The Ferry Porsche I Knew
I remember Ferry Porsche fondly as a philosopher of sports-car design and one of the leading members of Porsche's core of Austrians who were congenitally unable to take life too seriously.
In my latest book, ‘Karl Ludvigsen’s Fast Friends’, I include both Ferry Porsche and his older sister Louise. Both were outstanding in their ways, Ferry as the touchstone for sports-car characteristics and Louise as the tough-minded director of a car-distribution company. I think you will enjoy meeting Ferry.
Ferdinand Porsche’s son, Ferdinand Anton Ernst Porsche, was born in 1909. Nicknamed Ferry, he was immersed in automotive lore from his earliest days. ‘I have, so to speak, come into the world with the automobile,’ he once said. At ten he was able to drive and at 16 he was behind the wheel of an experimental Mercedes.
Trained and apprenticed in every important discipline of the industry, Ferry Porsche became an employee of the Stuttgart office in 1931. There he was further tutored by Porsche stalwart Walter Boxan while he completed his first drawing—a Wanderer connecting rod. With a Wanderer, a car he test-drove as well as helped design, Ferry competed twice in 2,000-kilometer races over the open roads of Germany. In 1939 he took over the management of Porsche’s Zuffenhausen office after his father was made one of the directors of the new Volkswagen factory. After the war Ferry was instrumental in the creation and production of the Porsche Type 356 sports car.
I first met Ferry Porsche when he and Huschke von Hanstein came to New York in 1957. Ferry was in the USA to accept a Franklin Institute award that recognised the role of his father in the creation of the VW Beetle. Porsche organised a reception for Ferry and Huschke in New York to which I, as technical editor of Sports Cars Illustrated, was asked along. Huschke gave me my first Porsche lapel pin, which I managed to not to lose for many years.
I reflected on this first meeting in 1996 while I was serving as an honorary judge at the 50th-anniversary Porsche Parade at Hershey, Pennsylvania. On the same panel was actor and comedian Jerry Seinfeld. My colleagues at Bentley Publishing arranged for me to have some one-on-one time with Jerry, who is an enthusiastic owner, driver and admirer of Porsches. During our chat he said to me, in his no-nonsense way, ‘You knew Ferry Porsche, didn’t you? What was he like?’
Yes, I did know Ferry Porsche. He was of medium height with light-brown hair and a clear gaze. He spoke in a gentle tenor with a lilt that betrayed his Austrian origins. He preserved as well an Austrian awareness of the ridiculous, an appreciation that although things had at times been bad, they could always have been a lot worse. It was fascinating to discuss Porsche’s affairs with a man who had driven the Auto Unions and shaken hands with Hitler.
Disappointments loomed large in the Ferry story. During the years working for his demanding father he suffered from the senior Porsche’s same abruptness, the same unwillingness to praise, as his colleagues. If it was meant as a way of hardening the young engineer, it failed. Ferry remained a man who got results by knowledgeable persuasion, not by command. He brought all of his unequalled experience and close observation to every decision, an attribute that could be frustrating to his colleagues but yielded great results in the long run.
Perhaps Ferry’s deepest disappointment was his father’s decision on the distribution of the Porsche patrimony at his death in 1951. The semi-feudal central-European custom was that the eldest son received the main inheritance, the house and the business, while token gifts were made to others. Ferry Porsche had every reason to expect that he would be similarly blessed. Instead, to his astonishment and dismay, Ferdinand Porsche divided ownership of his holdings equally between Ferry and his sister Louise without, said grandson Ferdinand Piëch, ‘giving the slightest inkling as to whom he’d prefer to entrust the leading role in the clan.
‘Apart from the fact that the daughter was five years older,’ Piëch continued, ‘she always seemed rather more mature, grown-up, stronger than her brother. At least in my view she never lost a certain advantage and there is much evidence that my grandfather saw it the same way.’ ‘My father absolutely wanted to bring my sister into the company’s management,’ Ferry acknowledged. ‘It would have been more correct if my father had gone the way of the Rothschilds and said: “One bears the responsibility, one does it.”’
