Car enthusiasts can probably tell a Porsche by the sound of its engine; many people can tell a Porsche when they see one, and it is widely known that Ferdinand Porsche designed the forerunner of the famous Volkswagen Beetle, which was produced up until July, 30, 2003, when the last Beetle rolled off the assembly line in Mexico. But how many car fans are aware of the fact that the legendary constructor was born and spent his youth in Bohemia?
Ferdinand Porsche was born 128 years ago to a German-speaking family in Mattersdorf or Vratislavice, a village which is now a suburb of the North Bohemian town of Liberec (at that time known as Reichenberg).
"Ferdinand Porsche was born in Vratislavice in North Bohemia on the 3rd of September, 1875. It was then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. He was then an Austro-Hungarian national. After independent Czechoslovakia was created in 1918, Ferdinand Porsche accepted Czechoslovak citizenship which he maintained even during his years in Vienna. Only towards the end of the 1930s did he receive Austrian citizenship."
Milan Bumba is the chairman of a Porsche fan-club, based in Ferdinand Porsche's native town, and bearing the same name as his famous company "Dr. Ing. h.c. Ferdinand Porsche".
Ferdinand Porsche's interest in all things technical can be traced back to his childhood. He obtained his first technical education in the town of Liberec at a secondary industrial school. From an early age he showed excellent technical and mechanical skills and was fascinated by electricity. When he was only fifteen years old he constructed a power distribution system in his parents' house.
At the age of eighteen, Ferdinand Porsche was recommended for a job in Vienna. There he sneaked into night classes at the Technical University, to obtain some engineering education. His first success came when he designed an electric carriage for the Austrian coachbuilder Jacob Lohner. In 1900, the Lohner-Porsche Electric Car made its debut at the Paris Exposition. Its wheel hub motors devised by Ferdinand Porsche, only 25-years old at that time, made the name Porsche famous worldwide.
In the meantime, Ferdinand Porsche's two children were born, first his daughter Louisa, and five years later, in 1909, his son Ferdinand, later known as Ferry.
Austro-Daimler (a licensee of the Stuttgart-based Daimler firm) hired Porsche in 1906 to be its chief designer, and in 1916, in the middle of the First World War, Porsche became the company's managing director. A year later, Ferdinand Porsche received an honorary doctorate from the Vienna Technical University, the same institution where two decades earlier he had sneaked into night classes. However, the brilliant constructor disagreed with the Austro-Daimler's board on the future direction of its car production and he left for Stuttgart in 1923 to work for Daimler Motoren Gesellshaft as technical director.
His early work at Daimler earned him a second honorary degree, this time from the Stuttgart Technical University. His full title "Dr. Ing. h.c." later became part of of the Porsche company name (and also the name of the Liberec-based club).
In 1928, as Daimler technical director, Ferdinand Porsche developed the now legendary Mercedes SS and SSK supercharged sports car - the most powerful sports car of the time. After Daimler merged with Benz in 1926, Porsche could not cope with the new company culture. Disappointed at the conservative nature of his employer, Porsche quit. In 1930 he decided to go independent and in 1931, Ferdinand Porsche launched his consulting office in Stuttgart, laying the foundations for Dr.Ing.h.c.F. Porsche. His talented and hardworking son Ferry was among the employees.
The 1930s, the years of the Great Depression, brought ups and downs for the Porsche family: times of near bankruptcy mixed with significant engineering successes. Also, the Second World War was looming and with it the destruction of the European economy. In the early part of the decade Porsche was preparing projects for an affordable people's car which would evolve into the world's most successful mass-produced model, the Volkswagen.
The project lay fallow until Germany's newly elected chancellor, Adolf Hitler, decided the country should produce a small car which every German could afford. In June 1934, the Third Reich signed a contract to build prototype Volkswagens. By the winter of 1936, three prototypes, the VW3, had been built in the backyard garages of the Porsches' villa.
But the Second World War got in the way. A jeep-like car was created on the basis of the type 60 instead. In 1944, allied bombing destroyed over half of the newly built plant. It was not until 1946 that the Volkswagen went into series production.
While Ferdinand Porsche co-directed the plant together with a Nazi administrator, his son stayed in Stuttgart and ran the design business. Although Ferdinand Porsche is believed to have been politically naïve, consumed with engineering, he was arrested after the war and charged with collaboration. He was freed in 1947 after almost twenty months in prison. His health was poor.
In the meantime, the Porsche firm did whatever it could to stay in business. It designed its own sports car, the first car to carry the name Porsche. Type 356 was the project number. One year after Ferdinand Porsche was released from prison, he witnessed the birth of the Porsche sports car. The very first Porsche, a hand-built aluminium prototype, was completed on June 8, 1948.
Ferdinand Porsche died on January 30, 1951, from the effects of a stroke he had suffered earlier. He died after seeing his dream of a Porsche sports car become a reality.
The house where Ferdinand Porsche was born is still standing in his native Vratislavice and recently underwent renovation. In 2000 a memorial plaque was placed on it, donated by the Stuttgart car factory. It now houses the Porsche fan-club which rents one room that serves as an exhibition space and displays photographs from the Porsche history.
All admirers of Porsche cars from the Czech Republic and abroad will meet on the last weekend of August, in Ferdinand Porsche's native Vratislavice. Around fifty cars are expected this year but according to the Porsche fan-club chairman, Milan Bumba, there are about ten times as many Porsches in the country.
"Since 1985 I have been trying to bring together owners of Porches from around the Czech Republic. At the beginning there were only a few of us, usually around five or six cars turned up at the gathering. But over the last six to eight years the number of Porsches has grown in the country - people have been importing them from Germany and the United States. In my opinion, there could be between 500 and 600 cars in the Czech Republic now."
All Czech expatriates who own a Porsche are welcomed to take part in the event and show off their car, together with Porsche fans from the Czech Republic. Just a few days ahead of the brilliant designer's birth anniversary, Porsche enthusiasts will remember the great native of Vratislavice and his Czechs colleagues and successors who helped to promote his cars, among them the Czech-born legendary racing driver and Porsche dealer Vasek Polak
You can find more information on the activities of the Czech Dr.Ing.h.c.Ferdinand Porsche club at www.automuzeum.cz.
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