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Porsche Before Porsche: Ferdinand’s First Fifty Years

Ferdinand Porsche was around 72 years old when the first hand-made, hand-beaten Porsche 356 rolled down the road at Gmund. It was 1948 but Porsche had started his career before the turn of the century. Just what was he doing for his first fifty years? The one word answer is “plenty”. A slightly longer answer is designing some of the top motoring icons and fastest cars of the twentieth century. Or, getting all the experience, knowledge and skills needed to produce one of the hottest and most charismatic lines of sports cars in the world. It all started in the late nineteenth century.

Porsche’s father was a tinsmith, but young Ferdinand preferred the new-fangled electricity. He worked for an electrical equipment manufacturer before designing electric automobiles for Lohner. The Lohner-Porsche, with electric motors in the front wheel hubs, (one of the first front-wheel drives), was exhibited at the Paris exhibition in 1900 and won a Grand Prize for 25 year old Porsche. Porsche kept developing the Lohner. Motors in all four hubs made it one of the earliest four-wheel drives and a petrol engine and generator instead of batteries made it one of the first mixed drive vehicles.

Porsche himself raced one of the petrol-electric cars. In 1905, Porsche moved from Lohner to Austro-Daimler where he became technical Director, and later Managing Director. His first petrol car there was developed into the sports model that won the 1910 Prince Henry Trial. Cars weren’t the only mechanical designs of the self-taught automotive genius. In 1912 he designed a four-cylinder aero engine. Its layout was a flattened X, almost a flat four. World War I had Porsche working for the military, designing gun tractors, motorized artillery pieces and an enormous road train carrying an 81-ton gun and pulling four trailers each with eight-wheel drive. Total weight was 150 tons! It used the Lohner-Porsche method of electric motors in the hubs with a 20 liter, 150 hp traction engine providing the power. In 1917 he received an honorary doctorate from Vienna Technical University. Porsche turned to small cars after WWI, designing the Sascha, which could hit 89 mph with a tiny 1100 cc engine.

These cars came first and second in their class in the 1921 Targa Florio. However, differences of opinion with other directors of Austro-Daimler led to a move to Daimler in Stuttgart, as Technical Director with a seat on the board. Here Porsche fixed the poor performance of Daimler’s new two-liter supercharged race car, which went on to take the first three places in its class in the 1924 Targa Florio, including first place overall. Porsche was awarded another honorary doctorate, this time from Stuttgart University for his achievements. At Daimler he designed one of the most famous cars of all time, the seven-liter six-cylinder supercharged Mercedes which progressed through the K and S series to the SS, SSK and SSKL. These cars dominated racing in 1928-30. As well, he worked on diesel engines for trucks and airplane engines. Daimler merged with Benz in 1926, and the combined board rejected Porsche’s push for small and light Daimler-Benz cars. Porsche quit and moved to Steyr where he designed a large luxury car with a 5.3-liter straight-eight.

Steyr collapsed in the great depression though, and in 1930 Porsche was unemployed. At the age of 55, when many people these days are taking early retirement, Porsche opened his own design bureau with a select group of engineers that he had previously worked with, including his own son Ferdinand “Ferry” Porsche. His first job was the Wander W.17, a small medium-priced six-cylinder car. A small car for Zundapp followed. Named the Volksauto, it was an early ancestor of the Beetle, with a rear-mounted radial engine and fully independent suspension. It didn’t go into production because of an upturn in Zundapp’s normal market of motorcycles. In 1932 Russia offered Porsche the job of State Designer. It was an attractive offer, but he turned it down. Another tilt at a small car came from NSU.

The Zundapp was dusted of to give the basic ideas, but this time a flat-four air-cooled engine was used at the rear, along with torsion bar suspension and swing axles at the back. Three prototypes were built before the project was abandoned, but the VW Beetle was getting closer. Hot racing cars were still on the drawing board, with the Porsche team building a real monster for Auto-Union. It had a 4.4 liter supercharged V16 mounted at the back. With the weight at the back, swing axles, skinny tires and tremendous power, (it’s reported they could spin the wheels at 100 mph) these cars were a handful to drive, but they won races! Meanwhile, Hitler was also gaining tremendous power, and one of his ideas was for a “people’s car”. Porsche got the job of designing it, and all his previous experience went into the best selling car ever, the Volkswagen Beetle. Three Beetles were turned into lightweight sports coupes for the proposed 1939 Berlin-Rome road race. The race never took place because the Second World War started.


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