Ferdinand Porsche (Por-SHA) is one of the most prolific automotive engineers of all time. He is credited with creating the first gasoline electric hybrid automobile, one of the earliest purely electric automobiles, the Volkswagen Beetle, and some of the most formidable racing cars of his time. As remarkable as all of that is, his crowning achievement, the one towering over all of the others is the creation of the Porsche sports cars.
Ferdinand Porsche was born in September of 1875, in Matters, Bohemia, in the then-Austro-Hungarian Empire. That area is today part of the Czech Republic. His father owned a mechanical shop in which young Ferdinand worked during the day, while attending the Imperial Technical School at night.
His first job outside the family was with the Béla Egger Electrical Company in Vienna when he turned 18. The closest he came to a formal higher education in engineering came from “auditing” classes at a Viennese university. We said “audit” because the fact of the matter is he’d sneak into classes and pick up whatever he could—OK?
Porsche stayed with Béla Egger until he was 23 years old. During this period, he developed the electric hub motor, which he took full advantage of at his next job. Working for the coach manufacturers Jakob Lohner & Company in 1898, Porsche developed the “System Lohner-Porsche”, a battery powered electrical carriage with two electric motors fitted within the front wheel hubs.
Three years later, he replaced the primary battery pack with an internal combustion engine. The engine drove a generator, which supplied electricity to the motors (a smaller battery pack was also fitted to ensure reliability). This was the first series production hybrid automobile, beating the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius to market by some 98 years.
After this success, Porsche was recruited to run the design department at Austro-Daimler in 1906. By 1916, he was managing director of the company. In 1917, the Vienna Institute of Technology acknowledged Porsche’s prowess by bestowing upon him an honorary doctorate degree. With that, he became known as Dr. Ing h.c Ferdinand Porsche (Doktor Ingenieur Honoris Causa).
Having designed racing cars since 1910, his 1922 racing car won 43 of the 53 races in which it was entered. One year later, Porsche left Austro-Daimler over disagreements about the future of automotive development.
From there, he went on to become technical director at Daimler Moteren Gesellschaft (DMG) in Stuttgart. The Technical University there awarded him another honorary doctorate and later bestowed the title of Professor upon him as well. In this post, Porsche developed the supercharged automobiles that ultimately developed into the highly regarded Mercedes-Benz SSK racing cars. During Porsche’s tenure with DMG, the company merged with Benz & Cie. to form Daimler-Benz, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz automobiles.
Pushing for a small, lightweight Mercedes-Benz model, Porsche got shut down by the Daimler-Benz management board. Frustrated, he left the company and moved to Austria to work for Steyr Automobile in 1929. However, the worldwide economic collapse that year took Steyr with it. For the first time, Porsche found himself unemployed. Two years later he founded his own company. This time, rather than working for any one manufacturer, Porsche elected to hire himself out as a consultant.
Dr. req. h.c. F. Porsche GmbH, Konstruktionen und Beratungen für Motoren und Fahrzeugbau, opened in April of 1931 in Stuttgart. By all accounts, the company’s big break came with the desire to put Germans on the road, in much the same fashion as Henry Ford had done for Americans. Up to that point, German cars were by and large very expensive—only rich Germans could afford them. There really was no German model attainable by the common citizen.
Another desire was to see Germany dominate Grand Prix racing.
Porsche’s varied expertise dovetailed nicely with these plans and he was soon pursuing both projects. The Volkswagen Type 1 (the Beetle) was the result of the former (he also designed the Beetle factory), while the almighty Auto Union racing cars of the 1930s was the ultimate culmination of the latter. Porsche was contracted to develop military vehicles as well. Among them, he created the notorious Panzer Tiger tank.
However, this work led to Porsche’s 1945 incarceration at the end of World War II—as well as that of his son Ferry, who had joined the company at its inception in 1931. With that situation came dire financial straits. Ferry was released first and went back to reorganize the company and work to get his father released. He developed the all-wheel drive Type 360 Cisitalia Grand Prix racing car to get the money to secure Ferdinand’s freedom.
The first Porsche car was also being developed during this period. The rear-engine rear-drive 1948 Porsche 356, loosely based on the design Ferdinand Porsche had created for the Volkswagen Beetle, went on to find considerable success. Speaking of the Beetle, ultimately, Porsche's work on the car got him a royalty on every one purchased. Given over 20 million Beetles were eventually sold, this stood Porsche in pretty solid financial stead.
The Porsche 356 was followed in 1963 by the first Porsche 911 model, which is arguably the car that really put Porsche sports cars on the map. A more highly evolved iteration of the 356, the 911 supplanted its predecessor’s flat four-cylinder engine with a flat six. A number of highly successful racing variants of that car evolved over the years. The 911 ultimately went on to become one of the most successful designs in both racing history and sports car history—as well as one of the most highly coveted sports cars ever devised.
The success of the 911 model carried Porsche well into the latter part of the 20th century. Along the way, the company also developed front engine sports cars in the form of the Porsche 924/944/928/968 models. Today’s mid-engine Porsche Boxster and Cayman vehicles succeeded the company’s first mid-engine sports car, the 1969 Porsche 914.
Toward the end of the century, the company’s management team realized if it were to survive, Porsche would have to expand beyond sports cars. The Porsche Cayenne SUV was developed in conjunction with the Volkswagen Touareg and the Audi Q7. Skeptics questioned the decision—at first—then they saw it perform. The success of the Cayenne emboldened Porsche to also field a full-size luxury sedan. Called the Panamera, the Porsche automobile is the best performing full-size luxury sedan in its price range.
Meanwhile, the Porsche 911 still reigns as one of the most extraordinary sports cars ever produced. With it, Porsche has pursued a strategy of gradual evolution, rather than radically remaking the car every so often the way other manufacturers do. Thus, it can be said today’s Porsche 911 is the culmination of some 65 years of evolutionary development (if you go back to the 1948 introduction of the 356 on which it is based).