Ferdinand Anton Ernst Porsche
Ferdinand Anton Ernst Porsche
Austrian Automobile Designer
The family name of Ferdinand "Ferry" Porsche long ago became a household word, even if very few households could afford to have a Porsche in the garage. Less well-known is Porsche's role in creating a far more popular car—perhaps the most popular vehicle in history—the Volkswagen Beetle.
Born in Wiener Neustadt, Austria, Porsche was the son of Ferdinand and Aloysia Kaes Porsche. His father was an automobile designer who worked for the Austro-Daimler company, destined to become Daimler-Benz. In the year prior to his son's birth, the elder Ferdinand designed a car that traveled at 85 mi (137 km) an hour—a speed almost unbelievable in 1908. By 1923, when the family moved to Stuttgart, Germany, the Porsche's father was a board member with Daimler-Benz, and in 1930 he opened his own shop to build race cars.
When he was just 11 years old, young Ferdinand was given a two-seater car that his father had built, and later he helped his father build a lightweight race car. At age 12, he witnessed a fatal car crash during a race, and amazed investigators when he correctly traced the cause of the accident to the collapse of a wheel. As an adult, Porsche went to work with his father. He married Dorothea Reitze in 1935, and together they had four sons.
The Nazis' accession to power in 1933, an event that ended the career of so many great German scientists, actually stimulated Porsche's career. An automobile enthusiast, Hitler was determined to built a low-cost "people's car," or Volkswagen, and he commissioned Porsche and his father to design it. Later Porsche, like other collaborationist businesspeople, insisted that he had no choice but to work with Hitler. He also referred to the Russian prisoners of war who worked in the Volkswagen factory as "employees," though in fact they were slave-laborers.
After the war, Porsche moved the factory to Gmund, Austria. Due to the family's Nazi ties, the German government had taken away their contract to produce Volkswagens. Therefore, Porsche turned to a design he had created in 1939, and thus was born the Porsche sports car. In 1948 he introduced the first Porsche—the 356. Two years later, he moved production back to Stuttgart, and introduced a new model, the Carrera, with a new engine design. The company continued making Carreras, of which it sold nearly 80,000 models, until 1965. In 1964 Porsche introduced the 911. The Carrera RS followed in 1973, the 930 in 1974, and the 924 later in the 1970s.
Critics savaged the 924, not because it was not a good car, but because its fuel-efficiency (an outgrowth of the 1970s oil crisis) and its low cost threatened the Porsche brand's "snob appeal." Yet the car remained a symbol of prestige, highly popular and admired both by those who could afford it and those who could not. Though the company went public in 1972, Porsche's family retained a majority share of voting stock. Porsche died on March 27, 1998, in Zell-am-See, Austria.