©2002 Robert Bentley, Inc. We encourage visitors to link to this page if you’d like to share this information with others. Please do not copy this excerpt to other web sites. It is protected by copyright and represents significant resource investment by Bentley Publishers.

(5 page excerpt)

Beyond Expectation

Who was Porsche ?

Just as in the case of other engineers who were to become famous, it would seem that Ferdinand Porsche, born on September 3, 1875, at Maffersdorf, inherited some of his creative skill from his father who, as a tinsmith, was highly esteemed in the locality for his craftsmanship. Industrial Maffersdorf, in Northern Bohemia, renowned for carpet weaving, and well within the sprawling Austro-Hungarian monarchy, did have some influence on Porsche’s future activities. No sooner was he out of elementary school, when he became apprenticed in his father’s modest workshop, and his thirst for engineering knowledge made him attend classes twice a week at the technical college of Reichenberg, the adjoining big town. Two comparatively little-known technical developments captured the imagination of young Porsche : one was domestic electricity and the other the internal combustion engine, both in their early stages of development. He had hardly reached his fifteenth birthday when he was shown Maffersdorf’s first electric light plant, installed in Ginzkey’s carpet mill, who also owned one of the very first cars built by Gottlieb Daimler. It was hardly surprising that Maffersdorf’s second electric-light plant, installed in Porsche senior’s workshop, was built entirely by his not quite seventeen-year-old son Ferdinand, who earned his pocket-money by installing self-made electric bells and house-telephones in the homes of his friends during his spare time. With this well-earned pocket-money he tried to build first some sort of three-wheeled vehicle, discarded, however, the idea and then toiled for some time on the construction of an electrically powered vehicle; lack of time due to his studies prevented him, however, from completing it.

It soon became evident that young Porsche wanted to gain more technical experience than he was able to gather in his father’s workshop or at the technical college of Reichenberg. Equipped with a letter of introduction from a friend of his family, to Herr Bela Egger, manager of the electrical engineering company "Vereinigten Elektrizitäts A.G." of Vienna, Porsche joined the firm as a student early in 1894. But within four years, this rather shy and slight young man had advanced sufficiently to be given charge of the test and experimental department and his knowledge of mathematics and mechanics was often sought in consultations when the executives discussed new projects.

The general atmosphere of Vienna, then well in its prime as the capital of a great empire, suited the knowledge-yearning Porsche well. Whatever time he could spare, he attended lectures at the Vienna technical college and frequently sneaked into the University to listen to some of the more advanced aspects of science and engineering. In later years he liked to tell stories of how the porters would often expel him from the lecture rooms at the University, for neither was he officially inscribed there, nor could he have done so, for he lacked the required educational standards. When not working or studying at his lodgings, he would wander into the heart of the city to look at those very few automobiles which could be seen parked outside fashionable shops and restaurants. In those days the invention of the automobile was not quite ten years old and the stage was just about reached when these vehicles, still looking very much like horseless carriages, some with the power unit behind the rear seat, started to change their outward shape. Forward mounted power units became fashionable, radiators mainly ahead of the engine, steering columns no longer vertical but slightly raked, and the steering wheel started to take the place of the then popular tiller or crank-handled steering lever. Most of the automobiles to be seen in those days in Vienna were of French manufacture, the most popular being Panhard-Levassor, Renault or Mors, and amongst the German makes, Daimler, Lützmann and Benz were the most prominent ones. It was obvious to young Porsche, whose sole interest in life by then had become automobiles, that one of the major problems the designers experienced was the question of transmitting the engine power to the driving wheels with the least mechanical losses. Of course, there were other vital problems concerning the still somewhat temperamental power units, generally single or twin-cylinder engines. The clutch and gearbox were difficult and gear changing in itself was an art to be learned. Brakes and steering also provided a lot of thought for a young fellow like Porsche, who compared one design with the other, discussing its merits or shortcomings with friends who could afford little other pleasures than good company and an occasional glass of beer or wine.

But in the back of Porsche’s mind, the major problem in automobile design was the transfer of power from the engine to the driving wheels. Being associated, however, in his every-day work with electrical engineering, he frequently thought about the possibilities of an electrically powered automobile and made youthful attempts in building such a vehicle whenever his father would let him use his workshop in the evenings or at week-ends. After all, in the opinion of Porsche, there was no reason why an electric automobile should not be as successful as one mechanically driven, provided that one could discard the rather heavy and troublesome batteries then employed as a source of power, and use instead an internal-combustion engine, driving a generator, which would supply the electric power required to drive the road wheels.

Porsche often remarked that his first view of the very first Gräf & Stift car, which, completed in 1897, was equipped with front-wheel drive (in principle identical with the type employed ever since on front-wheel drive cars), was one of the most memorable occasions in his life. For here he was able to see a means of transferring engine power to road wheels which in his opinion seemed ideal in particular because a front power unit was by then absolutely essential so as to make best possible use of the cooling air for the radiator. In the following year, 1898, a French battery-powered car, designed and manufactured by Jeantaud, was timed on a road near the town of Peronne to cover a flying start kilometre in 57 seconds, this representing a speed of 39.24 miles per hour, which in those days was a world record. This achievement is now recognized as the first officially observed world speed record. Ludwig Lohner, an enterprising Viennese coachbuilder, who a few years previously established his reputation by being appointed coachbuilder to the Austrian Emperor, was also considering the manufacture of automobiles. Thinking that his wealthy clients would prefer the smoothness of a battery-driven, rather than a noisy and often very smelly petrol engine automobile, he obtained certain patents from Jeantaud and in 1896 started to produce his first battery-driven vehicles. This was certainly an ambitious scheme for Lohner although his firm"s reputation as coachbuilders was well known. He lacked the necessary technical personnel to look after the electrical and mechanical details of the vehicles which he started to build. There were encouraging enquiries for these battery-driven automobiles, business men were interested to exploit possibilities of goods and delivery services, even the General Staff of the Austrian-Hungarian Army showed a very active interest in them. But the very few vehicles based on the Jeantaud patents which Lohner manufactured proved far from successful and early in 1898 he nearly took the decision to discontinue manufacturing. It was almost a coincidence when, asking the electrical company by whom Porsche was employed to modify some badly designed motors developed by his chief engineer, that Ludwig Lohner had to listen to a weedy but rather studious-looking young man explaining the reasons why these motors, designed to power electric automobiles, were not suitable nor was it possible to modify them. A matter of five weeks later the very same young man, the not yet 24-year-old Ferdinand Porsche, became the chief designer of Lohner"s automobile department.

End of excerpt

©2002 Robert Bentley, Inc. We encourage visitors to link to this page if you’d like to share this information with others. Please do not copy this excerpt to other web sites. It is protected by copyright and represents significant resource investment by Bentley Publishers.