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Ferdinand Porsche (3 September 1875 – 30 January 1951) was an Austro-Germanic automotive engineer and honorary Doctor of Engineering. He is best known for creating the first hybrid vehicle (gasoline-electric), the Volkswagen Beetle, and the Mercedes-Benz SS/SSK, as well as the first of many Porsche automobiles. Porsche designed the 1923 Benz Tropfenwagen, which was the first race car with mid-engine, rear-wheel drive layout.

Known in business circles as the "great engineer", he made a number of contributions to advanced German tank designs: Tiger I, Tiger II, and the Elefant as well as the super-heavy Panzer VIII Maus tank, which was never put into production. He also made contributions in aircraft design, including the Junkers Ju 88, and the Focke-Wulf Ta 152. Additionally, he helped develop and manufacture retaliatory weapons (Vergeltungswaffen), such as the V-1 flying bombs(Fi 103 flying bombs). In 1937, Porsche was awarded the German National Prize for Art and Science, one of the rarest decorations in Nazi Germany.

In 1996, Porsche was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and in 1999 posthumously won the award of Car Engineer of the Century.

Early life and career

Ferdinand Porsche was born to German-speaking parents in Maffersdorf (Czech: Vratislavice nad Nisou), northern Bohemia, during the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, what is today the Czech Republic. He showed high aptitude for mechanical work at a very young age. He managed to attend classes at the Imperial Technical School in Reichenberg (Czech: Liberec) at night while helping his father in his mechanical shop by day. Thanks to a referral, Porsche landed a job with the Béla Egger Electrical company in Vienna when he turned 18. In Vienna he would sneak into the local university whenever he could after work. Beyond auditing classes there, Porsche had never received any higher engineering education. During his five years with Béla Egger, Porsche first developed the electric hub motor.

In 1898, Porsche joined the Vienna-based factory Jakob Lohner & Co, that produced coaches for Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, as well as for the kings of England, Sweden, and Romania. Jakob Lohner had begun construction of automobiles in 1896 under Ludwig Lohner in the trans-Danubian suburb of Floridsdorf.

Their first design, unveiled in 1898, was the "System Lohner-Porsche", a carriage-like car driven by two electric motors, directly fitted within the front wheel hubs, and powered by batteries. This drive train construction was easily expanded to four-wheel drive, by simply mounting two more electric motors to the rear wheels as well, and indeed such a specimen was ordered by the Englishman E. W. Hart in 1900. In December that year, the car was presented at the Paris World Exhibition under the name Toujours-Contente. Even though this one-off vehicle had been commissioned for the purposes of racing and record-breaking, the 1,800 kg of lead acid batteries it required graphically illustrated the limits of this powertrain concept. Though it "showed wonderful speed when it was allowed to sprint", the weight of its huge battery pack meant that it was singularly reluctant to climb hills and suffered from limited range due to limited battery life.

Austro-Daimler

In 1906, Austro-Daimler recruited Porsche as their chief designer. Porsche's best known Austro-Daimler car was designed for the Prince Henry Trial in 1910, named after Wilhelm II's younger brother Prince Heinrich of Prussia. Examples of this streamlined, 85 horsepower (63 kW) car won the first three places, and the car is still better known by the nickname "Prince Henry" than by its model name "Modell 27/80".

Porsche had advanced to Managing Director by 1916 and received the honorary doctorate degree, "Dr. techn h.c." from the Vienna University of Technology in 1917 (hence the "Dr. Ing h.c" in his name, meaning "Doktor Ingenieur Honoris Causa"). Porsche successfully continued to construct racing cars, winning 43 out of 53 races with his 1922 design. In 1923, Porsche left Austro-Daimler after differences ensued about the future direction of car development.

Only a few months later Porsche landed a new job as Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft's Technical Director in Stuttgart, Weimar Germany, which was already then a major hub for the German automotive industry. He received another honorary doctorate from the Stuttgart Technical University for his work at Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft in Stuttgart and later the honorary title Professor. While at Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft, he came up with several very successful race car designs. The heavy series of models equipped with superchargers that later culminated in the Mercedes-Benz SSK dominated its class of motor racing in the 1920s.

In 1926, Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft and Benz & Cie merged into Daimler-Benz, with their joint products beginning to be called, Mercedes-Benz. Porsche's concept of a small, light-weight Mercedes-Benz car was not popular with Daimler-Benz's board, however. He left in 1929 for Steyr Automobile, but the Great Depression brought about Steyr's economic collapse and Porsche ended up being unemployed.

Founding of Porsche

In April 1931 Porsche founded his consulting firm, Dr. req. h.c. F. Porsche GmbH, Konstruktionen und Beratungen für Motoren und Fahrzeugbau, in Stuttgart, where he returned. With financial backing from the Austrian advocate Anton Piëch and Adolf Rosenberger, Porsche successfully recruited several old co-workers he befriended at his former places of employment including Karl Rabe, Erwin Komenda, Franz Xaver Reimspiess, and his son, Ferry Porsche.

