Richard Johnson is print editor of Automotive News.
Even the well-versed in automotive history sometimes fail to grasp that Porsche, the sports car manufacturer, was not the handiwork of VW Beetle creator Ferdinand Porsche but rather his son, Ferry.
The son, who died in 1998, was quiet and unassuming (at least on the one occasion I met him) and brilliant and unwavering. He is perhaps the least appreciated of the industry’s all-time stalwarts.
Seventy years ago Friday, June 8, Ferry’s car, the first Porsche 356, was registered for the road in Europe.
The rest was hysteria.
In my humble opinion, Porsche remains one of only five successful auto brands to be built from scratch by an individual since World War II, together with Honda, Ferrari, Lamborghini and, yes, Tesla.
What’s remarkable is how swiftly the Porsche name became embedded in the American psyche. By the mid-1950s, Porsche was astonishingly hip among the fast-car cognoscenti. It was regularly written up, for example, in the pages of that fab journal Mechanix Illustrated, where road test editor and Yale grad Tom McCahill piled on the praise.
The first Porsches arrived in this country in early 1951, and for the July 1952 issue of MI, McCahill tested and wrote about the 356. But even he didn’t appear to understand that Ferry — not Ferdinand — was the great man behind this great car. McCahill gave credit to old “Doc Porsche.”
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Ferdinand did in fact engineer the 356’s underpinnings, the Beetle. And he set up the prewar company that built the Beetle and its German military offshoot, the Kuebelwagen. But after the war, he spent 20 months in an Allied prison for war crimes. Ferry, meanwhile, struggled to keep the company afloat. Though no Porsche-branded cars had ever been built, he decided to develop one because — legendarily — he could not find a car on the market he wanted to buy. The first 356 was hand-built in a sawmill in Gmuend, Austria, and was certified on June 8, 1948.
The original American owners of the 356 called it a “superdeluxe Volkswagen” and raved about its handling. It debuted with the same 67-cubic-inch engine as the humble Beetle, which was already on sale in America. But Ferry’s Porsche engine was more refined, using an aluminum alloy instead of the heavier VW block. The same material was used throughout the 356 to make the car lighter, even as the engine kept getting bigger.
Even “Mechanix Illustrated” gave credit for the Porsche 356 to Ferry’s dad, Ferdinand Porsche.
McCahill documented it all in his day. One bit of history not lost on him was the importance of Maxie Hoffman, then and for many years to come America’s largest foreign car distributor. McCahill wrote that in October 1951, Hoffman personally demonstrated a few Porsche tricks at the Sports Car Club of America’s Mount Equinox Hill Climb in Vermont.
“Max literally creamed the boys with a stock Porsche despite the worst conditions under which such an event was ever run,” McCahill wrote. “Through snow and ice, he beat his closest Class 4 rival by more than 18 seconds in the 2.7-mile event. Actually he made far better time than many of the bigger cars in the unrestricted class, including XK 120s and Aston-Martins.”
The brand was being built in record time, too, in part by impressing the likes of Tom McCahill.
Happy anniversary, Porsche. And thank you, Ferry Porsche.