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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: April 10, 2012 @ 9:16 pm

    Ferdinand Alexander Porsche. 1935 to 2012.

    Neil Briscoe


    When asked to pick a single favourite car, there are more than a few of us who’ll instantly answer ‘Porsche 911.’ Yet the rear engined sportscar, so long an icon of the company that makes it and a yardstick for all other makers of sporting machinery, wasn’t the favourite car of its creator.

    Ferdinand Alexander Porsche, who has just passed away at the age of 76, was born in Stuttgart in December 1935 and pretty much instantly nicknamed ‘Butzi.’ It was a nickname he disliked, and it translates roughly as Little Buddy, but it was quite a necessary one; both his father and grandfather, the creators of the Porsche empire, were also named Ferdinand as of course is his cousin, Volkswagen boss Ferdinand Piech.

    Having studied at the Ulm College of Design and apprenticed at Robert Bosch GMBh in Stuttgart, Ferdinand began working with the family firm in 1958, gravitating to the design and prototyping department.

    With the successful first-generation Porsche, the 356, needing a replacement the job fell to Ferdinand to take the same sporting, rear-engined concept and update it. Longer (but narrower), more spacious and with a more powerful flat-six engine, the Type 901 was unveiled to the public at the Frankfurt motor show in September 1963. After a brief bit of legal wrangling with Peugeot over the use of an 0 in the name, the 911 was born and Porsche has never replaced it.

    The fact that the 911 and its shape has remained so iconic is doubtless down to Ferdinand’s maxim that “Design must be functional and functionality must be translated into visual esthetics, without any reliance on gimmicks that have to be explained. A product that is coherent in form requires no embellishment. It is enhanced by the purity of its form.” Put simply, there is no car design that has weathered the test of time as superbly as the 911. Fifty years on, it is as perfect as ever.

    Ferdinand would leave Porsche as a car maker a decade later, under something of a cloud as he and Ferdinand Piech fought over the direction of the company. So hard-fought was their feud that the rest of the family banned them both from the firm and restructured it into a public company. How ironic, then, that Piech’s mighty Volkswagen empire is now in the process of swallowing Porsche whole.

    Leaving the car industry behind, Ferdinand established F.A. Porsche Design, which began by designing expensive watches and has since gone on to create or licence the design of everything from fridges and kitchenware to cameras, pens and sunglasses. While not all of the products can boast the design purity that Ferdinand aspired to, the aesthetic is that same crisp, clear simplicity of the early 911.

    He would return to the Porsche AG car company as chairman from 1990 to 1993, and it was his tackling of the firm’s financial crisis, and his appointment of Wendelin Wiedeking as CEO, that started Porsche on its recent journey to automotive economic colossus.

    But why was the evergreen 911 not the favourite of its creator? Apparently, Ferdinand felt that too many others had a hand in meddling and fiddling with his early designs and concepts for the 911, and while he is credited as the car’s father, he felt it not enough of his own work. His personal favourite was the achingly pretty 904 race car, a car that went so swiftly from sketch to construction that no-one else was able to alter it.

    No-one other than Renault Alpine has ever tried to market a rear-engined 2+2 coupe, so the 911, and Ferdinand Alexander’s influence is not directly felt but rather permeated throughout the car industry. The simple, crisp desirability of the styling and engineering package is what all car makers aspire to and the fact that the 911’s performance and dynamics remain the yardstick by which others are judged prove that Ferdinand Alexander Porsche’s second favourite car is still number one with so many.

    Ferdinand Alexander Porsche. 1935 – 2012. RIP.

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