By H.E. Falk
I imagine everyone must have a beginning with Porsche – that moment in one’s life when we first become attracted to the marque, learn of its history, exhilarate in its performance, or be in awe of its engineering and quality. It doesn’t seem reasonable for people to simply ‘grow into’ a Porsche, as though it were Mom and Dad’s Chevrolet – no, the unique qualities of this art-form-on-wheels has to be discovered and experienced, not unlike a divine revelation – a thunderbolt of awe and adoration. For some it may be their first test drive, for others perhaps the thrill of a race – for me it was a book. Ironically enough it wasn’t even a book about Porsche, not exactly anyhow.
Turn back in time for a moment to the mid-1970’s – America is a year or two into the Arab Oil Embargo and after a decade of unleashing timeless muscle cars, the best the Detroit boys can muster are pathetically underpowered and cheaply made excuses for automobiles, whose only connection to their noble ancestry is found in the legacy of what their once-proud nameplates carried. My family was unique in this sense and although we owned our share of Plymouths and Fords, we were increasingly drawn to the Volkswagen. Between my Dad and my older brothers, we had gone through several Beetles and quite a few Type III Squarebacks by the time I was old enough to drive and I too became enamored by the simple yet rugged little vehicles.
One day my older brother gave me a book and told me to read it (which was perversely unusual on so many levels that I won’t even go into them). I hesitated at first – the book was unimpressive to say the least – a small paperback, somewhat worn around the edges – a cheap throw-away edition that no one would think twice about. It was entitled ‘Small Wonder’, originally written by Walter Nelson in 1965 (I had the 1970 reprint edition) which told the amazing story of the life of the Volkswagen Beetle, how it evolved from just a dream as far back as the 1920’s and went on to become the most iconic automobile in history, an automobile incidentally, designed entirely by Dr. Ferdinand Porsche.
In addition to the story of the Volkswagen however, the book also told the story of Dr. Porsche who began his career as a plumber’s apprentice in a backwoods village in Austria. I read how, over the course of sixty plus years, he came to design some of the most advanced, most luxurious, fastest, and finest vehicles ever to grace a roadway. For example, his very first design was an all-electric vehicle called the Lohner which won the Grand Prize at the Paris Exposition in 1900. There was quite a bit of experimentation back then in electric power but it posed the same drawbacks to auto designers then as it does today (déjà vu anyone?). Porsche’s design was different however, featuring an ingenious arrangement of four electric motors mounted inside the ‘hub’ of each wheel, thereby eliminating all the efficiency-depleting sequence of chains, gears, and sprockets then currently being used. Revolutionary to say the least!
Sadly, the attention and interest in this design soon resulted in the idea being taken away from the as yet young and naïve engineer (he was only 25 years old at the time). That did not deter him however as he was already working on an improved version. Two years later he introduced to the world the very first hybrid vehicle! It used the same hub-motor design of the Lohner but now with a gasoline engine on board to drive a generator – no more bulky batteries! This car was so admired that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand himself was chauffeured in one during parade maneuvers in 1902.
The rest as they say is history. In those days the value of an automobile was proven by its performance in competitions and Porsche did not disappoint. Working for Austro-Daimler over the next two decades he won top honors in race after race after race, often driving the cars himself and shocking onlookers and competitors alike with his revolutionary designs and incredible performance. In 1910, driving his Prinz-Heinrich-Wagen, he managed to coax 90 MPH out of a 32-HP engine of his own design. To put this in perspective, the world land speed record was set that same year by Barney Oldfield in his ‘Blitzen Benz’ of 131.7 MPH – but it needed a 200-HP monster of an engine to achieve it! The feat was certainly worthy in its own right but hardly an engineering marvel when one considers the speed to horsepower ratio. Such was the efficiency of the Porsche designs that it has come to exemplify repeatedly over the past century the overriding characteristic of the marque, and the distinction which gives it its honored status among the elite carmakers of the world.
I continued to read about this remarkable man and began to admire him more and more. His story and characteristics were not unlike my own – rising from humble beginnings in Austria, self-taught for the most part, detail-oriented, and with a superior mechanical intuition which the Germans call fingerspitzgefühl – an untranslatable word that describes that uncanny ability to combine mechanical dexterity and aptitude with the common sense of a practical application. To illustrate this trait (which by the way cannot be taught – it’s like a gift that you either have or you don’t), the book tells a story of how Dr. Porsche (he had been awarded an honorary doctorate by this time) while working for Daimler Benz stood with a group of engineers, dressed in their white frock coats discussing what could be wrong with the car in front of them. Finally unable to control his impatience any longer, the much younger Dr. Porsche donned some coveralls, crawled under the car, and emerged a few minutes later only to hand the other engineers a wrench and famously say, “Why don’t you find out for yourself!”
As a result of this unpretentious attitude he was not liked by many in the German auto establishment, clashing with several executives and financiers over the years about what the German auto industry needed – he pushing for an affordable everyday car similar to Ford’s Model T and the executives pushing for more expensive, more luxurious, and more powerful cars. I believe that the greatest gift from Dr. Porsche to us today was his ability to accomplish both – his dream of a ‘people’s car’ evolving into the iconic Volkswagen alongside the exquisite powerful and expensive models which carry his own name. Both are examples of an engineering genius which was posthumously recognized in 1999 by the Global Automotive Foundation when they named Ferdinand Porsche the “Car Engineer of the Century”.
At this juncture of course I could hardly put the book down and continued to read feverishly about his further accomplishments. The race car for example he developed for NSU and the 1934 Grand Prix – a car so advanced in aerodynamic design that the governing body had to change the rules to give the competitors a chance! This was an unprecedented action at the time but unbelievably had to be repeated forty years later with another Porsche model – the virtually unbeatable 917. Then there was the sad story of the all-wheel drive Cisitalia, built by his son Ferry in 1948 using his father’s designs – the most perfect race car ever made which never saw a single race. What it did accomplish however was to generate the one million francs Ferry needed to ransom his father out of a French dungeon. Ferdinand had been imprisoned there for two years as a ‘war criminal’ while the allies plundered his blueprints and designs, which later cropped up in as diverse of vehicles as the Renault CV4 and the Chevrolet Corvair.
Dr. Porsche was no giant of a man physically, standing only a modest 5 foot 8 inches, and his ancestry, education, and lack of wealth were early on a noticeable disadvantage in the super-exclusive, prestige-laden circles of the European auto industry, but his pursuit of perfection, his genius of design, his creation of the remarkable, and his achievements in industry makes him indeed a ‘small wonder’.