BY Laurie Attias in Reviews | 09 SEP 98
Featured in
Issue 42

Ferdinand Porsche

BY Laurie Attias in Reviews | 09 SEP 98

For many, the name Porsche is synonymous with the ultimate dream machine à la Marinetti: 'a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot, more beautiful than the Nike of Samothrace'. But, paradoxically, the legendary manufacturer of those gleaming racers was also the creator of the pudgy-looking Volkswagen Beetle.

The Porsche story is that of a three-generation dynasty of brilliant, passionate engineers and their innovative contribution to automotive design. It began with Ferdinand Porsche, a Czech-born designer who launched his career at 25 with the 1900 Lohner Porsche Electric Phaeton. With its oversize wheels and canvas canopy, this bulky-looking vehicle resembles an old-fashioned stage-coach, yet its motor - battery-powered and hub-mounted - comprised the ultimate in turn-of-the-century technology; nearly a century later the same patented design was used to power NASA's moon buggies. Porsche later worked for Austro-Daimler, Mercedes-Benz and Steyr, where he was responsible for everything from military vehicles to legendary racers, such as the sleek, lightweight Sascha, and the rounded Auto-Union A-Type, which, with its rear fuselage skinned in a drum-tight tank, looks like a weird fish.

In 1930, Porsche set up shop in Stuttgart with his son, Ferry, and the Porsche myth was set in motion. Ferry was responsible for the 356 two-seater, a sporty, streamlined Le Mans winner, sitting low on the ground with its wings flowing smoothly into the soft, Rubenesque body, and an air-cooled engine in the rear. His chubby-looking Spyder racer acquired teen-cult status when James Dean died in one in a crash on California's Highway 466. In 1963, Ferry's oldest son, Butzi, designed the 911, which, with its narrow front face, a subtly rounded bulge at the wheel, and mixed steel-synthetic construction, introduced the iconoclastic Porsche shape; Butzi's cousin, Ferdinand Piëch, developed the 911 engine, as well as the engines for a slew of powerful racing cars, including the 917, 935 and 936.

Porsche simultaneously embraced antithetical ways of thinking about design. This is most evident in the Volkswagen Beetle, which, with more than 20 million cars sold, remains unarguably one of this century's greatest consumer success stories. Merging high design with the consumer durable, this marriage of opposites is also a political one: while the Beetle emerged from Weimar's idealistic, socially-oriented conception of design, it was also a commissioned product of Third Reich Germany. Working with Volkswagen in the 30s, when Volkswagen was being funded by Hitler, Porsche strove to develop the 'people's car': an inexpensive family model that would boost the economy. Small and affordable, the Beetle had its engine in the rear and an aerodynamic shape that minimised wind resistance and fuel consumption. The resulting shape is surprisingly modern: plump, familiar curves create an organic, ovoid form that has changed little over the past 50 years, and is as much a 20th-century design classic as the Coca Cola bottle.

These disparate designs fell into place near the end of the Design Museum show, along with the stylish Boxster, a more recent model, elegant as a Brancusi bird. Sliced in half for museum display, the car might act as a metaphor for the Porsche design legacy: high-tech German cars that reflect the purity, sober functionality and formal asceticism that followed on from Gropius. Beneath an elegant facade, the Boxster renders visible the company's focus on calculated engineering and ergonomics.

While the majority of sports car manufacturers keep busy making cars sexy, Porsche has maintained a rational approach: with its sleek, matte, metallic-grey finish, great engineering and low-slung, aerodynamic form, the Boxster is rooted in exactness, maturity and discipline, in the seamless style of Bauhaus simplicity. It's the thinking man's sports car.