After watching the BBC’s coverage of the moving Remembrance Sunday march-past of 10,500 men and women, I spent time reading The Spectator.
In this week’s issue is Stephen Bayley’s book review of Karl Ludvigsen’s Professor Porsche’s Wars. We know that Porsche designed the VW Beetle, originally named the Kraft-durch-Freude-Wagen, or ‘Strength-Through-Joy Car’.
But did many of us know that Ferdinand Porsche turned down an invitation from Stalin to become the Soviet Union’s ‘car czar’? And that Hitler was a motor enthusiast?
Bayley’s review got me digging around for more information.
Porsche was a natural engineering genius, the son of a master panel beater. In his youth he attended technical school and worked for his father. When he was 18, he left his hometown in northern Bohemia — now part of the Czech Republic — to work at Béla Egger Electrical company in Vienna. Although he took a few engineering courses at university level, he never had formal qualifications. It was only in 1916, when he was appointed Managing Director of Austro-Daimler that the Vienna University of Technology conferred upon him an honorary doctorate degree.
By then, he already had a long list of accomplishments.
Porsche had completed his military service as chauffeur to Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in 1902. It was a brief interlude in his employment with Jakob Lohner & Company, also in Vienna. He began working for them in 1898 and established his marque by engraving ‘P1’ on all the components he designed for their Egger-Lohner car, the c.2 Phaeton. Incredibly, the vehicle had a battery-powered electric motor in each of the front two wheel hubs. An Englishman, C W Hart, commissioned a model with motors in all four wheels — a pioneering example of four-wheel drive.
In 1901, he designed the Lohner-Porsche Mixte Hybrid, which improved on the Egger-Lohner. It had a Daimler internal combustion engine and was the first recorded example of a petroleum electric hybrid vehicle. By 1906, 300 Lohner-Porsches had been sold. Most of them were lorries, buses or fire engines. Porsche left Lohner to become Austro-Daimler’s chief designer.
At Austro-Daimler Porsche designed racing cars which, in 1923, won their drivers 43 out of 53 races. In 1924, he left his post as Managing Director to become Technical Director of Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft in Stuttgart. That year, Stuttgart Technical University conferred upon him an honorary doctorate degree and the title of honorary Professor. He became known as Professor Dr Porsche.
An awe-struck Adolf Hitler introduced himself to Porsche in 1926 at the German Grand Prix. In 1933, he called Porsche to meet with him formally. Hitler practically idolised the man, viewing him as somewhere between a father figure and a technology god. Porsche had already started his own company two years earlier.
The rest is history. Porsche joined the Nazi Party in 1937, but Ludvigsen thinks it was for practical rather than ideological purposes. He began his work for the Third Reich by designing the Auto-Union Grand Prix cars. Then came the Volk, what we call the Volkswagen Beetle.
Porsche and his team then went on to engineer war machines and weapons. They created the Kubelwagen (Bucket Car), a Jeep-like vehicle, for the Wehrmacht. They also designed the amphibious Schwimmwagen (Swimming Car). Then came the Panzer tank.
Most significantly perhaps, at least for the British, was Porsche’s Vergeltungswaffe-Ein (‘Revenge Weapon One’), the V-1 — the Doodlebug.
Ludvigsen does not give his readers much information about Porsche’s relationship with Hitler. However, it could be, as Bayley says, there isn’t much documentation about it. In any event, Porsche, like so many senior personalities in the Third Reich, was just doing his job.
Meanwhile, Porsche’s son — also Ferdinand, but nicknamed Ferry — worked at the family firm designing the Auto-Union cars before helping his father on the aforementioned motorised weaponry. He opened two locations for the family’s design teams in Austria, in case the Allies bombed Stuttgart.
In December 1945, the French arrested Porsche père et fils as war criminals. Ferry was released after six months and allowed to return home. He resumed working from one of the Austrian locations with his sister Louise on cars. They received two contracts for automobile design. One was for the Cistalia racing team and the other was for a new model, the Porsche 356.
Porsche remained as a prisoner in France until 1948. He immediately went to help Ferry finish the 356. They returned to Stuttgart in 1949.
Late in 1950, Porsche suffered a stroke. He never fully recovered and died on January 30, 1951. Ferry took over the company and, in 1972, merged the three Porsche concerns into one entity. Although he relinquished his chairmanship that same year, he became honorary chairman of the supervisory board. In that capacity he was able to continue to influence the company’s design and direction until his death in 1998. His son Ferdinand Alexander Porsche succeeded him as general manager.
In his book review, Stephen Bayley says that Porsche kept their war and weaponry side very quiet. In fact, the company’s military work ended only relatively recently — in 1981.
The Porsche story is indeed a fascinating one. One wonders how many Britons driving one today know the firm invented the Doodlebug. Perhaps, as with so many other German companies active during the Second World War, we have made our peace with them and have moved on.