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Porsche Panache

For 50 Years, Germany's Preeminent Sports-Car has Created Noble Speedsters Built for Style, Mystique and Performance
Jonathan Kandell
From the Print Edition:
John F. Kennedy, Nov/Dec 98

(continued from page 1)

But Porsche's history antedates its sports cars, and it hasn't always been so exalted. The company began with Ferry Porsche's father, also named Ferdinand. He was a struggling automotive engineer in the 1920s when he befriended Adolf Hitler, still a fringe politician, at a road race. After Hitler gained power, he was determined to demonstrate to the world the superiority of German cars. He remembered Ferdinand, and soon the fledgling Porsche engineering firm was getting design contracts with big German manufacturers. The Reich Chamber of Labor also commissioned Ferdinand to create a "people's car," the Volkswagen, that the working class could afford. Porsche and his son Ferry built a prototype in the garage of their house. But mass production had to be postponed because of the Second World War.

The war brought the Porsches lucrative contracts for designs of jeep-type vehicles, tanks, airplane engines, even parts for the V-1 flying bomb. In his autobiography, Ferry Porsche: Cars Are My Life, Ferry recalled his father's close personal relationship with Hitlerand his own warm feelings for the Führer during the war years. When Ferry's young son, Butzi, asked him why he was not in the army like all the other fathers, he responded, "Just imagine, if we were all soldiers, who would design and build the tanks and all the other weapons?" Although he spent the war as a civilian, Ferry was an honorary officer in the SS, an appointment made personally by SS Chief Heinrich Himmler.

After the Allied victory, the Porsches were fortunate to avoid prosecution as war criminals, a fate that befell other key German industrialists. However, the elder Porsche and his son-in-law, Anton Piëch, were jailed by the French occupation forces and held without trial for 17 months. According to Ferry, the French were attempting to force the Porsches to contribute their design and engineering talents to the car industry in France. Ferry claimed he had to pay a million franc bribe to French officials to get his father and brother-in-law released.

The Porsches' troubles continued when their contract to run Volkswagen was rescinded by the postwar West German government and Volkswagen was made independent. They were consoled somewhat by Anton Piëch's appointment as VW's first chairman.

With his father's health failing, Ferry took over the helm of Porsche. His plan was to have the company build its own cars. That was risky enough in the devastated early postwar economy. But Ferry seemed to be defying business sense by choosing a tiny, luxury niche in the automobile market--the sports car. The first motor vehicle to carry the Porsche label appeared in 1948. Called the 356 Roadster, it had an engine at mid-chassis to provide greater stability on sharp curves taken at high speed.

Ferry Porsche had great marketing instincts. He promoted his cars as powerful enough to win world-class races, yet tame enough to drive in a city. To build up Porsche's prestige, he hired German aristocrats to pilot his models in grand prix competition. They told their society friends how exciting a Porsche could be on the autobahn and even on ordinary streets.

Over the years, Porsche's blue-blood connections spread far beyond German borders. Prominent owners of the sports car have included King Juan Carlos of Spain, King Hussein of Jordan and King Carl Gustav of Sweden. But it was a tragic Hollywood prince who gave Porsche its mystique in the profitable American market. In 1955, the actor James Dean was killed when his Porsche Spyder 550 and another car crashed on a California highway, linking his name with the German sports car for eternity.

The success and prestige of his sports cars awakened in Ferry a desire to perpetuate a Porsche family dynasty. Ferry, who owned half of Porsche A.G., encouraged his sons to enter the business and groomed his eldest, Butzi, to take over. But Ferry's sister, Louise Piëch, who owned the other half of the company, had equally high aspirations for her son, Ferdinand. Nobody who met her doubted her iron will. "If I had a mother like Louise Piëch, I would have become chancellor of Germany," said Ernst Fuhrman, a former Porsche chief executive officer.

At first, the competition between the Porsche and Piëch children seemed healthy enough. Butzi Porsche and his cousin, Ferdinand Piëch, collaborated brilliantly to design the first 911 in 1963. The car went on to become the most acclaimed sports car in history, its original silhouette still recognizable 35 years later.

But eventually, the two cousins fought over who deserved most credit for the company's success. The quarreling spread to factory and sales policies, enveloping cousins and parents. The one thing Ferry and Louise were in accord about was that their children would tear the company apart. "After I ascertained that the necessary harmony and cooperation could not be created," Ferry wrote in his memoirs, "I drew the inevitable conclusion and said, 'Then nobody's going to be boss!'"

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