Brother and sister found a Solomonic solution. They took joint ownership in their respective enterprises, which however remained separate in their management. Ferry ran the car and engineering company in Stuttgart while in Salzburg Louise headed the Austrian import company for VW and Porsche. ‘Each sibling was ready to help the other,’ said eldest grandson Ernst Piëch, ‘but they remained separate.’
Little changed over the years in the high-tension relationship between brother and sister. Yet when Ferry was released from French detention in 1946 it was to his sister that he turned for long walks in the countryside to share his pent-up emotions, rather than his wife. ‘One could sense that the relationship between the siblings Louise and Ferry was exceptional,’ said Ferdinand Piëch. ‘They loved and hated each other in the intense, violent manner that’s customary between brother and sister. And naturally it fitted that picture that in high old age, in spite of all that separated them, they were again and again together.’
Forthright to a fault, Prof. Ferdinand Porsche had been constitutionally incapable of appreciating the subtle attributes that Ferry brought to business management. Ferry was conservative, to be sure. That very conservatism contributed to the remarkably subtle and at times glacial evolution of Porsche’s cars from the 356 through the 911 to 1972, when Ferry and his relations stepped back from the company’s management. Without mentioning the controversial—to him—924 and 928, Ferry said later that he wished he had stayed longer at the company’s controls.
On 15 October 1973, when Ferry’s departure from direct management was still fresh, I sat with him in his office in a villa on Stuttgart’s Robert Bosch Strasse to discuss the company and its evolution. This was the first time that I or anyone else had heard of the 1.5-litre sports car that was designed before the war with the aim of creating the first Porsche-branded production model. They prepared it, he said, ‘so we would have something to do after the war.
‘It had a five-cylinder engine,’ he told me with a smile. ‘It’s a very smooth, well-balanced engine,’ he said, ‘with nice firing intervals.’ Such fives were in the news at the time including a Mercedes-Benz diesel, so Ferry was proud of this much earlier application. Only when I went to the files to check on this hitherto-unknown design did I discover that Ferry had recalled the concept but not the actuality: in fact the Type 114 ‘F-Wagen’ had a V-10 engine. Fully designed in every detail, it could have been their post-war ‘Porsche’ but the design was far too elaborate for the straitened economic conditions that prevailed.
Harking back to the creation of Porsche’s Type 60, the Volkswagen, Ferry said that he was involved ‘from the first pencil mark. But I was one of the youngest workers then—most of the others are no longer alive. Of course the Volkswagen was my father’s achievement through and through, the culmination of his life work, so to speak. I learned a great deal from him in those days. Through my position as liaison between design and the experimental side I had a good deal of insight and influence, even in basic matters.
‘Many of its features were undoubtedly new and ingenious for those days,’ Ferry added, ‘but my father had already built a forerunner, the air-cooled, rear-engined car for NSU. The test results we obtained from it had great influence on the later VW design. For instance we already understood the ways of a boxer engine and the difficulties it could present in mixture distribution. Items like cooling or the oil cooler were pre-tested. This all happened in 1932 when NSU’s motorcycle business was not too good and they wanted to build an automobile.’
During the war, said Ferry Porsche, ‘it was vital that the Volkswagen be constantly reviewed, improved and kept up to date to meet changing conditions. So, since we weren’t allowed to design a synchromesh transmission or a hydraulic brake system for private use, we designed them for “military use” instead—as “improvements” to the Kübelwagen and the people’s car.’ In fact they used this ruse to try out a number of novelties for the VW including supercharging, turbocharging and a variety of automatic transmissions.
In April of 1944, when the first bombs fell on the KdF-Wagen plant at Fallersleben, Ferdinand Porsche became highly agitated. The company’s archives, he complained to his son after returning from Berlin, were stored in the attic of Werk I, where they were vulnerable to air attack. He insisted that they should be moved at once to the cellar, where they would be better protected.
The precaution had already been taken of triplicating the original drawings. One of the additional sets was stored in the Porsche villa and the other was at the Stuttgart residence of Ghislaine Kaes, Porsche’s nephew and personal secretary. All were packed in special locked containers of sheet steel.
