Think of the name Porsche and invariably you’ll think of sports cars, the boxter, Taycan and others but ultimately 911, the car which put the modern day Porsche name on the map but the man who founded the brand in 1931 Ferdinand Porsche already had a long and varied history of vehicle design that goes back to the beginning of the car industry with designs that included one of the first electric cars, the first hybrid petrol/electric car and later the Volkswagen beetle and in WW2 the largest tanks ever built.
He also had a rather dubious history with the German Nazi party and Hitler himself being known as Hitler’s favourite auto engineer and like Werner Von Braun the Rocket engineer, Porsche also came out of the war more or less unscathed other than a short prison sentence.
This is the amazing story of the only man to be voted Car engineer of the Century, Dr Ferdinand Porsche and the vehicles he created before the 911.
Ferdinand Porsche was born on 3rd Sept 1875 in what was part of Austria-Hungary at that time, and today part of the Czech Republic.
From an early age he showed a great aptitude for technology, mechanics and in particular electricity. His father was a master panel beater for carriages and although he was expected to follow his father’s footsteps and he did help out in the family business, he also went to night classes at the Imperial Polytechnical College in Reichenberg and soon got a job on recommendation with the Béla Egger & Co. Electrical company which later allowed his family house to be one of the first to have an electrical supply. He also built and raced their first electric wheel hub motor.
This fascination with electricity and his mechanical aptitude brought him to the attention of Ludwig Lohner, the head of the Austrian carriage company, who in 1895 realized that the time of the horse-drawn carriage was coming to an end and powered carriages, especially electrically powered ones were the future. He commissioned the Egger company to build the first prototype and the young Porsche to design the drive train.
On 26th June 1898, the Porsche P1 as he called it and stamped onto many of its parts, rolled down the streets of Vienna with Porsche as the test driver.
The carriage had a 2.2kw hub motor with a 12 speed control but it could be boosted up to 3.7kw for short bursts. It had offered six forward gears, two reverse gears and four braking gears along with an electrical brake which cut the power.
This drove the rear wheels and with its battery had a curb weight of 1350kg with a range of 79 km and a top speed of 35 km/h and the battery could last for between 3 to 6 hours. In many ways is now thought of as the ancestor of the current hybrid Porsche cars including the 918.
In 1899 he and the P1 entered the Berlin Road race and finished in first place 18 minutes ahead of the nearest competitor. In a second contest, it won efficiency tests and was recorded as the most efficient vehicle in urban traffic. Other changes over time included 4 wheel braking and 4-wheel drive which wowed the crowds at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900
The car was last seen in public in 1902 and remained hidden in a garage in Austria for 112 years until it was rediscovered in remarkably good condition and put on permanent show at the Porsche museum in 2014 as the first ever Porsche.
In 1901 he also designed the first petrol-electric car with the The Lohner-Porsche Mixte Hybrid. Over 300 of these were built with the batteries replaced with a Daimler petrol engine which drove a generator to power the electric motors. This had a top speed 56km and broke speed records at the time. Soon other more powerful engines were fitted and enabled it to claim more records. Porsches fascination with hybrid petrol-electric drive trains would still be strong and resurface almost 40 years later during the second world war
In 1902 he was drafted into the military and for a time was the chauffeur to Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria whose assassination in 1914 kicked off the start of the first world war which would be a precursor to the second in which Porsche would play a pivotal role.
In 1906 Austro-Daimler recruited him as their chief designer and he went to work creating the 85 BHP Modell 27/80 for the Prince Henry Trial, a precursor to the German Grand Prix and by 1916 he was managing director.
During this time the bulk of Daimlers output was vehicles for war production and part of this were the Porsche-designed artillery tractors, the biggest of these was the giant armoured tractor, the M 17 ‘Goliath’ which weighed 10 tons and towed large guns and mortars on the battlefield.
After WW1 he continued making racing cars many of which he drove, winning 43 out 53 races but In 1923, Porsche left Austro-Daimler after differences about the future direction of car development.
