THE FATHER: DR. FERDINAND PORSCHE
The history of the Porsche company began long before Ferdinand Porsche thought of starting his own auto manufacturing business. As a young engineer, he designed the first electric/gasoline hybrid — in 1900. Over his career, he worked with Daimler, Mercedes, Daimler-Benz, Volkswagen, Auto Union, and others for nearly 50 years. His independent design firm was even responsible for the creation of the Volkswagen Beetle in 1931.
It seems appropriate that Ferry was born while his father was at a race. As he got older, he became a draftsman and test driver at his father’s firm, but he was most instrumental in the design of the first ever Porsche, the 356 — which Ferry worked on while his father spent 20 months in a prison in Dijon, France, as a war criminal. Ferry had also been arrested but was soon released. To keep the family firm afloat, he designed race cars and this first-ever Porsche sports car.
The first Porsche 356 had a rear-mounted, souped-up 40-horsepower Volkswagen engine and parts sourced from wherever the company could find them, this being post-War Europe. A Zurich, Switzerland, distributor ordered five of the cars, which were hand-built at the company’s headquarters in Gmund, Austria. One month after the first car left the factory, a 356 won its first race. The model went into regular production in 1950, and in 1954, a speedster version was introduced.
CREATING THE ICON: BIRTH OF THE 911
Unlike many other car companies, the Porsche crew plodded forward with little drama, even after Ferdinand Porsche passed away in 1951 at age 76. They found their flagship in 1963: the 911.
TO THE NINES
In 1965, Porsche ended 356 productions, but its engine lived on in the new entry-level 912. This, in turn, was replaced in 1970 by the mid-engined 914, and in 1976, the front-engined 924 with its Audi powerplant replaced the 914. The all-new 928 debuted in 1978 with a 240-hp V8. The 944, which went on sale in 1982, was based on the 924, but the new model had a Porsche-built four-cylinder engine. The supercar 959 debuted at the 1985 Frankfurt Auto Show, and in 1987, the 250,000th 911 rolls off the line. It’s enough to make a person wish for cars with names rather than project numbers.
While sports cars for the masses were pouring out of the Porsche factory, its racecars were winning on tracks around the world. In 1951, the little 356 SL took a class victory at Le Mans, and in 1956 the 550 Spyder took its first overall victory, at the Targa Florio. The 1960s and 70s saw a run of wins at the Nurburgring 1000-km race, the 24 Hours of Daytona, the Can-Am series, and the World Championship of Makes.
The 1980s saw wins for the 911 Carrera 4×4 and the 959 in the Paris-Dakar rally,
In 1984, Porsche went public. The company had been controlled by the Porsche and Piech families from the start — Dr. Ernst Piech being Ferdinand Porsche’s son-in-law — and they kept 50% of the shares for themselves. Production-wise, Porsche continued to crank out high-quality sports cars in very high numbers: the 911 hit the 250,000 mark in 1987. The company introduced its “Tiptronic” clutchless manual transmission in 1990, an innovation that held its own for nearly two decades before being replaced by the dual-clutch PDK system in the 2009 911 Carrera. In 1988, 50 years after designing the 356, Ferry Porsche died.
BACK TO BASICS
The early 1990s were almost as bad for sports car manufacturers as the gas crisis of the 1970s, and Porsche was in danger of being taken over by a larger company.
Dr. Wendelin Wiedekin, the former head of production, stepped in as CEO and refocused development on the can’t-miss 911. The mid-engined Boxster was concept introduced not long after, and the front-engined models were discontinued. As a tribute to its new stability, the one millionth Porsche was built in July of 1996. In late 2008, the company made its next corporate move by buying a controlling one-third of Volkswagen’s shares.
THREE SPORTS CARS AND AN SUV
Though it builds in large numbers, Porsche has four basic models on the market: The 911 Carrera, the Boxster, the Cayman, which was introduced in 2006, and the Cayenne sports SUV, which debuted in 2007. The all-new Porsche Panamera is slated to debut as a 2010 model. After decades of 9-series model names, the current roster rolls off the tongue as easily as the cars roll off the production line in Stuttgart.