PEOPLE: FERDINAND PORSCHE

Name: Ferdinand Porsche
Nationality: Austro-Hungarian Empire

Born in Bohemian, which is in the modern Czech Republic but was then a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Porsche was drawn to the capital Vienna where, in 1898, he joined Jacob Lohner's recently-formed automobile company. This was Austria's first production car company but Lohner believed in electric cars and Porsche designed a car which had an electric motor fitted to each wheel. The Lohner-Porsche was exhibited in the Paris Exposition of 1900 and attracted international attention. The cars were briefly put into production. In 1905 Gottlieb Daimler asked Porsche to replace his son Paul Daimler as chief designer at Austro-Daimler, the Austrian offshoot of Cannstadt-Daimler. Porsche began building a new range of cars and these were successful on the Prince Henry Tour, an important reliability trial of that era. During World War I the Austro-Daimler company was associated with Skoda, the vast Austro-Hungarian weapons-making firm (which later became a car company), Porsche becoming the general manager for military vehicle production.

After the war the Austro-Daimler company returned to car-building and Porsche began to produce successful high-performance touring cars but in 1923 Porsche was asked the take over from Paul Daimler as chief engineer for the Mercedes company, a Daimler subsidiary. Soon afterwards Mercedes began to merge with the Benz company and Porsche produced a highly-successful line of sporting touring cars called the S, the SS and the SSK.

Porsche, however, was becoming and more interested in the idea of building a small car for mass-production and in 1931 he left Mercedes-Benz and established a company called Porsche Konstruktionburo fur Motoren-Fahrzeug-Luftfahrzeug und Wasserfahrzeugbau in Stuttgart, his aim being to design engines for cars, planes and ships. He did a variety of design work for the Wanderer, Zundapp and then NSU and in 1932 the success with the Wanderer 2-liter car led to Porsche being asked by the newly-formed Auto Union consortium (Horch, Audi, Wanderer and DKW) to design a Grand Prix car. He produced the radical mid-engined Auto Union A-Type for the 1934 season. It was not the first such car, Porsche having designed a similar vehicle for Mercedes-Benz in 1923 (the Tropfenwagen). The car began to show well in the hands of Hans Stuck and in 1935 Porsche designed a B-Type, developing his ideas. Stuck was joined by a new rising star called Bernd Rosemeyer and the cars became increasingly successful. The C-Type continued the development but in 1937 Porsche was replaced by Karl Feuereissen and he concentrated on his new project - the Volkswagen.

His idea of a people's car had received enthusiastic support in 1934 from the new Chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler. The prototype Volkswagen cars were finished in 1936 and small-scale production began the following year in Porsche's new workshop at Zuffenhausen, in Stuttgart. In the years before World War II began Porsche was busy building streamlined versions of the cars which he hoped to use in sportscar racing. These were to be the prototypes of the postwar Porsche sportscars.

In 1939 work began on a Volkswagen factory at Wolfsburg, near Hannover, in the north of the country but the outbreak of war meant that German industry had to support the war effort. Porsche worked on military designs, notably the Tiger Tank. When the war ended Porsche was taken prisoner by the French. His son Ferry and daughter Louise had set up a factory in Gmund, Austria, after the war and began a series of design projects to raise money to buy the release of their father. These included the Cisitalia Formula 1 car. Porsche Sr. returned to Austria in 1948 by which times the first Porsche sportscar was ready to be built.

Ferdinand Porsche died in Stuttgart at the start of 1951 as the company bearing his name began to mass produce the Porsche 356. By the time production was suspended in 1965 78,000 of them had been built.

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