Dutifully, on 13 Ferry shifted the Zuffenhausen archives to the building’s cellar. ‘Eight days after we moved it,’ Ferry recalled, ‘during an attack a bomb came in diagonally from the west. It missed everything else but demolished the archive in the cellar.’ It was becoming evident that at least some of the Porsche team would have to move.
The idea of a move from Stuttgart had been discussed as long ago as May of 1943. By the spring of 1944 it was becoming essential to the engineers’ survival. Ferry Porsche took on the task of reconnoitring possible sites. Applying first to the authorities in Stuttgart, he was offered a property in Czechoslovakia. ‘When I heard that,’ said Ferry, ‘I did my best to prevent it.’ Though the senior Porsche was born in what was now Czech territory and both men had been Czech citizens after World War 1, the idea was deeply unattractive. They didn’t relish being abandoned there after the war among a populace who were less than thrilled about engineers who had helped the German war effort.
In wartime the home base of the Porsche team remained at Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen—even though many other firms with important wartime missions had already been dispersed, either underground or to strategically less important regions. In fact Porsche had dispersed its machine tools, Ferry said: ‘One third remained in Stuttgart, one third went to the flying school at Zell am See that we were allocated and a third went to Gmünd in Austria where we settled our engineers. My plan was that as long as we had one-third we could start again.’
Ferry described to me the way he moved a small engineering detachment from Gmünd back to Stuttgart late in 1949. They set up shop in the Porsche villa on the Feuerbacherweg that his father had built when he became Daimler-Benz engineering chief in 1923. They used the roomy garage as a workshop—as it had been when the first VW prototypes were built—and the room usually occupied by the family cook as their ‘three-metre office’.
Although Porsche had built a small series of sports cars in Austria, it was not taken for granted that they would make cars in Germany, Ferry explained: ‘In 1951 there were many discussions in the family about whether we should continue what we started in Gmünd with the 356. I was always for it. After I pressed ahead there were no more arguments. In fact, though, there were arguments about which part pays for what. If we pay for 50 per cent of engineering work on cars with cars, for example, who is to say how the other 50 per cent was earned with consulting? You can divide up the amounts any way you want!’
When Porsche started producing cars in Germany it rented the necessary space from coachbuilder Reutter because the US Army still needed their nearby Werk I as a motor pool. ‘That was our greatest good fortune,’ Ferry told me with a knowing smile. ‘Other firms had buildings, tools and so forth but they didn’t know what to do, which cars to make. They had overheads but no cash flow. We started with cash flow but with no overheads!’
With his father still detained by the French, it was up to Ferry to seek a new engineering relationship with Volkswagen, where Heinz Nordhoff was in charge. ‘I had known Nordhoff from meetings during wartime tests,’ Ferry related. ‘He was responsible for Opel Blitz trucks built in Brandenburg. We got together, drew a line under the past and agreed on a new license for the VW, a consulting contract, the import agency for Austria, favoured status on delivery of VW parts for building our own sports cars and joint use of the worldwide VW sales organisation. That was the basis for our fresh start.’
Earnings and royalties from that source soon built up a war chest. ‘Since then the contract has been changed and lengthened at least four times,’ Ferry said. ‘But as I like to say, we have been married since 1934!’
A marriage of a different nature was proposed in 1954, Porsche told me: ‘I was asked if I would go to Wolfsburg and take over VW’s development there. I would have to give up the car business. I felt that they thought it would be easier and cheaper to tie me up that way than to take over the whole Porsche organisation.’ Needless to say this did not happen. In fact Ferry devoted all his future efforts to warding off a closer and potentially stifling relationship with Volkswagen.
‘When we started in Stuttgart with the 356,’ Ferry recalled, ‘we planned to make only 500 cars. All our plans and tools were made for that purpose. But the numbers kept growing so we built Werk II. It was ready in 1956. Then that same year, exactly on the 25th anniversary of our company, the Americans gave back our Werk I. If we’d known that would happen we might never have needed Werk II!’ Of course both workshops were soon needed to meet demand.
