Ninety years of Porsche engineering
Porsche has always been synonymous with engineering excellence – but the story began with private clients nearly 20 years before its first car
By the time ‘Dr. Ing. h.c. F. Porsche Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung, Konstruktion und Beratung für Motoren- und Fahrzeugbau’ was formally founded on 25 April 1931, Professor Ferdinand Porsche could already look back on a successful career as a chief designer for renowned automobile manufacturers. His decision to go it alone at the height of a global economic crisis was regarded as risky by some, but it soon became clear that the small Stuttgart design office could hold its own against the international competition.
Porsche received its first official order from German automotive manufacturer Wanderer in the spring of 1931. Under the internal designation Type 7, the team designed a 1.5-litre, six-cylinder engine and chassis. This evolved into eight-cylinder Type 8 later the same year, and although a complete vehicle this time, it never actually entered production.
In the spring of 1933, Ferdinand Porsche was commissioned by Auto Union to develop a 16-cylinder racing car. After a rapid development process, the first test drives took place in November, and during its first competitive season, in 1934, the Type A set three world records, won several hillclimbs and three international grands prix.
The Auto Union Type C racing car in the pits (1936)
Meanwhile, the design office had also been working at the other end of the automotive spectrum, on an inexpensive small car concept, which soon lead to an official order to design prototypes. In 1936, the government of the German Reich decided to build the ‘Volkswagen’ its very own factory, and Ferdinand Porsche was even commissioned to plan this. At the same time, his busy design office was working on any number of other orders, including the air-cooled two-cylinder Type 110 tractor that would form the basis for a successful series of similar vehicles in the following two decades.
With air raids on Stuttgart increasing during the latter stages of the war, Porsche’s office was relocated to Gmünd in Austria. The end of the hostilities left the firm in a precarious economic situation, however, and in April 1947, Ferdinand Porsche’s son Ferry started a new venture with his sister Louise Piëch and founded Porsche Konstruktionsbüro GmbH. Their first significant order came shortly afterwards from the Italian company Cisitalia, resulting in the Type 360 race car with its state-of-the-art chassis, supercharged flat-twelve and switchable all-wheel drive.
The Porsche Type 360 'Cisitalia'
Later in 1947, Ferry Porsche began formulating his own ideas for a sports car, which was given the internal design number Type 356. By June 1948, the Porsche 356 ‘No. 1’ Roadster was awarded its general operating permit, marking the birth of the brand as we know it today. Full production of the rear-engine Porsche 356/2 Coupe began later that year.
The 356 was an immediate success, but customer developments remained an integral part of Porsche’s business at this time. Even overseas customers such as the Studebaker Corporation reached out to the still tiny Germany firm, entrusting them with developing an advanced monocoque four-door saloon in 1952.
One of the secrets of Porsche’s continued success was extensive testing. From 1953, a small airfield near Malmsheim was used for various dynamic tests, but the increasingly complex development process led to the decision to build a dedicated test track. On 16 October 1961, ground was broken for the construction of the facilities at Weissach, some 25km west of Stuttgart.
Porsche was growing apace by this point, and in addition to the market launch of the 911 and its increasing involvement in motor racing, a large number of customer orders were still keeping the development team busy. So much so that it soon became apparent that additional test benches and workshops would be needed. By the end of the 1960s, plans for the Porsche Development Centre Weissach (EZW) were taking shape. In late 1971, the entire development department, including design, relocated there from Zuffenhausen, and three years later a new hexagonal building was constructed, which, with its many small think tanks and central ‘brain’, would provide the perfect collaborative working environment.
Ferry Porsche (centre), his father Ferdinand Porsche (right) and Erwin Komenda with the 356 'No. 1' Roadster - the first vehicle to bear the Porsche name (1948)
The Development Centre expanded several times over the following years, with an engine test building added in 1983 followed by the world’s most modern wind tunnel and a crash test facility in 1986. Following Porsche’s rapid expansion in the late 1990s, the EZW customer development unit was refocussed once again with the founding of Porsche Engineering Group GmbH in 2001. Since then, all customer projects have been pooled there, such as the water-cooled V2 ‘Revolution Engine’ developed for Harley-Davidson in 2002.
Porsche Engineering took the first step in international growth during this period, when it opened a site in Prague in 2001 specialising in complex technical calculations and simulations. Moreover, since 2012, the company has also been operating the Nardò Technical Centre in southern Italy, with more than 20 test tracks and test facilities over a sprawling 700 hectare sire.
Construction of the Skid Pad in 1962
Another decisive moment for the ongoing development of Porsche Engineering came in 2014. This was the year Porsche returned to the endurance race at Le Mans after a 16 year absence, and Porsche Engineering rapidly developed the complete energy storage system for the record-breaking 919 Hybrid.
That same year, the company founded a subsidiary in Shanghai specialising in chassis, electronic components and systems, test automation, rapid charging and technology scouting. Porsche Engineering then rounded off its expertise in the areas of function and software development with a subsidiary Romania in 2016, followed by an office in the Czech Republic to boost its expertise in software development.
This truly international network now enables Porsche’s engineers to implement complete vehicle developments and present customers and clients with world-beating turnkey results.
An aerial view of the development centre in Weissach from 1975