Today we tend to think of Porsche as a company that makes expensive sports cars. But Ferdinand Porsche, the Austrian-Czech engineer who founded the eponymous company, started off with a much different ambition. In the U.S., the Ford Model T was the first car that everyone could afford, and Porsche wanted to create a similarly affordable and attainable automobile in Germany. Along the way, he got some help from a surprising source – Adolf Hitler – who believed that creating a “people’s car,” or Volkswagen, was the secret to reviving Germany’s depressed economy and cementing his status as the country’s supreme leader.
At the age of 55, Porsche had grown weary of working for auto manufacturers like Daimler-Benz, so he opened his own design business in Stuttgart in 1930. He had already been working on his idea of a simple, inexpensive car for a few years.
This car, the Type 32, was actually designed for NSU, a motorcycle manufacturer considering an entry into the automotive market. (Porsche as we know it today didn’t exist until after World War II). The Type 32 had a rear-mounted, air-cooled 4-cylinder engine and an aerodynamic shape that looked … well, it looked an awful lot like a “Beetle.” The Type 32 was a prototype and was never mass produced, but it did help Ferdinand Porsche win a contract from Hitler to design the Volkswagen. When World War II started, production was put on hold. Mass production of the car began in earnest after the war and was based in a new city founded exclusively for the Volkswagen factory. Volkswagen is still headquartered here today, in Wolfsburg, Germany.
After the war, Porsche would pay dearly for his association with Hitler and the Nazi party. He was arrested as a war criminal months before his 70th birthday and served nearly two years in prison. After he was released, he resumed designing cars in Stuttgart with his son, Ferry. Before his death in 1951, he was able to see the VW Type I Beetle based on his design become a great success.
Photo by Georg Sander