By Janette Vince
When people think luxury, they think of the Porsche. With its cars' high price tags, powerful engines, and smooth, sleek lines, there's no question that Porsche is one of the most prestigious automakers in the world.
The genius behind the company was a man named Ferdinand Porsche. Born in what is now the Czech Republic in 1875, he demonstrated astonishing mechanical aptitude at a young age. He was the third of five children. His father, a plumber, expected Ferdinand to take over the family business-but Ferdinand had other dreams. At eighteen, after completing an apprenticeship with his father, he took a job in Vienna with the firm Bela Egger & Co.
At the company, Ferdinand demonstrated impressive skill for his age. He built an electric wheel-hub motor, and was soon attracted across the street to rival Jakob Lohner & Co. This company was actively developing electric cars, and Ferdinand felt his skills could be better used there. And they were-three years after joining the company, Porsche had built an entire electric car.
This historic car, the Lohner-Porsche, was innovative in several ways. The two wheel-hub motors on the front wheels had an output of 2.5 horsepower, generated an astonishing 120-rpm, and were completely silent. The battery could travel 50 kilometers between recharges. The car could travel up to 50 kilometers per hour.
But this was only the beginning. Porsche began experimenting with internal-combustion motors, and his next car, the System Mixt, had internal-combustion wheel hub motors. Porsche went on to win several speed records and widespread acclaim-his name was now well-known not just in engineering circles, but also to the general public. In 1905, he won the coveted Poetting Prize as Austria's most outstanding engineer.
In 1906, Austro-Daimler offered to make Porsche its chief designer. Porsche accepted the job, and in 1910 he designed an 85-horsepower car for the Prince Henry Trial, an international competition named in honor of Prince Henry of Prussia. Porsche's designs won the top three places at the trial.
With the start of World War I, Austro-Daimler began to focus on producing war materials such as trucks, airplane engines, and mechanized weapons. Porsche saw his star rise further in these years; in 1916, he became Austro-Daimler's managing director. He was also awarded an honorary doctorate from Vienna Technical University. This honor was very meaningful to him. Ever afterwards, he was known as Professor or Doctor Porsche, and incorporated the honor into his company's name.
Dr. Porsche had competed in rallies and speed competitions since he became interested in building cars. He believed that by building racecars, he could improve the performance of all his vehicles. As a result, he developed an interest in building small, light, high-performance cars.
Unfortunately, he and Austro-Daimler did not see eye to eye. The company's board did not agree with the direction Porsche wanted to take, and eventually Porsche left. He went on to a position at Steyr, but the Great Depression made car-making an unprofitable business. The company collapsed, and Dr. Porsche was unemployed.
So he moved to Stuttgart, a town with a strong connection to the automotive industry and the location of several prominent car companies, and started a consulting business. His team consisted of people he had worked with before, and a few family members-including his son, Ferry.
The company's aim was to help other companies design better cars-not to design them itself. So in the beginning, none of the cars the company designed had the Porsche name. That changed when the government, now under Nazi control, came to Porsche with a project: design a car "for the people"-a Volkswagen.
Porsche as a company has always been closely tied to Volkswagen; many of the components of the early Porsche cars came from the Volkswagen Beetle. Porsche's Volkswagens were popular, affordable cars that survived after the collapse of the Third Reich. Porsche and his son, and later his grandson, went on to design such ground-breaking cars as the 911, the Boxster, the Spyder, the Roadster, the Carrera, and many others.
Porsche survived the Great Depression, the Third Reich, and dramatic corporate restructuring to keep its place at the forefront of the automotive industry. No matter the country, everyone knows that Porsche cars stand for luxury, power, and performance.
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