The Porsche story begins well before the company’s founding in 1930. Ferdinand Porsche was born on September 3rd, 1875 in what is now the Czech Republic. From a young age, he was very interested in technology and engineering. By the time the world’s first motorcar was invented by Karl Benz in 1886, Ferdinand Porsche was already experimenting with electricity – having designed and built a generator for his father’s workshop by the age of seven. This interest in electrics eventually combined with Porsche’s fascination with the automobile.
In 1898, Ferdinand Porsche was appointed chief automotive designer for the Jacob Lohner Company in Vienna, Austria. Here, Porsche designed and built his first car, the electric-powered Lohner-Porsche “Chaise”. The industry was still very much in its infancy, but Porsche was already proving to be a pioneer in the field. The Chaise was driven by a unique system of electric motors integrated into the front wheel hubs. The Lohner-Porsche cars continually evolved over the following years and met with a fair bit of success, including racing. In 1900, Porsche went a step further and engineered an electrically driven car that used a gasoline Daimler engine to power a generator, effectively creating the world’s first hybrid vehicle.
While technologically innovative, the vehicles still owed much to the “horseless carriage” visually speaking. Automotive styling was yet to be a concern to the industry or even it’s consumers. The emphasis, for many years, would remain on engineering and practicality.
Porsche’s desire to continually innovate would prove to be somewhat troublesome throughout his early career in the automotive industry. Often his ideas lied beyond the scope of practicality, particularly when relatively small companies such as Lohner could not afford or were unwilling to invest in unproven designs.
Porsche left Lohner and went to Austro-Daimler and was appointed as technical director. With this move, Porsche was able to thrive and had greater freedom over his creations. Perhaps one of the first examples in which Porsche’s designs showed an interest in the outward appearance of a vehicle was in the Austro Daimler “Maja” of 1910. This car sported aluminum bodywork in the interest of reducing weight for competition, but furthermore was styled in what was called the “Tulpenform” or tulip shape. Though aerodynamics was a fairly new and unknown concept to automotive engineers at this time, Porsche was able to create a form that allowed for a greater degree of wind resistance. This, along with weight-saving aluminum material, resulted in a car capable of 87 miles-per-hour and therefore, easily out-performed its competitors.
After the end of World War I, Porsche took a greater interest in smaller, more efficient cars. Throughout Europe, other manufacturers were realizing that large, expensive touring cars were difficult to sell in an economy impoverished by war. He had demonstrated how a more streamlined form could improve the performance and, perhaps most importantly, the efficiency of a car with the Maja. This early interest in aerodynamics showed through once again roughly a decade later in a small car called the “Sascha” – another project for Austro-Daimler. The Sascha had only a tiny 1.1 liter displacement engine, yet was capable of nearly 90 miles per hour – very respectable for 1922. Like the Maja, the Sascha also featured a rounded body for wind resistance. Austro-Daimler was primarily interested in the competition capabilities of the car, however. Porsche, on the other hand, was eager to build a “touring” version, which would sell as a more efficient and affordable small car to the public. A-D declined and Porsche resigned his position as he felt his creativity was once more being marginalized.
Porsche found himself in the position to go to Dailmer-Motoren-Gesellschaft as chief engineer subsequent to his departure from Austro-Daimlier. With D-M-G (and subsequently Daimler-Benz after the 1926 merger of Daimler and Benz), he produced some highly respected and innovative designs, primarily in engine development. Porsche was primarily responsible for the engineering of the Mercedes-Benz “S,” “SS,” and “SSK” models of the late 1920s.
Daimler-Benz was persuaded by Porsche to allow him to design a smaller car, as he had been interested in creating for some time. This model was not as diminutive as the Sascha, but did make it to production and was sold to the public as the Mercedes-Benz 200 Stuttgart. Unfortunately, when Porsche requested to design and even smaller, more affordable vehicle, he was denied by the management.
Porsche’s contract ran out shortly thereafter, and for a brief time, he worked for Steyer-Werke AG in Austria. Again, financial considerations were a problem and Steyer went on to merge with Porsche’s former employer Austro-Daimler. Finally, Porsche embarked on his greatest career move. In December 1930, “Dr.-Ing. h. c. Ferdinand Porsche, GmbH” was formed in Stuttgart as an entirely new engineering development company. Porsche convinced many of his former co-workers from Daimler to join him in the venture, including body designer Erwin Komenda. Work began quickly and was largely made up of consulting jobs for other manufacturers. One project that Ferdinand Porsche finally had the ability to develop what was called “Project 12” – the small car that he had been so insistent on for many years.