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Professor Ferdinand Porsche
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 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. In point of fact one could say that Porsche’s design was conceived by using “horse sense.” The motors replaced the horse, the horse pulled the carriage, and thus the electric motors were placed in the front. Interestingly, this was not the 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, Porsche had designed the Lohner-Porsche racing car, which was delivered to British sportsman E. W. Hart. This example used not two but four motors, one at each wheel. Almost ninety years later, Porsche’s son Ferry would write of this design in his autobiography, Cars Are My Life: “[This] racing car designed by my father used the same mode of propulsion as was applied to the American ‘moon car’ driven on the moon by astronauts David R. Scott and James B. Irwin in July 1971.”
That simple anecdote underscored Ferdinand Porsche’s entire career. From the very beginning he looked beyond contemporary practice and searched for ways to improve what appeared to be in no need of improvement. This ideology was to serve him well in his first managerial position as technical director of Austro-Daimler.
The firm was established in Vienna in 1899 as the Austrian branch of Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft, which had become one of Germany’s most successful manufacturers of motor carriages and internal combustion engines. By the 1890s, D-M-G founder Gottlieb Daimler and his associate, Wilhelm Maybach, had developed a four-wheel motor carriage and the first motor-driven fire engines and general-purpose trucks (lorries), and had successfully completed experiments with dirigibles. This latter event was to play a significant role in Maybach’s future.
The first designer at Daimler’s Austrian branch, located in Wiener Neustadt, was Gottlieb’s son Paul. Riding on the success of the 1901 Mercedes, Paul assumed his new position in 1902.
He was instrumental in Austro-Daimler’s early achievements, but by 1906 there was growing disharmony between Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft and its Austrian subsidiary. Paul had been called back to Germany in 1905, and the following year Austro-Daimler divorced itself from D-M-G and became an independent company.
In Germany the acrimony that had been growing between Paul Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach since his return to D-M-G finally became too much for the sixty-year old engineer to endure. Maybach’s closest friend and associate, Gottlieb Daimler, had died of heart failure in 1900, leaving him in control of the company’s engineering department, the first product of which had been the 1901 Mercedes designed by Maybach and Paul Daimler. With his return to D-M-G, the friction between Paul and his late father’s associate began to escalate, and following a lengthy disagreement over the design of a 1906 race car, Maybach decided to retire. In April 1907 he left the company he had helped bring into being with Gottlieb Daimler in 1890, and Paul assumed his position as chief engineer.
As for Wilhelm Maybach, afternoon tea and retirement were not what he had in mind when he departed from D-M-G. Having pioneered the development of the first motor-powered lighter-than-air craft in 1888, Maybach joined forces with Graf Ferdinand von Zeppelin in the development of a new aero engine for Zeppelin’s giant airships. Maybach was given responsibility for overseeing the construction of all-new engines, and his son Karl (a gifted engineer in his own right) was appointed technical director. A separate company, Luftfahrzeug-Motorenbau GmbH (changed in 1912 to Maybach Motorenbau Gesellschaft), was established to produce the Zeppelin engines, and it would be from the M.M.G. factory in Friedrichshafen, Germany, that the first Maybach automobiles would emerge following World War I, to be marketed in direct competition—in revenge, one might say—with Mercedes.
These seemingly unrelated events all favored Ferdinand Porsche, who became chief engineer at Austro-Daimler following Paul Daimler’s departure. Porsche would remain with the Austrian firm for seventeen years, during which time he created many of the company’s most successful race cars. He also struck up a lasting friendship with a young race driver named Alfred Neubauer, who was himself destined to become one of the pivotal figures in German automotive history.
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, and, thus encouraged, 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 Doktor. 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.
Wars were to play a pivotal role in Porsche’s life and career. The assassination in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, of 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.
World War I brought about tremendous change within the German automotive industry when the potential of the motorcar in combat was realized for the first time. Mercedes-Benz historian and author Beverly Rae Kimes noted quite poignantly in The Star and the Laurel that the awakening came in September 1914, when General Joseph-Simon Gallieni ordered the use of French taxis to carry troops to the Marne front. The troop transport was born. Armored cars, particularly those produced by Rolls-Royce, played a significant role in battle, and the advent of the tank, perhaps the ultimate armored car, gave the British a marked advantage over the Germans, who found themselves sorely behind in the manufacture of military vehicles. Ironically, Paul Daimler had tried to encourage the development of armored cars years before the war, but his proposals had all been rejected.