After being hired as the technical director for Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft and moving to Stuttgart he continued developing successful racing car designs. After the merger of Benz & Cie and Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft into what we now know as Mercedes Benz, Porsche put forward the idea of a small cheap car but the board were not happy and in 1929 he left, this time for Steyr Automobile but due to the great depression, he ended up being made redundant.
In 1931 he, his son Ferry, son-in-law Anton Piëch and several others including Karl Rabe as the chief designer set up Porsche GmbH offering design and consulting services for engines and vehicles.
Now Ferdinand Porshe was free to design his new small car from scratch as well as high-performance racing cars for the newly formed Auto Union in 1932 which was looking for a showpiece project.
As Porsche’s fame and his racing-winning cars became more widely known, news reached Joseph Stalin who invited Porsche to the USSR and offered him unlimited funds to develop and start production of a small car people’s car to transform the Soviet car industry.
Although the offer was tempting he thought that the language barrier would be too much of a hindrance so he turned down the offer. That turned out to be a prescient move as soon another dictator much closer to home came calling for his services.
In 1933 at the Berlin motor show, chancellor Adolf Hitler announced his intention for every german to own a car or tractor as a way to show that Nazi party politics would benefit everyone. At the time car ownership in Germany was only 1 in 50 people and he launched two competitions one for a people’s car and another for a state-sponsored racing program to develop a high-speed German car industry.
Porsche wrote to Hitler and offered his services, and after the two met in 1934. Afterwards, Porsche won the contract to design a people’s car which became the Volkswagon Beetle.
Its distinctive rounded shape came from the racing world where rounded aerodynamic cars were all the rage. It was also required for better aerodynamic efficiency due to the small engine size, although the Czech company Tatra sued Porsche for infringing its design for the air-cooled engine and later settled out of court.
Porsche also help set up Volkswagen to build the new people’s car they also helped set up the giant factory at Wolfsberg where the Beetle car would be built.
There was a problem though in the fact that Porsche was born a Czech and Hilter considered the Czech’s to be subhuman, so to square the circle of Hitler’s favourite auto engineer, Porsche was offered German citizenship to give up his Czech one, he also became a member of the Nazi party as well as the SS.
By 1938 the German Army weapons agency approached Porsche to build a light military vehicle that could carry four fully armed soldiers over any terrain and was versatile and dependable. This was designed by Ferdinand Porsche and called the Volkswagen Type 82 Kübelwagen and was heavily based on the Beetle chassis and engine with a different body. Although 53,000 Kübelwagens were built during the war, its nearest allied equivalent, the Willys Jeep numbered nearly 650,000.
After the German invasion of Russia and to the surprise of the Germans they released to their cost that the soviets had a better tank than they thought in the T-34. This caused problems for the German tanks because none of them could penetrate its frontal sloping armour with their rounds just bouncing off it.
The Germans did find a temporary solution in destroying the T-34 tracks and thus disabling them but the race was on to make a new tank that could carry a gun which could take out a T-34 at 1500m.
Soon a new contract was given to Porsche for much bigger and heavier vehicles and Hitler’s favourite engineer was given the job of making a heavy tank that could accommodate an 88mm gun in a very short space of time.
To speed up the process, Porsche revisited designs for a tank he called the Leopard that he had done before the war but back then it had been too heavy for the available engines.
As Hilter often did, he gave the contract to two companies to see who would do the best job, so tank makers Henschel and Porsche both had to make working prototypes of a 45 ton tank with the code name VK 45.01 P for P or H for Henschel aka the Tiger 1 by the 20th of April 1942, Hitlers birthday.
Henschel chose a conventional diesel power train but Porsche was determined to use the latest technology to make what he thought would be a better tank so he revisited the petrol-electric hybrid drive train idea. This time he would use two air-cooled V10 Porsche Type 101 Petrol engines at the rear of the tank. Each one would drive a 500 Kva generator which in turn drove a 230 kw motor, one for each track via a 15:1 gearbox.
