Obituary: Ferdinand Porsche

Giles Chapman
Monday 30 March 1998 23:02 BST

THERE's something eerily precise about the passing away of Ferdinand Porsche. For it is exactly 50 years since the first sports car bearing his name rattled into life in a remote former cowshed in Gmund, in Carinthia, Austria. And his death comes just days before a major retrospective of some 30 Porsche vehicles opens at the Design Museum in London.

Actually, "rattle" isn't a word associated with today's sleek and purring Porsche supercars, which start in Britain at pounds 34,000. Back then, however, the handmade Porsche 356 - its name derived from its design project number - shared its brazen exhaust note with the air-cooled Volkswagen Beetle on which the little sports car, looking for all the world like an upturned tin bath, was closely based. But there was method in its design madness: its extremely low lines and aerodynamic shape gave it a performance that belied its diminutive size.

In the five decades since, "Ferry" Porsche nurtured his organisation's extraordinary growth with the fatherly care of a Kew Gardens nurseryman, so that it is now, perhaps, the finest "marque" in the world. In 1948 Porsche thought it could sell 50 sports cars a year. In July 1996 the millionth Porsche streaked off the production line.

Ferry Porsche's photograph - usually showing him in a checked jacket - and signature appeared on the frontispiece of Porsche brochures for 30 years, yet he allegedly lived a modest lifestyle: in stark contrast to his customers. His secret lay in constantly and painstakingly refining the firm's core design of an air-cooled, rear-engined sports car. This meant that racing versions of the company's cars were so reliable they came to dominate long-distance endurance races like the Le Mans 24 hours. Porsche has won the event more times than any other make, in 1983, taking the first eight places. In 1986 a Porsche 959 was the first sports car to win the gruelling Paris Dakar rally. It was just one of some 22,000 race victories for the cars.

Their road cars are as consistently dependable and solid as any German family saloon, yet possess the charisma that makes enthusiastic drivers bristle with excitement. It is a compromise that rivals from Lotus to Ferrari still struggle to emulate, and it has made Porsche a byword for sports-car excellence. They are not the easiest cars to drive, the weight bias at the rear often catching out the novice. To master a classic rear- engined Porsche, however, is to pass a sort of initiation ceremony.

The company could make other cars. Its front-engined, V8-powered 928 is still the only sports car ever to have scooped the Car of the Year award, in 1978. Recently, however, the firm has returned to its roots with the rear-engined Boxster, and its sales are rocketing.

Ferry Porsche was born in 1909. His father, also Ferdinand Porsche, was one of Europe's leading automotive boffins. He had created a novel electric car in 1900, the Lohner-Porsche, with electric hubs driving the front wheels, an early example of his extraordinary lateral thinking and obsession with precision, and was appointed chief engineer at Austro-Daimler in 1906, amd at Mercedes-Benz in 1923.

It was here that Ferdinand senior perfected the supercharged engine that made the Mercedes-Benz SSK a formidable Le Mans contender; the technology later transferred neatly to Messerschmitt bombers in readiness for the Second World War.

For Herr Porsche was a Nazi party member. After setting up his own design consultancy in Stuttgart in 1931, his services were called upon to uphold German honour on the racetrack, and the Porsche-designed 16-cylinder Auto Union C-type grand prix cars went on to decimate rivals in international events throughout the 1930s.

Young Ferry drove his first car aged 10, and soon joined his father's business. Together, they worked on a series of prototypes which led to the birth of another Hitler dreamchild: initially called the Kraft Durch Freude, meaning "strength through joy", it ended up as plain Volks Wagen - "people's car".

Although the Second World War got in the way, the Volks Wagen eventually started production under the auspices of British troops, in 1945. Just 1,785 were made that year, and it was scorned by a British motor industry commission. As the Volkswagen Beetle, however, it became the best-selling car of all time.

The Porsche clan returned to Austria in 1944, and set up shop with plans to design tractors. Early 356 production was farmed out to local contractors but by 1950 Porsche had returned to Stuttgart. The German-built 356, largely inspired by Ferry Porsche's desire to create a cheap fun car, began to win hearts and races, and in 1951, the year the old man died, Porsche had the temerity to show a car at the Earl's Court motor show in London.

But people knew a good thing when they saw it, and 77,361 356s were sold by 1965. By then, the new Porsche 911 had been launched, designed by Ferdinand Alexander Porsche, one of Ferry's four sons. A much-modified 911 is still on sale today.

In 1965 Ferry Porsche gained an honorary doctorate in engineering from the Technical University of Vienna. He took the family firm public in 1972, opening a large new research centre at Weissach the same year. In 1990 he became honorary chairman, a post he held until his death.

Throughout the boom-and-bust era of the 1980s, he steered the company, doggedly resisting mergers, and indeed hiring out his company's design expertise to rivals like Audi and Mercedes. When times were good, he found ways to expand: the cheaper Porsche 924, for instance, used an engine from a VW van, and when Boxster demand began to outstrip supply, Ferry found a factory in Finland to make extra ones - to the consternation of his German workforce.

Ferry Porsche always retained his links with Austria, spending his final days at a holiday home in the mountains that he had bought in the 1930s. His nephew Ferdinand Piech today heads Volkswagen-Audi.

Giles Chapman

Ferdinand Anton Ernst Porsche, engineer and businessman: born Wiener Neustadt, Austria 19 September 1909; married 1935 Dorothea Reitz (died 1993; four sons); died Zell am See, Austria 27 March 1998.

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