“In 1918, when the war came to an end, we all faced a new situation as Austria became a republic,” wrote Ferry Porsche in his memoirs. “The victorious powers demanded reparations, which led to considerable restrictions. The great Austro-Hungarian Empire had been replaced by a small country whose industry was now dependent to a considerable extent on exports.”
These were difficult times for the German automotive industry, for Austro-Daimler, and for the Porsche family in particular. “My father’s birthplace, Maffersdorf in Bohemia, 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 which had previously belonged to Austria-Hungary.” The senior 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 my father was with the development of the motorcar, the opportunity to attend such an important exhibition was absolutely essential. Moreover, my father felt that Maffersdorf was his native territory, the place where he felt at home, and that he should not change his allegiance to this part of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire as he might change his shirt.”
Following the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the value of the German mark began to plummet. In 1914, before the war, the mark had traded against the U.S. dollar at 4.20 to one. Now it took sixty-two marks to equal one U.S. dollar! 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. The economic impact on Austro-Daimler, Benz & Cie., and Daimler was devastating.
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, noted Ferry Porsche, “brought in precious foreign currency. This foreign currency was the cause of the first serious tensions between the shareholders and my father which were to lead later to a parting of the ways.”
While most regarded the elder Porsche as a difficult man, he was at the same time a gentle-hearted, almost doting father who was dedicated to his family and the education of his two children, Ferdinand “Ferry” Porsche, and his older sister, Louise. Both would grow up in the automotive industry, and Ferry would one day assume control of the family business. In 1920, however, he was only eleven but already an automotive enthusiast. Ferdinand Porsche catered to Ferry’s infatuation with automobiles, and for Christmas 1920 he presented his son with a scaled-down, two-person roadster powered by an air-cooled, four-stroke engine. To his father’s dismay, when the little auto was moved outside and the engine started, Ferry slipped behind the wheel and drove off! “He certainly hadn’t reckoned that. I had, of course, already secretly learned to drive, since there were always opportunities for ‘maneuvering’ a car on the factory premises or in the garage at home.” From that moment on it was a certainty that Ferry would follow in his father’s footsteps.
Under Ferdinand Porsche’s guidance, Austro-Daimler continued to prosper in the 1920s; however, there was growing dissension between the board and Porsche over what the company should build. Austro-Daimler continued to produce only large, prestigious cars, while Porsche longed to pursue his idea of a small, affordable car. He had always envisioned a compact motorcar as a realistic means of providing reasonably priced personal transportation for the masses. One such example developed by Porsche was the Sascha, what Alfred Neubauer described as a forerunner of the Volkswagen. Neubauer raced one of the little 1.5-liter sports cars in the 1922 Targa Florio in Sicily, at the time the most grueling road race in the world. He finished sixth in the racing car class, which was won by a larger 4.5-liter Mercedes driven by Count Giulio Masetti. Neubauer’s teammates won the category for production cars up to 1,100 centimeters in a smaller 1.1-liter Sascha touring car that Porsche had also developed. The touring model very likely would have been successful as a lower-priced Austro-Daimler, but the company directors would not consent to a production version. Porsche’s persistent nature led to the manufacture of the Sascha as both a racing and a sports car but never the touring model he truly wanted to build. By 1922 it was clear to him that the creative and technical freedom he had enjoyed over the years was being denied him. “My father was not the type to allow himself to be constrained within narrow limits,” wrote Ferry. “Finally [this] pushed him into leaving Austro-Daimler.”
Once more Ferdinand Porsche’s fate was to be allied with that of Paul Daimler’s. At the same time that Porsche decided to leave Austro-Daimler, Paul, having fallen out of favor with the supervisory board of the company founded by his late father, felt he no longer belonged and tendered his resignation with short notice. Suddenly, here was Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft with an opening for a chief engineer and Ferdinand Porsche out of work for the first time in seventeen years. As in 1906, Porsche stepped in to assume a position vacated by Paul Daimler.
Porsche arrived from Austria in April 1923 to become D-M-G’s chief engineer. The first great sporting cars designed for Daimler by Porsche included a supercharged 2-liter straight eight (the first eight-cylinder car built by D-M-G), finished in 1923 and raced at Monza in October 1924, and two six-cylinder supercharged touring cars, the 15/70/100 and the 24/100/140, introduced in December 1924.