was christened.
Passing the Torch
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 himself.
This was certainly the case in Gmünd, because France had falsely imprisoned Ferdinand Porsche and Ferdinand’s son-in-law, Anton Piëch, for 20 months on trumped-up charges without benefit of a trial.
The deplorable conditions in which the French held Prof. Porsche captive directly led to his irreparable ill health that endured unabated for the rest of his life to 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.
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 syncromesh design.
Finally the French — with their discreetly extended maître d’hôtel palms greased with a sizable cut from the Cisitalia funds — shockingly saw fit to release 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 (1895-1968), and Chief Body Designer, Erwin Komenda (1904-1966), 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 that rickety old sawmill 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 with the number 356-001. While the official assignment of the Typ 356 designation was decreed on June 6, 1947, the drawings and preliminary specs were completed on the 16th of July, 1947, as were its space frame concept, mid-engined configuration and suspension, which later would all be abandoned as economically unfeasible for mass production.
Ferdinand said of the design and manufacture of Ferry’s 356 as well as the Cisitalia that he wouldn’t change a thing. Thus 17 years after Professor Ferdinand Porsche founded the firm as an engineering design office, the company grew into an essential automotive production enterprise.
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 — 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, whose Type 356 designation was officially pronounced on June 6, 1947, almost a year before the prototype saw the light of day.
The prototype’s 1100 cc engine had a top speed of 84 mph. Regarding the use of Volkswagen parts, Ferry noted, “We used parts that had already been tested for more than a million kilometers. We had a saying: ‘If it held up in the Kübelwagen, it’ll certainly hold up in a sports car!’” as quoted in Ludvigsen’s Porsche: Excellence Was Expected.
Realizing Father’s Lifelong Dream at Long Last
Porsche No. 1, also known as Typ 356-001, allowed Ferry Porsche to embody in this prototype the same design principles employed by his father, Ferdinand Porsche, who conceived the Volkswagen Beetle — utilizing a horizontally opposed air-cooled engine.
Granted, the prototype had a mid-engine, but what was to become the production 356 vehicle evolved into a rear-engined vehicle. Once it was up and ready to run under its own steam, No.1’s chassis itself was scrutinized by Robert Eberan von Eberhorst in March of 1948.
Then in April and May 1948 under the watchful eye of Ferry, the masterful Erwin Komenda designed, fabricated and fitted No. 1’s sleek aluminum body that was to become the genetic die that cast the form of all Porsches destined to roll off the production lines to this very day.
It’s been said that No. 1 took some of its styling cues from Dusio’s Fiat-based Cisitalia sports car and the Ferdinand Porsche-designed 60K10 (the body itself was also designed by Komenda). But to those in the know, both the heart and soul of No. 1’s design are quintessential Komenda.
Ferry Porsche, having earned the reputation as one of the most qualified automotive testers on the European continent, evaluated the prototype himself by putting No. 1 through its paces on the winding, 32% grade of nearby Katschberg Pass.
Then No. 1 underwent its first official road test in May 1948. Both Ferry and Iwg. Rupilius ran the prototype with great success from Gmünd to the Porsche family farm retreat in Zell am See.
It was around this same time that the decision was made to change the proposed name of the vehicle from its slated “VW Two-Seater Sports Car.” Instead, it was decided that the car would have the badging “PORSCHE” applied to the car, thus making it the very first in the line of soon-to-be-mass-produced vehicles to ever bear the sole Porsche moniker.
Not surprisingly, this was a major public-relations milestone marking the new tack that the company was taking — the genesis of the Porsche Office manufacturing its own cars.
Then came racing. As they say, race ‘em on Sunday, and sell ’em in the dealerships’ showrooms on Monday. Professor Porsche began this lucrative automotive tradition way back in 1900.
It’s only fitting, then, that Porsche No. 1 became the first Porsche to be registered in the racing record books of history on July 11, 1948, when it was driven to first-place victory in its class. Herbert Kaes took the wheel of the Porsche No. 1 in the Austrian Rund um den Hofgarten, a by-the-seat-of-your-pants race through the residential streets of the ski resort town of Innsbruck.
Thus Ferry Porsche — in the rare role of child is father to the man — picked up where the Professor left off by racing the first 356 in 1948.
That is, this initial victory inaugurated the Porsche Office’s ensuing global status as creating the most successful sports and racing cars. But probably more important was that it served as the genesis of Porsche’s international racing dominance for many decades to come.
While Porsche No. 1 was the first Porsche to be built, though, Typ 356/2 actually pre-dated No. 1, at least in concept on the drawing board as initially conceived by Ferry Porsche. Intended to come in both coupe and cabriolet models, the Type 356/2 is considered to be the actual genesis of the marque in terms of evolutionary development.
In design, the 356/2 retained the aluminum body composition of No. 1, but it adopted a new frame construction and body style. Additionally, its engine was placed at the rear, slung behind the rear axle, in order to market the car as having greater luggage storage space, which the mid-engined configuration did not afford. Its steering box was a Porsche-patented innovation taken from the VW.
Once again, Erwin Komenda’s genius rose to the occasion: The 356/2 body was also his brainchild, Komenda’s final scale drawing dated and completed on June 3, 1948. The first chassis was finished in April 1948, and the first body was married to that chassis in July 1948.
Known as the Gmünd Porsches, the very first 52 production “Porsches” based on the 356/2 were built in the sleepy pastoral Austrian village of Gmünd, 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. The bodies of 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.
One of the first orders of cars which began the first production run was by an auto dealer in Zurich in the winter of 1947. In fact, because of Switzerland’s perennial neutral political status immediately following the War, Swiss advocates of and investors in the new Porsche vehicles were instrumental in launching the new “356s” and introducing them to the world market.
The Beutler Company of Thun, Switzerland, took delivery of 6 of the Gmünd chassis in order to design and manufacture cabriolet bodies for the Porsche Office.
The very first catalog touting simply the “356” consisted of a 4-page brochure containing drawings of the coupe and the still-unbuilt cabriolet. The catalog was published in Vienna, in English, French, and German, of course.
In the wake of these humble beginnings, it’s almost astounding to look in the rear-view mirror to see that by 1965 approximately 78,000 356s were delivered to the world market.
© 2020 StuttgartDNA.com / Larry Domasin. All Rights Reserved.
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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 Ferdinand Porsche by Larry Domasin — StuttgartDNA.com (2020)
Gabriel’s Horn, November 2009 newsletter 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 (2010)
Porsche: The Incredible Porsche 911 (DVD), The History Channel (1994)
Porsche: Victory by Design (DVD), Goldcroft Films, LLP (2003)