Their first project was the design of a middle class car for Wanderer. Other commissioned designs followed. As the business grew, Porsche decided to work on his own design as well, which happened to be a reincarnation of the small car concept from his days at Daimler-Benz in Stuttgart. He financed the project with a loan on his life insurance. Later Zündapp decided to help sponsor the project, but lost interest after their success with motorcycles. NSU then took over the sponsorship, but also lost interest due to the high tooling costs.

With car commissions low in the depressed economic climate, Porsche founded a subsidiary company Hochleistungs Motor GmbH (High Efficiency Engines Ltd.) in 1932 to develop a racing car, for which he had no customer. Based on Max Wagner's mid-engined layout 1923 Benz Tropfenwagen, or "Teardrop" aerodynamic design; the experimental P-Wagen project racing car (P stood for Porsche), was designed according to the regulations of the 750 kg formula. The main regulation of this formula meant that the weight of the car without driver, fuel, oil, water and tire was not allowed to exceed 750 kg.

In 1932 Auto Union Gmbh was formed, comprising struggling auto manufacturers Audi, DKW, Horch and Wanderer. The Chairman of the Board of Directors, Baron Klaus von Oertzen wanted a show piece project, so at fellow director Adolf Rosenberger's insistence, von Oertzen met with Porsche, who had done work for him before. At the 1933 Berlin Motor Show, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler announced two new programs:

  • The people's car: Hitler made it his political agenda to motorize the nation, and that every German should own either a car or a tractor in the future.
  • A state-sponsored motor racing programme: to develop a "high speed German automotive industry," the foundation of which would be an annual sum of 500,000 Reichsmarks to Mercedes-Benz

The announcement led to two projects for Porsche, and set a precedent for the rest of the decade with Porsche accepting further projects from Nazi Germany, latterly including military vehicles from the Panzer, Tiger Tank and the Elefant tank destroyer.

Post-war

In November 1945 after the war, Porsche was asked to continue the design of the Volkswagen in France and to move the factory equipment there as part of war reparations. Differences within the French government and objections from the French automotive industry put a halt to this project before it had even begun. On 15 December 1945, French authorities arrested Porsche, Anton Piëch, and Ferry Porsche as war criminals. While Ferry was set free soon, Ferdinand and Anton were held in a Dijon prison for 20 months without trial.

While his father was in captivity, Ferry tried to keep the company in business, and they also repaired cars, water pumps, and winches. A contract with Piero Dusio was completed for a Grand Prix motor racing car, the Type 360 Cisitalia. The innovative 4WD design never went into races, but the money it raised for Porsche was used to redeem Ferdinand Porsche from French prison.

The company also started work on a new design, the Porsche 356, the first car to carry the Porsche brand. The company was located in Gmünd in Carinthia at the time, to which they had evacuated from Stuttgart to avoid Allied bomb raids. The company started manufacturing the Porsche 356 in an old saw mill in Gmünd. They manufactured 49 cars, which were built entirely by manual labor.

Return to Stuttgart

The Porsche family returned to Stuttgart in 1949 not knowing how to restart their business. The banks would not give them credit, as the company's plant was still under American embargo and could not serve as collateral. So Ferry Porsche took one of the limited series 356 models from Gmünd and visited Volkswagen dealers to raise some orders. He asked the dealers to pay for the ordered cars in advance. He even wrote a letter to the bank's director to thank him for refusing.

The serial version made in Stuttgart had a steel body welded to the central-tube platform chassis instead of the aluminum body used in the small Gmünd-made series. When Ferry Porsche resurrected the company he counted on series production figures of about 1,500. More than 78,000 Porsche 356s were manufactured in the following 17 years.

Porsche was later contracted by Volkswagen for additional consulting work and received a royalty on every Volkswagen Type I (Beetle) car manufactured. This provided Porsche with a comfortable financial situation as more than 20 million Type I were built.

In November 1950, Porsche visited the Wolfsburg Volkswagen factory for the first time since the end of World War II. Porsche spent his visit chatting with Volkswagen president Heinrich Nordhoff about the future of VW Beetle, which were already being produced in large numbers.

A few weeks later, Porsche suffered a stroke. He did not fully recover, and died on 30 January 1951.

In 1996, Porsche was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and in 1999 posthumously won the award of Car Engineer of the Century.

In 2010 an official memorial was erected in Porsche's birthplace in Vratislavice nad Nisou, Czech Republic, featuring a Porsche 356.

Views on Labor

Ferdinand visited Henry Ford's operation in Detroit many times where he learned the importance of productivity. There he learned to monitor work. The need to increase productivity became an obsession for him. Conventional methods for increasing productivity include longer working hours, a faster rate of work, and new labour-saving techniques. Under Adolf Hitler, German workers enjoyed full employment, but historian William L. Shirer says this came at a cost of serfdom like qualities and poverty wages. The Volkswagen plant was completed in 1938 after Italian Labor was brought in. This workforce can be considered exploitative, but people were exhorted to follow this example. Although Porsche joined the Nazi party on his own free will in 1937, and was an SS activist, he did not have any "blood on his hands." Even so, Volkswagen, under Ferdinand Porsche, profited from forced and slave labor. This would include a large number of Soviets. In the spring of 1945, 90% of Volkswagen’s workforce was non-German.