Arts and Culture

From Porsche dynasty to design legend

Martin Buckley

Ferdinand "Butzi" Porsche, who has died aged 76, was the industrial designer responsible for the shape of the Porsche 911 sports car.

Ferdinand “Butzi” Porsche, who has died aged 76, was the industrial designer responsible for the shape of the Porsche 911 sports car.

Porsche was the last member of the German engineering dynasty who could claim to have put pen to paper on a car design bearing the Porsche badge, although he effectively left automotive design in 1967.

After 1972, following the public flotation of Porsche, all family members were banned from managerial positions in the company. From that point Butzi pursued a wider brief, creating expensive Porsche-branded pens, sunglasses and many other objects.

Ferdinand Alexander Porsche was born in Stuttgart, southern Germany. The eldest son of Dorothea and Ferry Porsche, he was named after his grandfather, Ferdinand Porsche, the brilliant Austrian-born engineer who was already a household name for creating the ­Volkswagen “people’s car” at the behest of Hitler.

It was the military hardware the elder Ferdinand created for the Nazis that caused the French to jail him for two years after World War II. The experience shortened his life (he died in 1952), but he survived long enough for ­Ferdinand junior to know him and understand the prestige of the engineering dynasty into which he had been born.

In the late 1940s, Butzi, or “FA” as he was known by family and close friends, was initiated into the world of engineering in his grandfather’s workshops. At the time, momentum was gathering behind the notion of a rear-engined sports car based on Volkswagen components that would carry the Porsche badge and change a design consultancy (creating cars for other firms) into a marque in its own right. He had already shown an early acumen for design by making his own toys and would be the only one of his brothers to join the family business.

By the time he was at secondary school in Switzerland in 1953, the Porsche 356 was already a commercial hit far exceeding his father’s modest expectations. Butzi was being groomed to follow in the family tradition. He completed an internship with ignition specialists Robert Bosch GmbH before starting work in the Porsche technical design office in Zuffenhausen, a suburb of Stuttgart, on engine building and prototype construction, having failed his studies at the Ulm School of Design.

Creating the classic
By 1958 plans were already afoot for an upmarket, six-cylinder successor to the decade-old 356 range. Butzi was given the task of creating a body style for this new “type 7” car that would be roomier and sleeker than the already rather quaintly rotund 356. This Porsche car for the 1960s had to be compact and rear-engined and maintain the ideals of elegant functionalism that had made the 356 a cult object among devoted fans within its own lifetime.

It was a formidable task for a man still in his 20s, but the new Porsche 911, launched at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1963, exceeded expectations. It eclipsed its predecessor to become the car that would define everything the Porsche brand stood for.

After nearly five decades, the basic outline that Butzi sculpted in clay is still with us, recently relaunched in its seventh generation but recognisably the same model. No other car in production is so instantly recognisable. At its launch, the new Porsche was known as the 901 until Peugeot complained, pointing out that it held the rights to all car names with a zero in the middle. Hence, the 901 became the 911, a rear-engined coupé that simply refuses to be replaced, so loyal are its buyers.

The exact details of how Butzi arrived at this classically simple shape have always been slightly unclear, feeding rumours that his contribution was less important than the Porsche public relations department would have people believe.

Certainly, the shape of the 911 was arrived at in collaboration with the company’s body engineer, Erwin Komenda. It is also a matter of record that there were internal squabbles with Komenda over plans for a bigger four-seater model that were scrapped by Ferry Porsche.

Whatever the case, Butzi was made head of the Porsche design studio in 1962 and then was responsible for the 904 Carrera GTS, essentially a racing model, which he often stated was a favourite among his own creations because he was able to design it with little outside ­interference.

In 1968 he was made deputy managing director, but the family feeling within Porsche in the 1960s had become corrosive. Butzi feuded with his cousin, Ferdinand Piech, and their bitter power struggle prompted Ferry Porsche to float the company and remove both men from the picture in 1972.

Piech went on to enjoy huge success as head of Audi. Butzi returned as Porsche chairperson between 1990 and 1993 and is credited with helping to save the company by appointing Wendelin Wiedeking as chair. Wiedeking was the manager who steered Porsche through a period when the strong Deutschmark was depressing sales in the vital North American market by modernising its production methods.

In 2005 Butzi retired from his position on the Porsche supervisory board in favour of his oldest son, Oliver. He is survived by his wife, Brigitte, who he married in 1960, and three sons.—

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