Ferdinand Porsche was a German Bohemian automotive engineer and founder of the Porsche AG. He is best known for creating the first gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle (Lohner-Porsche), the Volkswagen Beetle, the Auto Union racing car, the Mercedes-Benz SS/SSK, and several other important developments and Porsche automobiles.
Ferdinand Porsche was born on September 3, 1875, just in time not only to witness the evolution of the automobile but also to participate in its development. When he was eleven years old, Ferdinand became fascinated with a new invention patented in 1886 by German machinist Karl Benz. In his Mannheim workshop Benz had created what historians regard as the ﬁrst motorcar, but more important, he had inspired others to follow in his path, among them was young Porsche.
Fourteen years later, as an engineer in the employ of the Lohner Motorworks in Vienna, Ferdinand Porsche
designed his ﬁrst motorcar, the Lohner-Wagen, a small, four-person carriage powered by two electric motors,
each developing 0.98 horsepower and turning the front wheels. While this would appear to make Porsche one of the earliest pioneers of front-wheel drive technology, his design was not inﬂuenced by any contemporary ideology promoting the advantages of front-driven wheels.
The motors replaced the horse, the horse pulled the carriage, and thus the electric motors were placed in the front. Interestingly, this was not a common practice at the turn of the century. Most early horseless carriages had their engines mounted in the rear, under the seat, with chain-driven rear wheels. In 1901, Wilhelm Maybach and Paul Daimler partly changed that tradition by positioning the engine under the front bonnet of the revolutionary new Mercedes, what was to be the ﬁrst modern automobile. The drive, however, still went to the rear wheels via chains.
Despite the Mercedes’ success, electric motorcars were more popular for a brief period in the 1900s than either steam-powered cars or those equipped with noisy, obstreperous internal combustion engines. In September 1900, intent on building even better electric motor wagons, Ferdinand Porsche designed the Lohner-Porsche racing car, which was delivered to British sportsman E. W. Hart.
Ferdinand Porsche The Designer and Engineer
It was during his tenure in Austria that Porsche gained prominence as both an engineer and a designer. In 1909 he entered a trio of Austro-Daimler 28/36PS sports touring cars in the Prince Henry Time Trials, a successor to the Herkomer Trials and an important race for production automobiles of the time. One of the specially prepared Austro-Daimlers finished first in one stage of the event, Ferdinand Porsche returned with a team of eight cars the following year, sweeping the first three places overall, with Porsche himself driving the winning car.
By 1916 he had risen to the position of managing director of Austro-Daimler. The Viennese Technical University presented him with an honorary doctorate for his advances in aircraft and automotive technology, after which he referred to himself as Professor Porsche or Herr Docktor.
In 1940, Porsche was also awarded an honorary professorship by the German Ministry for Science and Education, which gave him a great deal of pleasure.
World War I
Wars were to play a pivotal role in Porsche’s life and career. The assassination in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, ignited World War I. When the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, Germany sided with the Austro-Hungarian empire and declarations of war began flying in every direction. Soon all of Europe was engulfed in a conflict that would last until November 11, 1918.
Throughout the war Porsche concentrated his efforts on the design of aircraft engines, developing an in-line six-cylinder aero engine; an air-cooled opposed four (the fundamentals of which would reappear in Porsche’s design for the Volkswagen), a rotary engine, and a variety of V-form and W-form aircraft engines. Long fascinated with aviation, he had developed the first Austro-Daimler aero engine back in 1911 and thus was already accomplished in their design when the company was called upon to manufacture aircraft engines for the war effort.
After World War I
These were difficult times for the German automotive industry, for Austro-Daimler, and for the Porsche family in particular. Maffersdorf in Bohemia, which was Ferdinand’s birthplace was now in the state of Czechoslovakia, which had been newly created by the peace treaties of Versailles and St. Germain. This was actually a purely German area that had previously belonged to Austria-Hungary.
Ferdinand Porsche had decided to become a Czechoslovakian citizen after the war, thus allowing himself greater mobility throughout Europe. As an Austrian, he would have been one of those who had lost the war. Thus, for example, it would not have been possible for him to go to Paris, where the most important international automobile exhibition, the Paris Salon, took place in the Grand Palais. For the general manager of an automobile factory, but particularly for an engineer as closely involved as Porsche was with the development of the motorcar, the opportunity to attend such an important exhibition was absolutely essential.