This was typical Ferry, bemused by such coincidences and second-guessing past decisions. But he was fated to revisit the past because his philosophy was that ‘The decision is always a momentary thing according to the prevailing conditions. One must always remember that he makes decisions under the conditions that exist at the time. No man can see into the future.’
Speaking of decisions, Ferry Porsche explained to me the background of the relationship with coachbuilder Reutter. ‘When we returned to Stuttgart Reutter was making trolley car repairs there and general repairing in its other plants. Afterward they were 80 per cent occupied with work for Porsche. Father Reutter was killed by bombing here in Stuttgart and his son was killed in the war. There were eight heirs but none of them had any knowledge of the business so they hired a manager. When they had to invest more, as our production increased, the heirs didn’t want to, so the manager advised them to sell the body plant.
‘In a very difficult decision,’ Ferry continued. ‘we at Porsche bought the factory in 1963. It was very hard to get the necessary capital together when we had to give two-thirds of our profits to the Government. We had to make an investment which brought in nothing new. We laid millions on the table and nothing changed.’ The only advantage was that the previous four per cent transfer tax on sales by Reutter to Porsche no longer applied.
While its sports-car production boomed, Porsche’s contract with Volkswagen gave little satisfaction apart from project fees and royalties. ‘After the war,’ said Ferry, ‘our first work for VW was to design a new car, keeping the existing engine. It had a completely integral structure and MacPherson-strut front suspension. But then the Beetle was selling so well they decided not to build it.
‘We designed six or seven new cars for Volkswagen that were never produced. That’s why I always thought that we should keep building cars,’ Ferry told me. ‘At least in one area we can show that we are always up to date, even if the others for whom we work don’t produce what we have designed. If we weren’t building cars, nobody would speak about us anymore.
‘For the larger Type 3 they asked for styles from Porsche, Ghia and their own studio,’ Ferry added. ‘The board viewed all three and chose the Porsche design. But not to make anyone unhappy and to avoid anyone crediting Porsche with the design they mixed them all together! Ours had a lower belt line, lower lights—it was a lot prettier!
‘Because the business went so well,’ Ferry said, ‘we could afford to go racing. But at first we went at it in the cheapest way!’ This was a reference to the Gmünd-built coupes with their aluminium bodies and narrower low-drag greenhouses that they used for their first Le Mans effort in 1951.
‘We found that with racing development we could improve the normal car,’ Ferry added. ‘For example the first 1½-litre engines had Hirth roller-bearing crankshafts, mainly because that gave cleaner connecting-rod big ends that cleared the camshaft. One day Rabe came to me and said, “I have a connecting rod with a diagonal cut that will clear the camshaft.” That allowed a change to plain bearings for the 1½-litre four.’
When I spoke with Ferry the issue of the Wankel rotary engine was still on the minds of all motor companies. Did this represent an investment that they had to make? In fact on 2 March 1965 Porsche had taken a license to work with the Wankel on ‘internal combustion engine from 50 to 1,000 hp for passenger cars (racing and rally vehicles)’.
‘I calculated that 65,000 engines were produced daily in the world for all purposes,’ Porsche said. ‘This represented an investment of many billions to make them. What advantages must an engine have to replace those already being made?’ The unspoken answer was that the newcomer’s advantages would have to be far greater than the Wankel was able to provide. In fact Porsche did not progress the Wankel while its own Leopold Schmid developed a rotary engine that showed considerable potential.
Having successfully achieved the goal of combining car production with consulting engineering, Ferry Porsche could reflect on his company’s success: ‘The happiest thing for me is to see, when I go to America, what a good image we have on that great continent. That’s a validation of what we have done. It shows that what we have done is right.
‘Others are making sports cars,’ Porsche added, ‘but no one makes a car like we do, made specially for the purpose, down to every last screw and bolt. Others in Italy do it but their cars cost twice as much as ours.’ As a summary of what makes Porsche Porsche, that was sustained well into the 21st century.