Making history since the birth of the automobile

By John Joss Master of Ceremonies Red Porsche

'Porsche.' Engineering icon? Automotive genius? Status symbol? Legend and logic mix in the mind.

The word means all the above and more. When in some distant future we can teleport from place to place in the blinking of an eye, when the automobile is dead and its history is written, the name Porsche will stand for all time.

Marques with great records of achievement share the field at Hillsborough. None matches Porsche’s longevity and diversity. Porsche has done almost everything on four wheels. It started with one man, the Austrian Prof. Dr. Ing h.c. Ferdinand Porsche (September 3, 1875 – January 30, 1951).

Anticipating the 21st century

The Jacob Lohner Company, Coachbuilder to His Imperial Majesty of Austria and its first commercial car builder, amazed the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris with its Electric Chaise. The car used ‘System Lohner-Porsche’ with electric motors incorporated into the wheel hubs, designed by 25-year-old Ferdinand Porsche. Porsche next integrated a gasoline engine from Daimler in Germany, calling it the ‘petrol-electric mixed car.’ About 100 years later, the world is still trying to catch up.

In 1906, Austro-Daimler recruited Porsche as their chief designer. Porsche had to race. His cars won 43 out of 53 races. Daimler, in Stuttgart, Weimar Germany, was becoming a major hub for the German automotive industry. For Daimler he created supercharged cars such as the Mercedes-Benz SSK that dominated in the 1920s.

Hitler decided that every German should own either a car or a tractor in the future (Porsche also designed and built tractors after WWII). In June 1934, he contracted Porsche to build three prototypes, completed in winter 1936. The result would become the familiar Volkswagen Type 1 'Beetle.'

A new city near Fallersleben was created for the factory, named Wolfsburg, still Volkswagen headquarters. (After WWII Porsche consulted for Volkswagen and received a royalty on every Beetle car built, vital revenues over the years, as more than 20 million Type I were built).

Porsche remained obsessed with racing, and the company he founded after WWII adhered to its motorsports roots. For Auto Union, he desiged a car to compete with Daimler-Benz in Grand Prix racing from 1934 on. His V-16 machine became known as the ‘P-Wagen.’ The dominance of the German ‘Silver Arrows’ from the two German companies, competing against the best Italy and England could build, ended only with the outbreak of WWII.

Immediately after WWII Porsche, newly released from Allied imprisonment, went back to work on . . . racing cars. For Piero Dusio he designed the advanced but complex Type 360 Cisitalia but this innovative 4WD design never raced. The company also started on a new design, its 365, the first car to carry the Porsche medallion.

Porsche race car

Porsche, the company

The company was located in Gmund, in Carinthia, to which the family had moved from Stuttgart to avoid Allied bombing. Porsche built 49 aluminum-bodied cars, by hand. The serial version made in Stuttgart had a steel body welded to the central-tube platform chassis. Ferry Porsche thought that maybe 1,500 356s would satisfy the market. More than 78,000 356s were manufactured before the 911 arrived in 1963. The ‘classic’ 911 was built until 1989. Even today its lines have been preserved in the subsequent models, making Porsche probably the most identifiable car on the road.

Racing still drove the company. Its 550 Spyder, whose lines can be seen today in the Boxster, became one of the winningest cars of the era, competing all over Europe in road racing and hill climbs, and in the Carrera Panamericana in Mexico. The 911-based cars kept winning, too—-at Le Mans (where the company is the world’s winningest, with 16 over-all victories), in Sicily’s Targa Florio, and at the Daytona and Sebring endurance races.

After the Cisitalia, Porsche built only one Grand Prix car, its 804. It won just one F1 race, the French Grand Prix in 1962, driven by Dan Gurney (Gurney won the Solitude F1 race the following weekend but the event was not homologated). The cost and complexity of F1 proved a hurdle too high for Porsche to surmount, and—-like its 1980 Interscope Indy Car—-is perhaps the only race category in which the company has not dominated.

In the last decades, Porsche has fielded some of the most remarkable and respected race cars of any built, including the ferocious 917 that intimidated everyone who came near it or raced against it, including its drivers. Today its cars compete worldwide, in races from world series to club events.

In 1996, Porsche was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and in 1999 posthumously won the award of Car Engineer of the Century.