June 22, 2006

Today In Automotive History

1934 Porsche builds prototypes

Ferdinand Porsche contracted with the Automobile Manufacturers Association of Germany (RDA) to build three prototype "people's cars" over a 10-month period. The contract was a direct result of Hitler's personal request to Porsche that he design such a car. The result, of course, was the Volkswagen. But it would take years for Porsche to accomplish his dream of bringing a small, affordable car to the market. In 1899, at the age of 24, Ferdinand Porsche became one of Europe's most famous automotive engineers with the introduction of his Porsche-Lohner electric car. It was his first offering to the world, and it was characteristically ingenious. Ferdinand Porsche is the automotive world's answer to "the Natural"; his designs have always been incomprehensibly ahead of their times. At a time when all automotive designers focused all their energies on mustering speed, Porsche's car came with two separate breaking systems, one mechanical and one electric, while still supplying competitive speed. For the next 35 years Porsche would strive, often under the auspices of Daimler Motors, to produce the smallest, fastest cars in the world. So recognizable was Porsche's genius that his quest was sadly hindered by outside interference. Consider that in 1932, while first working on the design for a "Volksauto" for Zundapp Motors in Germany, Porsche was approached by a group of Russian engineers with a remarkable offer. Having studied his work, the Russian engineers had deemed Porsche the greatest automotive engineer, and as such offered to take him back to Russia to show him the state of their country's industry. Porsche didn't know what they wanted but, flattered by the invitation, he went along. He was received like royalty, an honored guest of the state. The offer from the Russians was inconceivable: they offered him the position of state designer of Russia, a position in charge of all automobile, tank, and electric vehicle production. Every one of his designs would be realized by the country's vast sources of material wealth. All he had to do was sign a contract. Porsche respectfully declined, but such was his prowess that only two years later Adolf Hitler approached Porsche with the project of designing a people's car for the state of Germany. Because making a small, affordable car was Porsche's dream, he jumped at the offer. The Volkswagen prototype was completed in 1936. But war in Europe erupted before production could begin. Porsche was asked to supply tank designs, which he did, creating the Tiger, Ferdinand, and Mouse tanks for the German army. Hitler moved Porsche from Stuttgart to the remote Austrian town of Gmund, in order to keep him away from Allied bombing. At the end of the war the U.S. Army captured Porsche, interrogated him, and released him to his villa in Gmund. Then French officials arrested him for his participation in the war, and Porsche served a two-year sentence at the Renault estate in France. He was finally released in 1947, and he returned to Gmund. There he undertook, with his son Ferry, the project of building a small performance car with his own name. Meanwhile, the Volkswagen had gone into mass production. The first Porsche, the 356, was a convertible sports car version of the Volkswagen with much improved suspension.

Posted by Quality Weenie at June 22, 2006 07:06 AM | TrackBack