When it comes to innovators, Ferdinand Porsche is hard to beat. This was the man who designed a four-wheel-drive electric car at the start of the 20th century which pioneered the principles behind NASA’s Lunar Roving Vehicle developed by Boeing in the early 1970s. And 100 years later car manufacturers are now exploring similar technology to produce the emission-free vehicles of the future. To say Ferdinand Porsche was ahead of his time would be an understatement.
Porsche was born in Maffersdorf in Bohemia (now part of Czechoslovakia) in 1875. From an early age he enjoyed all things mechanical and electrical, and as a child he rigged the family home with an electricity supply; something that didn’t impress his father, Anton, who wanted his son to become a tinsmith like him. The young Ferdinand, had other ideas, though, and at the age of 18 took an apprenticeship at Bella Egger, an electrical equipment company in Vienna. It was here that Porsche managed to further his education by sneaking into lectures at the local Technische Hochschule (technical college) where he listened and took copious notes. An establishment which, many years later, would award him with an honorary doctorate.
This unconventional education put Porsche in a good position to take his first job in the fledging automotive industry. ‘Bella Egger made electric motors for the Egger-Lohner electric cars, which were first road-tested in 1898,’ explains Gerhard Schaukal of the Technisches Museum Wien in Vienna. ‘Ferdinand Porsche went to work at Lohner as Chief Engineer in 1900 and within two years he’d produced the Lohner-Porsche electric car.’
Arguably Porsche’s most innovative creation, the Lohner-Porsche was revolutionary in that it was driven by hub-mounted electric motors, one for each wheel, thus doing away with the need for heavy and inefficient gearboxes and driveshafts, as well as keeping the centre-of-gravity low to make the vehicle more stable. Described as ‘epoch making’ at the time, various versions of the 37mph car were built, and it was even raced successfully by Ferdinand Porsche himself.
Motoring folklore will tell you that the Lohner-Porsche was the inspiration behind NASA’s Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) which drove on the moon as part of the Apollo missions of the early 1970s. Although the moon buggy certainly adopted the same principle of hub-mounted motors, there is no reference in NASA’s archives to the turn of the century electric car. David Williams, curator of the US’s National Space Science Data Center concurs. ‘I’ve not found any mention of Ferdinand Porsche in any literature on the Lunar Rover,’ he admits. ‘It’s a nice idea, though!’
Not satisfied with building one of the most radical cars of its time, Porsche then went on to develop a version of the Lohner-Porsche with what he called a Mixt drive; a gas-turbine engine which drove an generator which, in turn, powered the electric motors in the hubs. Yes; he created a hybrid car 100 years before Toyota was claiming its Prius was the way of the future. Later, during World War One, he used the Mixt drive to power a transporter called C Zug that conveyed massive 420mm cannons, shells and other supplies over rough terrain.
Porsche moved on to become technical director of Austro Daimler in 1905, at the tender age of 30. Here, he spent some of his time designing aero engines, including a flat-four air-cooled unit that was an obvious forerunner of the Volkswagen power unit.
He also built a racing car to compete in the 1910 Prince Henry Trials. This was another example of Ferdinand’s lateral thinking. While other competitors were campaigning big, clumsy 20-litre machines, our innovator turned up in his lightweight, streamlined Tulpenwagen (the body was vaguely tulip-shaped) powered by a (relatively) small 5.7-litre four-cylinder engine. Driving the car himself, he won the race outright, with his proud wife at his side.
After the First World War, Porsche became managing director of Austro-Daimler for a while before moving to Daimler in Stuttgart, Germany, where he was chief designer. Here, he continued his work with small-engined racecars and experimented with supercharging. He then returned to Austria in 1929 for a brief spell at Steyr, but when that company was taken over by Austro-Daimler a year later, he resigned, not wanting to work for his old employers again.
Fifty-five years old, and with a reputation for being awkward to work with, Ferdinand Porsche figured his employment prospects were limited, so he realised a long-held dream and opened his own design bureau, based in Stuttgart. Grandly titled Dr. Ing. H.c. F. Porsche GmbH, Konstruktionsbüro für Motoren Fahreug, Luftfahrzueg, und Wasserfahrzeugbau – designers of motors, automobiles, aeroplanes and ships. Porsche was certainly covering all bases!
However, the bulk of his commissions were for cars, although the bureau was generally far from busy, which meant that Porsche had time to put aside commercial distractions and develop his own pet projects, including one for a ‘people’s car’. A design he’d famously return to later.
