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car designer and builder
Ferdinand Porsche was born in Reichenberg, Bohemia (now Maffersdorf, Czech Republic), on September 3, 1874. His father wanted him to enter the family tinsmith business, but Ferdinand wanted to study and work with electricity instead. Although his father insisted he work in the tinsmith shop during the day, Ferdinand was allowed to attend the local technical school at night. After he built and installed a complete electrical system in the family home, complete with generator, switchboard, and wires, the owners of the local carpet factory got him a job at Bela Egger, a Vienna company that manufactured electrical equipment and machinery. At age 18, Ferdinand left for Vienna, where he also became a part-tame student at the technical university. Ferdinand excelled at Bela Egger, and became manager of its test department after just four years.
In 1898, Porsche was hired by Jakob Lohner & Company, which produced coaches for Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria as well as for the kings of England, Sweden, and Romania. His job was to produce an electric car, and by 1900 he had succeeded. First displayed at the World Exposition in Paris, the Lohner-Porsche was a carriage-like car driven by two electric motors within the front wheel hubs, powered by batteries. It had two forward speeds (high and low), and could reach a speed of 23 miles per hour. A 4-wheel-drive model, with an electrical motor in each wheel, was introduced in 1902, and won its class at the hill climb in Exelber, Austria, that same year (with Porsche as the driver).
In 1901, Porsche introduced the "Lohner-Porsche Mixte Hybrid," the first petroleum-electric hybrid vehicle on record. Instead of a massive battery-pack, the Mixte Hydrid used an internal combustion engine to drive a generator which in turn drove the electric wheel hub motors. As a backup, a small battery pack was fitted.
Porsche's automobile career was interrupted in 1902, when he was called for military duty in the Imperial Reserves. He served as a staff driver for the top-ranking officers of the Austro-Hungarian army, and even chauffeured the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, before being released from duty sometime around 1905.
In 1905, Porsche became technical director of Austro-Daimler, where he continued to work on a more reliable gasoline engine, and often raced his prototypes in European track and endurance competitions. The company set up a division for the design of engines for the new airships and other early airborne conveyances, and he became involved in this as well. In 1909, Porsche set an altitude record for ballooning.
With the outbreak of World War I, Porsche concentrated on designing aircraft engines at Austro-Daimler. He also created the heavy artillery vehicles, known as Motor-Moerser, used by the German military to invade Belgium. For this and other innovations, he was promoted to managing director of Austro-Daimler in 1916 and awarded several government accolades.
Returning to automobiles after the war, Porsche enjoyed great success at designing (and driving) racecars. In 1922 he built a car for Sascha Kolowrat, a wealthy Austrian count and film maker, that had four cylinders and a top speed of 89 miles per hour.
Porsche left Austro-Daimler in 1923 because he and the company had vastly different ideas about the direction of car development. In 1924 he joined Daimler Motor Works in Stuttgart, Germany, for which he designed a supercharged Mercedes that won the world-famous Targa Florio race in Sicily, averaging 41 miles per hour and defeating the favored Alfa Romeos in the purpose. In 1926, Daimler merged with Benz, providing the opportunity for Porsche to work on the Mercedes S and SSK projects.
Despite his record of successes, Porsche was unable to convince Mercedes-Benz to pursue his design for a small, lightweight car, so he left in 1929 and joined Steyr Automobile. Steyr did not survive the Great Depression, however, so Porsche decided to open his own firm in Stuttgart, in 1930. In 1932, the Zundapp Works in Nurnberg, Germany, hired Porsche to design a small car that it hoped would offset slumping motorcycle sales. Porsche built three prototypes, each of which had a rear engine, two-door body, and a spare wheel in the front. Zundapp shelved the car before beginning production, however, when its motorcycles began selling again.
In 1934, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler awarded Porsche the contract to design the "Volkswagen," a car that the people of Germany could buy for less than 1,000 marks. Starting with his design for the "Zundapp car," Porsche had his first prototypes ready by 1935, and the first production cars were rolling off the assembly line by 1939. The final design had a rear-mounted four-cylinder engine, a maximum speed of 62 miles per hour, and got 36 miles to the gallon.
World War II
During World War II, Porsche served as head of the German Tank Commission, for which he designed massive artillery vehicles so loud they shattered all nearby windows. He also traveled regularly to France to oversee production at the Peugeot autoworks, which were seized by the German occupation forces in 1940.
As one of the builders of Nazi Germany's war machines, Porsche was briefly held prisoner by the United States Army following Germany's surrender in 1945. In November of that year he was allowed to move production of the Volkswagen to France as part of war reparations, but the French government objected and had him arrested again. He was finally released and allowed to return to Germany in August of 1947.
As soon as he got back to Germany, Porsche and his son "Ferry" began working on what became the first car to actually carry the Porsche name. Ready in 1948, the Porsche 356 was an open two-seater, with a maximum speed of 86 miles per hour. Porsche placed a Volkswagen engine in the rear and the fuel tank in front with the spare tire. Auto experts gave rave reviews to the Porsche 356 and orders quickly came in from all over the world, but Porsche's Gmünd factory had a very small staff, and the town was not even connected to a railroad. Small-scale production began in the winter of 1948-1949, with the company only able to build five cars per month. All body work was done by hand, by one man, so when he did not work production stopped. This slow process lasted for six months. Then Porsche hired more people until he employed nearly 300 workers. As production increased, so did the orders. Next, Porsche approached the mayor of Stuttgart and asked permission for his company to return to its old production plant. The military government, run by the Allies, granted Porsche's request, and his return to Stuttgart was completed by 1950.
Ferdinand Porsche suffered a crippling stroke in 1951, and died on January 30, 1952.
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This page was last updated on June 10, 2017.