Ferdinand Porsche, car designer whose idea made it from the Earth to the Moon

Ferdinand Porsche

Ferdinand Porsche was a Liberec-born genius engineer, who designed the first-ever hybrid car. He also contributed to the development of Volkswagen Beetle, which remained in production for 65 years.

Ferdinand Porsche's birthplace in Vratislavice,  Liberec | Photo: Eva Malá,  Czech Radio

Ferdinand Porsche was born on September 3, 1875 in Vratislavice, which is now a district of Liberec. His father was an enterprising craftsman who was also involved in local government and culture. He wanted Ferdinand to take over the family’s plumbing trade, but when he saw how technically gifted his son was and how ambitious he was, he did not prevent him from pursuing his dreams, says Lukáš Nachtmann, historian and head of the archives at Škoda Auto, which now looks after the Porsche family home:

Ferdinand Porsche | Photo:  Till Janzer,  Radio Prague International

“Young Ferdinand would come up with all sorts of technical improvements at home that surprised his parents, although not always in a positive sense. But when he succeeded in installing electricity in his family home, his father realized that this was the direction he should take.”

At the age of 18, Porsche began an apprenticeship with the United Electric Works Inc. in Vienna, and gradually worked his way up from low-level positions, attending electrical engineering classes at the university in his spare time and soon becoming head of the test operation.

In 1898, Porsche received an offer from C. K. Lohner, a court factory specializing in carriages, which needed an electric motor for their new automobile. Porsche’s enthusiasm for the project led to intense collaboration, and he eventually accepted an offer to become the company’s full-time employee.

Lohner-Porsche constructed by Ferdinand Porsche  (right) was one of the first hybrid vehicles | Photo: Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

Porsche introduced a novel concept car called the “Lohner-Porsche system”, where each of the front wheels contained a 2.5 horsepower electric motor. His design for the Lohner-Porsche attracted a lot of attention. Not only did the electric car break several speed records, but it also won a gold medal at the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris, says Mr. Nachtmann:

“Other manufacturers used gears routinely. Both the internal combustion engine and the electric motor drove the wheels on the axle through gears. Ferdinand Porsche came up with the idea that the electric cars would have electric motors directly in the hubs of the wheels. So that was unique.”

Although the concept of internal combustion engine cars ultimately prevailed, it's no exaggeration to say that Porsche, with his idea of a hybrid car, was essentially ahead of his time by nearly a century.

However, Porsche's career did not really get off the ground until after the First World War in Germany, when he joined the Daimler company in Stuttgart as chief designer. He was behind the concept of several highly successful racing and luxury cars.

In the early 1930s, he founded his own design firm, which designed and sold technical solutions to other companies. It was here that the concept German’s people's car, or Volkswagen was born. It was supposed to be a practical vehicle for four adults that would cost less than a thousand marks.

Although production failed to get underway before the start of the Second World War, the solution later gave rise to one of the most iconic cars of the 20th century: the VW Beetle. Lukáš Nachtmann explains what made it so popular:

“It was successful firstly because it has a simple design, and secondly because it was cheap. Like the VW minivan, which became famous in the United States during the Hippie era, I think that the popularity of VW Beetle was also helped by that community and by the era.”

KdF 41,  Volskwagen Beetle | Photo:  Josef Mlejnek,  Czech Radio

Ferdinand Porsche's son Ferry inherited his father's technical and engineering talent and imagination, but focused on sports cars. Another iconic car of the 20th century, the Porsche 911, is the result of his work.

Ferry Porsche memorial plaque in Kleinmachnow | Photo: OTFW,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0

In the 1930s, Ferdinand Porsche joined the NSDAP, working actively with the Nazis on the development of the People's Car, but he also designed military vehicles, such as the wheeled tractor, or Radschlepper Ost, that was produced in Mladá Boleslav. Porsche eventually became a member of the SS and reached the rank of SS-Oberführer. Lukáš Nachtmann again:

“You know the saying: who wants to live with wolves must howl with them. If he wanted to create in the time he lived in, he had to cooperate with the regime. The regime gave him an opportunity and he took advantage of it.

“He was simply a technician who wanted to work, to promote his ideas and visions, to put his ideas into practice. He got involved with the regime that ruled Germany at the time and as a result, damaged his reputation."

Adolf Hitler  (on the back bench) examines the first vehicle of the type Beetle  (undated picture),  which was designed by Ferdinand Porsche  (m,  without hat).  | Photo: ČTK/DPA/DB

After the war, Ferdinand Porsche was invited to France to help rebuild the local car industry. However, it was just a pretext. As soon as he got to France, he was arrested by the French authorities and remanded in custody as an alleged war criminal. He was released after paying a substantial fine and later cleared by the court.

Ferdinand Porsche continued to live and work in Austria, near Zel am Zee. Visits to his home country were few and far between, says Mr. Nachtmann:

“At the end of the 1930s, a promotional ride of the future Volkswagen Beetle took place, also making a stop in Liberec. Ferdinand Porsche also visited Mladá Boleslav during the testing oh his heavy war machinery. But other than that, he didn't come back here regularly.”

Volkswagen Beetle | Photo: Czech Television

Ferdinand Porsche died unexpectedly on January 30, 1951, during his first visit to Stuttgart since the end of the war. At that time, production of the Volkswagen Beetle was already well underway.

The importance of Ferdinand Porsche's legacy is underscored by the fact that they remained in production for 65 years and sold almost 22 million of them. However, his work has also influenced today's automotive industry, particularly in the development of electric and hybrid cars. And, as Lukáš Nachtmann points out, he also laid the foundation for NASA’s first Moon Rover:

Lukáš Nachtmann | Photo: Till Janzer,  Radio Prague International

“Probably the most interesting, I think, is the vehicle that NASA sent to the moon, which had electric motors located in the hubs of the wheels. That Porsche’s idea made it from Earth to the moon, is pretty extraordinary.”

If you want to find out more about Ferdinand Porsche, the famous personality of the Liberec region, you can visit his place of birth in Vratislavice, which is open to the public daily, or visit the museum’s online version.

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