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  • Great engine designer who developed the people's car

    Consulting engineer
    Sept. 3, 1875-Jan. 30, 1952

    Wim Oude Weernink
    Automotive News Europe

    Ferdinand Porsche could always bring a good idea to the table, no matter who he worked for. He pioneered electric cars, airplane engines, front-wheel drive, hybrid cars, and aerodynamic shapes for other people. When he finally went out on his own, he developed both race cars and the people's car: the Volkswagen.

    Porsche was born in the Bohemian village Maffersdorf, now part of the Czech Republic. He took evening classes and was fascinated by the possibilities of electricity. His first job was in Vienna at Bela-Egger, which became part of ABB. His first contribution to the automotive world was in 1900, when he designed an electric carriage for the Austrian coachbuilder Lohner.

    With the motors integrated in the front-wheel hubs, this was one of the first front-wheel-driven cars. He developed this idea into a four-wheel-driven version, and later came up with a generator powered by a gasoline engine to replace the heavy batteries, making it one of the world's first hybrid power systems.

    His 1910 "Prince Henry" model, created for the Austro-Daimler company, featured an advanced single-overhead camshaft engine with novel hemispherical combustion chambers. The car's bodywork was shaped like a tulip, and with a V-shaped radiator this resulted in a low frontal area and aerodynamic form.

    During World War One he constructed one of the most efficient airplane engines for Austro-Daimler, and in 1923 he moved to Stuttgart and went to work for Daimler Motoren Gesellshaft.

    At Daimler, he worked on sporty, race-winning Mercedes models with supercharged, high-performance engines made of cast aluminum with steel cylinder liners, another technical innovation. The 1928 Mercedes 7.1-liter SSK with 225hp was the most powerful sports car of the time.

    But Daimler had merged with Benz in 1926, and Porsche couldn't cope with the new company culture. In 1930 he decided to go independent with his famous Konstruktionsburo, an activity which remains as the highly successful automotive consultancy of Porsche today.

    His versatility blossomed. He designed alloy engines for Wanderer, one of Auto Union's brands. He worked on engines for aircraft and agricultural tractors.

    In the early part of the decade he was working on revolutionary mid-engined Grand Prix cars for Auto Union on one hand, and on the other preparing simple yet mature studies for an affordable people's car. The Auto Union cars beat Mercedes-Benz only sometimes, but the people's car evolved into the world's most successful mass-produced model, the Volkswagen.

    The impulsive and sometimes hot-tempered Ferdinand Porsche always devoted himself to automobiles. While war approached, his Konstruktionsburo was laying down design principles for an aerodynamic coupe based on the early Volkswagen design.

    Porsche survived the Nazi era, but after the war he was arrested and charged with collaboration. In 1947 he was freed, and one year later, he witnessed the birth of the Porsche sports car and the Porsche sports car company, founded by his son. Ferdinand Porsche died on January 30, 1952, from the effects of a stroke he had suffered earlier.