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Porsche & VW Brief History - Revolver

A brief history of one of the most profitable car manufacturers

Greg Brown
Nov 1, 2008 SHARE
Epcp_0811_02_z+Porsche_VW+graphic Photo 1/1   |   Porsche & VW Brief History - Revolver

Whose Idea Was It?
You have to wonder what got into Ferry Porsche back in the late '40s on that day he instructed his small team of engineers to develop a rear-engine sports car.

Did the Scion of the family fortune, what little there was left of it, scarf too many shots of schnapps the night before? Had his breakfast brat gone off? Or was it just a really smart man's brain fart? Whatever it was that caused Ferry to ignore all he'd learned in physics about mass and momentum, his decision resonated so loudly, and miraculously, it transformed a company broken and fragmented into what is today's most profitable car manufacturer.

If he were still alive, we might ask Hans Ledwinka, the Viennese-born mechanic cum design engineer who created the Tatra T97. Never heard of him? Or it? That's because only 500 were built before the unpleasantness of 1938 intruded upon almost everything in Czechoslovakia, Tatra's homeland. The T97's combination of a rear-mounted, air-cooled engine, swing-axle rear suspension, and "streamlined" design may have been the last of the three air-cooled models developed by Ledwinka-who, after the war, was unjustly imprisoned by the Russians (imagine!) until 1951 and never again designed an automobile-but, gee, that sort of car sure sounds familiar...

Turns out Ledwinka and Porsche patriarch Ferdinand (Ferry's pop) met for the occasional kaffeeklatsch, and Ferdinand thought Ledwinka's tablecloth sketches were damn fine. So fine, in fact, they were worth appropriating for his Type 1 Volkswagen, der KdF-Wagen. More than miffed by the homage Porsche paid to Ledwinka's cleverness, Tatra sued VW-but only just in time for the armored incursion of 1938. Big surprise, the lawsuit was somehow lost in the system.

A postwar payoff from VW to Tatra settled the dispute, but Ledwinka's concept hadn't gone away, thanks to British army officer Maj. Ivan Hirst who rescued VW from the commies and the wrecking ball. During the war, the old man and his heir were kept busy doing what engineers do, including designing some very effective weaponry, figuring they'd go back to cars and tractors when peace broke out. In fact, the Porsches thought they had a deal to build le Beetle or whatever it would be called in France, in 1945, after the war had ended. However, certain, uh, difficulties arose with the French government (imagine!), and a few of the clan, including Ferdinand and Ferry, were thrown into a very nasty slammer in Dijon. The Porsches were never officially charged with the (trumped-up) war crimes, but they had to pay hefty fines to buy their way out of prison, first Ferry, and then 20 life-sapping months later, his father.

After his release, Ferry had planned to consolidate the scattered remnants of the family firm in Stuttgart, but, as usual, the winning side could tell the losers what to do, and that included telling Ferry he wasn't welcome back home. So, as it was all over Europe, Porsche struggled, and in tiny Gmnd that meant fixing cars and doing what engineers do, like designing a better water pump. Sexy stuff, no, but it helped them hang on long enough to secure the key contract that paved the way to an entirely unforeseen future.

No, it wasn't the agreement that secured the proceeds for Ferdinand's release. Ferry had negotiated with Cisitalia to build a Grand Prix racer, and though it was never built, the money rescued a sick old man from what amounted to indentured servitude. Ferdinand arrived back in time to help assist the development of his son's brainstorm into the car that became known as the Porsche 356.

It took the knowledge Ferdinand had gained while designing the pre-war Type 64K10, an aerodynamic, lightweight, rear-engine racer built for a race from Berlin to Rome that was never run, a key contract with Volkswagen for access to its components and distribution system, and the exterior designs of Erwin Komenda to make it all happen. Still, even Hans Ledwinka would've approved: a rear air-cooled engine, swing-axle suspension, streamlined design ... like a Tatra, and a Beetle, but something new, something different and beguiling, emerging into a bleak world from a minuscule hamlet, away from the bombs, away from the prisons, where the Porsches were free to do what engineers do.

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By Greg Brown
6 Articles

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