Ferdinand Porsche Introduction of the 6-Six-cylinder Engine
By 1920 the failing German economy had brought the nation’s automotive industry to its knees. Fuel shortages and the general instability of the economy saw more cars parked along the side of the road than on it. People were out of work, and automakers were banned by the conditions of the Versailles Treaty from any military production, including the manufacture of aircraft engines.
In the early postwar years Austro-Daimler struggled to regain market share and Porsche led the company into the 1920s with the introduction of a 4.4-liter, six-cylinder motorcar capable of delivering 60 horsepower. Fitted with sports coachwork, the cars sold well abroad and, brought in precious foreign currency. This foreign currency was the cause of the first serious tensions between the shareholders and Porsche which would later lead to a parting of ways.
Ferdinand Porsche Moves to Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft
By 1922 it was clear to him that the creative and technical freedom he had enjoyed over the years was being denied him. Porsche was not the type to allow himself to be constrained within narrow limits. Finally, this pushed him into leaving Austro-Daimler. Once more Ferdinand Porsche’s fate was to be allied with that of Paul Daimler’s. Ferdinand Porsche was out of work for the first time in seventeen years. Porsche arrived from Austria in April 1923 to become D-M-G’s chief engineer.
The first product of Daimler-Benz AG was the Model K, introduced in 1926. The Model K was more of an evolutionary design than a completely new luxury automobile. Based on the 1924 Types 630 Mercedes 24/100/140 PS, the Model K was principally the work of Porsche, who improved upon Paul Daimler’s pioneering design of an overhead camshaft, six-cylinder engine, and Roots-type supercharger, giving the massive K models unparalleled straight-line performance. Specified by Daimler-Benz to attain a top speed of 90 miles per hour, it was the fastest standard production model of its type in the world.
Ferdinand Porsche’s New S Series
As a transitional model during the Daimler and Benz consolidation, the 630K paved the way for Porsche’s all-new S and SS series launched in the late 1920s. The S series was particularly successful in racing. The Model S and subsequent SS and SSK were built on a new drop-center frame with a 133-inch standard wheelbase. To improve the handling of the Model K, Porsche’s new design moved the radiator and engine about a foot rearward on the chassis, resulting in better front and rear weight distribution and a lower center of gravity.
Throughout the 1930s, Ferdinand Porsche’s counsel as a designer and engineer was sought by many German automakers, including Daimler-Benz. The greatest achievement of Ferdinand Porsche’s career, however, would come about at the behest of history’s most unlikely automotive enthusiast, Germany’s chancellor Adolf Hitler.
Ferdinand Received Contract from Hitler
Adolf Hitler had a vision for his countrymen to be able to afford automobiles and had plans to construct roads called the autobahn. Hitler invited Porsche to submit a design for this people’s car, which had to be inexpensive, fuel-efficient, speedy (60 miles per hour), and comfortable for two adults and three children. Thus, in January 1934 Porsche presented Hitler with a concept for his automobile, and by June of that year, construction had started. The German Auto Dealers Association (Reichsverband der Automobilindustrie) contributed funds to help pay the costs!
In 1946, the 1000th Volkswagen Beetle rolled out of the factory, and the town of KdF was renamed Wolfsburg in honor of Werner von Schulenberg of Wolfsburg, who had been forced to give up his land for the construction of the town and VW factory. The first Beetles were considerably less complex than what we drive today. Cars manufactured between 1946 and 1948 had a rear window that was split along the middle, creating two windows, and indicators that protruded from a space between the front and rear doors. There was a rear brake light that suspiciously resembled a nose, and the gas tank was concealed beneath the hood; there was no gas gauge, but there was a speedometer!
Charges For Being a War Criminal
The French authorities arrested Ferdinand Porsche for alleged war crimes on December 15, 1945. Porsche was incarcerated for 22 months before his son was able to buy his freedom. In 1948, Ferdinand Porsche and his son Ferry founded Porsche AG, the vehicle manufacturer we know today.
Ferdinand Porsche was certainly the most prolific automotive designer of the first half of the 20th century. Ferdinand Porsche died on January 30, 1951, at the age of 75 from a stroke. The Porsche name has gone on to greater fame and success, thanks to his son and grandchildren’s, involvement with the engineering company Ferdinand Porsche created. Even today, Ferdinand Porsche is regarded as one of the greatest engineering minds in automotive history.