Ferdinand Porsche was born on the 3rd of September in 1875 in the village of Maffersdorf, now part of the city of Liberec, in the north of the Czech Republic but then within the Austria-Hungary Empire. The third of five children his father, Anton Porsche, was the owner of a plumbing workshop. Ferdinand, was expected to take over the family business, but he had other interests: at the age of 14 he was already performing experiments with electricity. After completing both his plumber apprenticeship and the state trade school in Reichenberg, he began working at the electrical company Bela Egger & Co. in Vienna.
In 1897, he built an electric wheel-hub motor and went to work for Jacob Lohner & Co. in their newly established “Electric Car Department”. In 1900, the Lohner-Porsche - a non-transmission vehicle powered by the Porsche wheel-hub engine - was celebrated as an epoch-making innovation at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Instead of complex drive trains, internal-pole electric motors powered the front wheels directly. The hub-mounted electric motors were powered by batteries with a terminal voltage of 60 - 80 volts and a capacity of 170 - 300 ampere-hours (Ah). At a normal speed of 35 km/h the vehicle had a range of around 50 km. The Lohner-Porsche was an elegant, easy-to-operate vehicle for city use. It was particularly well suited for regular use as part of a vehicle fleet. The Vienna fire brigade acquired 40 vehicles that were based on the Lohner-Porsche drive system. Taxis with a Lohner-Porsche drive system also operated successfully in Berlin.
In 1902 he was drafted into military service. He served as a chauffeur to Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the crown prince of Austria whose assassination sparked WWI a decade later. The following year Porsche married Aloisia Johanna Kaes.
After eight years at Lohner, Ferdinand Porsche took up the position of Technical Manager at Austro-Daimler. In 1910, at the wheel of an Austro-Daimler car that he designed himself, Ferdinand won the Prinz-Heinrich Fahrt was a reliability test held from 1908 to 1911. Only production touring cars with four seats and three passengers were allowed The trophy for the winner was a model car made of 13,5 kg silver. Austro Daimler's three entrants occupied the top three places. Porsche created numerous designs, including high-performance aircraft engines and large tractive machines, as well as fire engines, trolley buses and transport systems with hybrid petrol-electric drive. But disagreements on the overall direction at the firm caused Porsche to leave the company.
Moving to Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft in Stuttgart he oversaw the development of Mercedes' legendary S, SS and SSK (supercharged) cars. In 1924, he drove of of these cars to overall victory at the Targa Florio. Ever restless now known as Dr. Porsche he left the company in 1929 and took up the position of Technical Manager at Steyr-Werke AG in Austria. One and a half years later, Ferdinand Porsche set up his own independent design office. The first person that he hired was his former Chief Designer Karl Rabe. Eventually the firm was staffed with fellow Austrians, long time associates of both Porsche and Rabe as well as Porsche's son Ferry. On 10th August 1931 he took out a patent for the torsion bar suspension which was based upon work done by earlier constructors, including the 1921 Leyland.
Because of the economic situation in 1932, business was hard to come by but to Porsche it was an opportunity to design a racing car to the new formula devised in October of that year by the International Sports Commission. The formula stipulated a maximum weight of 750 kilos without oil, water, tires or driver. There were no limits on engine size or and superchargers were permitted. The formula was to apply to the years 1934 to 1936 but was eventually extended until the end of 1937. These were just the types of rules that Porsche liked, as it would foster the development of high power-to-weight cars. In November of that year his design team produced an outline of specifications regarding this new car that bore a striking resemblance to the future Auto-Union GP car: a V-16 engine, with the cylinders set at an included angle of 45 degrees; maximum rpm at first 4,500 (to be increased to 6,000), maximum speed of 182 mph, bore 68, stroke 75 mm, cubic capacity 4,358 cc, 7:1 compression ratio. Porsche established a new firm independent of the design office under the name of Hochleistungfahrzeugbau GmbH (High Performance Vehicle Construction Co. Ltd.), that would build and race the cars.
In June 1934 Porsche received a contract from Hitler to design a "people's car" (or Volkswagen). The first two prototypes were completed in 1935. These were followed by several further pre-production batches during 1936 to 1939. The car was similar to the contemporary designs of Hans Ledwinka of Tatra. This resulted in a lawsuit against Porsche claiming infringement of Tatra's patents regarding the air-cooling of the rear engine. The suit was interrupted by the German invasion of Czechoslovakia. In any case the fact that Tatra was a Czech company probably did not help matters either. By that time Porsche was already being groomed as the Great German Engineer having taken the Nazi suggestion of changing his own citizenship from Czech to German that same year. Finally in 1961, Volkswagen finally paid 3 million DM to settle the matter.
During World War II, Porsche proposed a heavy tank for the Tiger Program. It featured an advanced drive system but unfortunately was prone to breakdowns and before it could get sorted out a competing company got the contract to produce the Panzer tanks. As a consolation the Porsche Tiger chassis were converted into tank destroyer (Panzerjäger) called the Ferdinand. Mounted with a Krupps turret and 88 mm anti-tank gun, the long-range weapon could take out enemy tanks before they reached their own range of effective fire. Having this fearsome tank named after himself might not have been the most politically correct decision. Porsche has also designed other military vehicles for the Reich. During the Second World War the Porsche design company relocated to Gmünd in Kärnten where, after war's end, Ferry Porsche worked with his team (also at the workshops at Zell am See) on winches and tractors, but also on repairing decommissioned military vehicles.
In June 1945, the United States Army captured Porsche, and sent him to a castle in Hessen where they interrogated him before releasing him only to be re-arrested, this time by the French who sent him first to Paris where they held him in the porter's lodge of a villa belonging to Renault and then to prison in Dijon. Porsche was finally released on August 5, 1947 when an exorbitant bail that had been paid by his son from the proceeds of the all-wheel-drive racing car, the Cisitalia that he sold to Piero Dusio, a notable soccer player and businessman.
When Porsche got back to Gmünd and saw the car his son had designed in his absence, he said: “I would have built it exactly the same, right down to the last screw.” Porsche helped his son Ferry complete project 356, the first car to be marketed solely under his family name. Ferry had designed the roadster based upon the original Volkswagen. The aluminum roadster body of this car was designed by Porsche employee Erwin Komenda.
In the course of the following two years, a small team of 300 craftsmen built forty-four aluminum-bodied coupes and eight convertibles. In 1950, the company returned to Stuttgart, where sports car assembly resumed in the Zuffenhausen factory. In January 1951, Ferdinand Porsche passed away at the age of seventy-five. In 1999, he was named as ‘Car Engineer of the Century’ by the Global Automotive Elections Foundation.