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Engineers that Changed the World - Ferdinand Porsche

written by: johnsinit•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 2/28/2009

Ferdinand Porsche, was the man who was posthumously honored as the “Car Engineer of the Century”, had no formal education in design and engineering. He led a life that included being chauffeur to Archduke Franz Ferdinand and designing the prototype for the Volkswagen Beetle. Read more below!

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    Ferdinand Porsche

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    Early years

    Ferdinand Porsche was born in 1875 in Maffersdorf of Austro-Hungarian Empire - now Vratislavice in the Czech Republic. His father was a plumber who expected Ferdinand to go into the family business, but Ferdinand had other interests. While he did complete a plumbing apprenticeship, his real interest was in electricity, and he went so far as to set up a clandestine workshop at home so he could indulge his passion.

    At 18, Ferdinand began working at an electrical company in Vienna. His obvious gift for engineering and his ready grasp of technical concepts helped him move up rapidly. At the same time, he was auditing – some biographies say “sneaking into” – classes at the local university in Vienna to learn more about engineering.

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    First Cars

    In 1897, Ferdinand Porsche began working in the Electric Car Department at k.u.k Hofwagenfabrik Jacob Lohner & Co where he introduced the Lohner-Porsche in 1900. This was a non-transmission vehicle powered by an electric wheel-hub motor he had developed in 1897. This vehicle debuted at the 1900 Paris Exhibition, but the 1,800 kg (nearly 4,000 lb.) battery it required made it impractical for such driving feats as climbing hills.

    In 1902, Porsche became a driver for Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination in 1914 presaged the start of World War I. Porsche went to work for Austro-Daimler as chief designer in 1906, but spent most of the next decade designing war-related material like aircraft engines, trucks, and motorized cannons.

    But in the early 1920s, he returned to designing cars built for his love of road racing, and he and Austro-Daimler ways parted. In 1931 he started his own consulting firm with, among others, his son Ferdinand “Ferry” Porsche. The 1930s were as mixed for Porsche as they were for the rest of Europe, with financial instability leading up to war.

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    World War II

    In 1938 a plant was built in Germany to fulfill Adolf Hitler’s demand for a car or tractor for every German. This car was based on a small car design that Porsche developed in 1934. While the plant was used for all-terrain vehicles during the war, afterwards it began manufacturing Volkswagens, still recognized all over the world.

    When the Allies arrived in Germany in 1945, the French offered Porsche the opportunity to build a “more French” Volkswagen, but because of disagreements within the French government, they instead arrested the senior Ferdinand Porsche, Ferry, and another colleague. After 20 months in prison, the elder Porsche was released, and no charges were ever brought.

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    Postwar years and the Type 356

    While his father was held, Ferry designed Porsche’s own little sports car, the very first one to actually be called “Porsche.” It was named the Type 356, and the company built 49 of them by hand on aluminum bodies. Because of royalties Ferdinand Porsche received for his role in the development of the VW, he finally had the means to concentrate on his love of sports cars. Steel-bodied 356s went into production in late 1949. After making plans for 500 of them a year, they ended up making 78,000 of them over 17 years.

    In November 1950, Ferdinand Porsche suffered a stroke. Having never recovered, he died January 30, 1952. Today, his company is known as the last remaining independent sports car manufacturer, a fitting tribute to a man who wanted to design unique cars with his brain and his heart.