Porsche’s skills soon came to the attention of Adolf Hitler’s pre-war government. The ambitious dictator was keen to have a world-beating Grand Prix car with which to showcase Germany’s engineering excellence, and Ferdinand was charged with designing it. The resulting P-Wagen was built by Auto Union and, unusually, its 4.3-litre supercharged V16 engine was mid-mounted; another Porsche innovation that has since become the norm. Also radical was the car’s torsion-bar suspension and central ‘saddle’ tanks that maintained an even weight distribution as fuel was used up.
But Ferdinand Porsche’s most significant collaboration with the German government was for the volks wagen, or people’s car. Hitler had a dream that all his people should have the chance to own their own car, but the German manufacturers said it would be impossible to design a car that would sell for less than the required 1000 marks.
Porsche, however, disagreed. He brushed off his own designs and the Volkswagen was born. This was a prime example of Porsche thinking outside the box. Other manufacturers were stolidly sticking to a front-engined layout with cart springs, but Porsche opted for a rear engine and torsion bars.
The thinking was clear He saw that the two main issues with small cars were space and ride quality. Having the engine out-back freed up room inside, while torsion bars were not only space-efficient but they also gave a comfortable and pliant ride.
Porsche also choose an air-cooled engine which, again, was unusual. This made the Volkswagen simple and reliable. It gave its most efficient cooling when it was most required – at 65mph on an autobahn. It also coped well in the mountains, when water-cooled cars had a tendency to overheat.
Everything about the Volkswagen’s design was logical, right down to the curvaceous body styling. Most people think it was designed that way for aerodynamic efficiency, however, the main reason was that curved panels are stronger than flat ones so, while they were more expensive to produce, they allowed the car to be lighter and have a simpler construction.
The Second World War put paid to Hitler’s dream, but the Volkswagen factory was used to build military vehicles, including the Porsche-designed Kübelwagen (‘bucket car’). When the war was over, the allies finally put the Volkswagen into production; and Ferdinand Porsche into jail, claiming he was guilty of war crimes. In failing health, he remained incarcerated on and off until 1st August 1947.
Ferdinand lived long enough to see his ‘people’s car’ start to fill the German roads, and his name appear on a new sports car – the Porsche 356 which appeared in 1948 and was designed by his son, Ferry, yet contained many of his father’s design principles, including a rear-mounted, water-cooled flat-four engine and torsion bar suspension. Ferdinand Porsche died on 30th January 1952.
Today Porsche is the world’s most profitable car company and has a heritage of wonderful sports cars, including the evergreen 911. However, Ferdinand Porsche’s legacy goes far deeper – he was one of the 20th century’s greatest innovators.
During his time in Vienna, the young Ferdinand Porsche met his future wife, Aloisia Kaes. They were married in Maffersdorf, and their first child was born in 1904 and named Louise. A son followed in 1909; he was called Ferdinand Anton Ernst, but was soon nicknamed Ferdy. However, his governess preferred to call the youngster ‘Ferry’ and that name stuck throughout his life.
Ferry Porsche inherited his father’s love of cars and was the driving force behind the first-ever true Porsche – the 356 of 1948 – before going on to lead the company into the 1970s. His son, Ferdinand Alexander Porsche, known as Butzi, grew up to be closely involved in the styling of the Porsche 911 and 904 racecar. He went off to form Porsche Design in 1972, a separate industrial design business that developed the ‘Design by FA Porsche’ brand for items as diverse as kettles and computer drives.
Louise Porsche, meanwhile, married Anton Piëch, a lawyer who was a founding partner of the Porsche design office. Their son, Ferdinand Piëch, joined the Porsche empire in 1963 as an engineer and was involved in the development of the 917 racecar. He later moved to Audi then, in 1993, became head of Volkswagen.
When Ferdinand Porsche was incarcerated in Dijon, France, after the Second World War, his son Ferry was busy on a project that was to help pay the one-million Francs bail for his ageing father’s release.
The design for the Type 360 Cisitalia Grand Prix car was commissioned by Piero Dusio, a wealthy ex-racing driver from Italy. Heavily influenced by his father’s principles, Ferry created a pretty mid-engined racecar powered by a supercharged 1498cc V12 engine that produced 350bhp. Suspension was by torsion bars and there was a centrally mounted saddle fuel tank.
An exciting innovation was a five-speed gearbox with a cockpit-mounted lever that enabled the driver to engage four-wheel-drive for extra traction during hard acceleration.
Built in Turin, Italy, using some Fiat parts, the Type 360 first saw the light of day in 1947 but the cost of the project was too much for Dusio, who put his company into liquidation and moved to Argentina, taking his racecar with him. Here, president Juan Peron bought the project to race under Argentinean colours, but without Porsche’s development expertise, it never ran in competition and, in 1959, returned to Stuttgart to take up residence in the new Porsche museum.