“Monsieur Ferdinand Porsche, au nom de la Republique Française je vous declare en arrêt pour collaboration avec le Troisième Reich.”
It is November 1945. The 70-year-old “engineer”, as he is known (even though his talent for design was never crowned by a university degree), is gripped by a sudden feeling of dread. His heart pounds, and he feels hot all over. He has never been a member of the Nazi party and the work he has done for Germany is no more than anyone else would do in a country they live in and consider their home…
Son of a bohemian father, Ferdinando Porsche was actually an Austrian, but he had almost always worked in Germany, even though, towards the end of the war, he had moved his studio to Austria to escape the constant bombing of Stuttgart.
Can what he did be called collaboration? It is hard to say. Probably, it was more a case of obedience, and respect for an adopted country. As the brilliant designer of Auto Union Gran Prix racing cars with their rear-mounted V16 engines, there can be no doubt that had a great reputation. Similarly, it is highly likely that, in 1934, the Fuhrer, planning Germany’s mass motorization, chose him not so much for his political and ideological loyalty, as for his genius. At that time, well before the outbreak of WWII, Germany was still trying to recover from the hefty penalties inflicted on it at the end of the first of the two cruel world wars. Porsche, having been asked to come up with a people’s car, conceived and designed a simple and robust sedan powered by an air-cooled engine. It unveiled in 1938.
But then the situation precipitated, and Germany needed arms. Ferdinand adapted his volks wagen, or people’s car, to war purposes, creating a military vehicle, the Kübelwagen, and even an amphibious one, the Schwimmwagen.
“Souivez nous..!”. Loaded on a truck, he was taken to the Gendarmerie and then sent to the Parisian prison where he was to remain for almost two years.
Good conduct is sometimes a character trait. It is certainly no coincidence that the famous prisoner, by this time somewhat tried by his experiences, began working on a car model to be produced by the state-controlled French carmaker Renault. While still in prison, he created the 4 CV. Viewed alongside the Beetle, it is clear that these two vehicles share the same DNA. The Renault has an inline four-cylinder water-cooled engine, but otherwise it is possible to spot many similarities between the two cars. It should therefore come as no surprise to learn that these little French spiders, perfect four-seater family cars, dominated their class in the world’s most famous road race: the Mille Miglia.
However, this work, which was certainly paid, given that the Porsche family, including Ferdinand’s son, Ferry, wanted to start up their own sports car factory, would probably not have been enough, on its own, to secure the great Ferdinand’s release.
“Dusio, we are willing to design a Formula 1 car for Cisitalia; we are excited by the prospect and can be sure to give you the most advanced single-seater in the field” Ferry told the bold Italian entrepreneur who, encouraged by the success of Cisitalia’s small cars, was keen to reach the dizzy heights of the Gran Prix world, “but you have got to get my father out. The bail is high, but it’s the price of the very best in Formula 1…”.
There can be no knowing whether Dusio, faced with this request, hesitated at all. What we do know is that he acceded to it: Ferdinand was released in May 1947. Although the incarceration and humiliations he had suffered had left their mark, he threw himself into the Porsche project. A year later, in Stuttgart, the first car named after him was unveiled. We are talking about the Porsche 356, which, of course, is the mother of all Porsches.
Unfortunately, Ferdinand Porsche barely had time to relish the success of the brand that bears his name. His health, weakened by captivity and suffering, became increasingly precarious. He died of a heart attack in 1951, at the age of 75 years.