However, Porsches use of a bunch of new technologies all in the same tank for the first time caused major issues and the rushed nature of the job meant little time for testing was available. It was found that the engine’s cooling system caused them to lose power and required a major redesign of the engine compartment. The power of the twin V-10 engines was 640 hp each but these and the electric drivetrain made the tank 12 tons overweight.
The use of what were large electrical generators and motors at a time also required a lot of copper which was in very short supply in the third Riche. This meant that it was in direct competition with the electric drives for U boats and electronic equipment like radios and radar.
At the testing ground, things also didn’t go well. The tank was so heavy it sank into the soft ground and the Henschel team offered to tow the stuck Porsche tank out of the mud, which Porsche polity declines.
Henschel won the contract by being slightly more reliable and easier to build without the huge amount of copper requirement.
By now Porsche had built 90 chassis but when the contract was lost a new purpose was sought for them. Hitler wanted the long barrel 88mm Pak 43 fitting into them but the engineers just couldn’t get it to fit in the turret. So they dropped the rotating turret and mounted the gun on the back of the chassis and covered it with a protective shield, they also upped the frontal armour to 200mm. All of this made the already heavy tank, super heavy as it increased to 65 tons and the name given was the Panzerjagger Ferdinand but was also known as the Elefant tank, which was very appropriate.
Although the Ferdinands did well on the battlefield during the battle of Kursk reporting 320 kills for the loss of 13 Ferdinands, there just wasn’t enough of them to make a difference to the 2700 Soviet T-34s.
Although well armoured they were often too heavy for the ground in the Kursk area which had marshes, rivers and few bridges that could carry their weight. At kursk nearly 30% of them broke down and when they did, towing one Ferdinand required five Panzer 4s chained together.
Although Porsche created designs for the Tiger 2 using a similar hybrid drive train, Henschel once again won the contract as the military was wary of his advanced hybrid drive train. But that didn’t stop Porsche from designing another super heavy tank and he also knew Hitler had an obsession with wonder weapons.
So he put together a design for a tank that dwarf everything else on the battlefield and was equipped with a 128mm gun that could destroy any Allied tank at ranges exceeding 3500 meters.
The tank itself was massive at 10.2m long by 3.71m wide by 3.6 meters high and weighed 188 tons although the original design called for a maximum weight of 100 tons and was ironically code named maus.
It would use a Daimler MB 517 44.5 litre inverted V-12 Daimler-Benz MB 517 supercharged marine deisel engine producing 1375 hp driving an electrical generator to drive the two elecrtric motors which each drove one of the 1.1 meter wide tracks.
Because it was so heavy, no bridges could hold it so it was envisaged that it would ford rivers by submerging itself in up to 8m of water with another maus providing the electrical power to drive the tank.
Only two prototypes were built and one was captured by the Soviets. After the war it was sent for testing at Kubinka before being put in the tank museum there.
After the war Porsche, ferry and Anton Piech were arrested by the French authorities on crimes war charges after a disgreemt with the head of Renualt who Porsche were working for as part of war reparations.
Although they were all close friends of Hitler and well embedded in the 3rd riech, which didn’t help matters, the charges were for the use of foreign forced labour in the Volkwagon factory and in particular French labour. Ferry was freed after 6 months and kept the Porsche business running whilst gathering the 1 million francs about $68,000 for bail and the release of Ferdinand and Anton and after witnesses testified that there were no French forced workers there.
The family returned to Stuttgart and started work on the 356 models even though they had very limited finds and tooling. In the end, Ferry took the prototype around various dealers and asked for an upfront payment for each car. Although he anticipated about 1500 total orders, over the next 17 years they built over 78,000.
Porsche also did extra consulting work on the beetle and received a royalty from each one built as payment which turned out to be a good deal as over 20 million were eventually made.
Ferdinand Porsche also had one final fling with tank design as he headed the conglomerate to build the new West German post-war tank which became the highly successful main battle tank, the Leopard which set the standard for European tanks in the post-war era.
But he didn’t live to see its success as in January 1951 he died shortly after a stroke at the age of 75 leaving Ferry to take over the business and build it into the world-renowned sports car company that it is today.
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