Thursday, March 16, 2017

From 356 to early 911: the Evolution of Early Porsche Designs

This post is based on the little book by Ulrich von Mende, The Porsche 911 by Ferdinand Porsche. Verlag form, Design Classics, 1999.

An opening quote: “Many objects are beautiful; many are useful; But only very few ever enter into history:  Design Classics.”

The following is a frequently cited maxim of Butzi Porsche's grandfather [Ferdinand]:  “Aus vollen Hosen ist gut stinken” (loosely translated: “It’s easy to swank when you’re flush.”)

Butzi Porsche: “Good design does not follow fashion – more the reverse.  The best example is the Beetle designed by my grandfather Ferdinand.  The Volkswagen was accepted because it was good. And because it dominated the market for such a long time, it became fashion.  The same is true of the 911. It has always got by without any frills in terms of design.”  

Or to cite an even shorter F.A. Butzi “soundbite” – “Design should be honest.”

On June 8, 1948, the first Porsche was registered at the Landesbauddirection in Kärnten.  At this time family and automotive  activities  still  took place in Gemünd, Austria. On seeing the Porsche #1, the local inhabitants coined the disparaging term for streamlined bodyshells, calling it a “bar of soap.”

Porsche #1





…this first Porsche came in a stripped-down, rudimentary streamlined design. Roofless. And with an unframed windshield boasting a chrome-plated dividing bar the only force opposing the relative wind, such details as did exist stood out all the more. One poor design feature -- three chrome strips on the nose, which attempted to give a face to the car. Good: the engine bay ventilation in this mid-engine model, a form of design which Porsche used in many racing cars, yet which did not surface again until used in the VW Porsche 914 built from 1969-1975.  Running parallel to the edge of the engine lid towards the rear of the car were the narrowest of louvers – elegant, formally perfect, and a logical design in technological terms. The bumpers were characteristic of the later 356 series, like a bulbous projection completing the bodywork, were already to be seen in the #1.  

In the same year, Porsche also built roadsters without bumpers. The formal shaping of the chassis in the transition to the floor plan was just as much a mark of the series as was a detail that has been retained to the present day: the vents on the rear engine lid. A filigree frame, rounded at the corners, boasted the very finest chrome surrounds to cover the air intake vents. In either single or twin versions, this trim featured on the back of all Porsches in the 356 series. Its formal clarity also served as a model for the large grill element on the rear of the 911… A further design element had already been premiered in the 356 a: the air vents under chrome bars on the front turn signals. While oil cooler air intake required such vents only on one side, they were added to both wings for reasons of symmetry.



With the 1957 hardtop model, the closed Porsche appeared in a notchback guise, the “B” version of this version with a welded roof and far bigger windowing area providing Butz Porsche with his first inspiration when seeking the design for the successor model.

a 356-B T-6 "Twin-grill" Notchback



 After headlights and bumpers had been raised in the 1959 356 B version, the body’s aerodynamics deteriorated, an obvious consequence with the streamlined shape now ducking down towards the road, sending the relative wind under the bodywork. And even smaller changes proved to be a source of problems.  At the time, Porsche used to test the aerodynamics of different body shells in the very simplest of forms, without a wind tunnel. Cars were sent racing across the autobahn bridges and photographed from above. If the woolen threads stuck to the bodywork produced straight lines in the photos, the aerodynamics were seen as working, serving to improve the CD factor, yet for a Porsche this was still not all that outstanding.


an early VW aerodynamically tested with wool tufts


A flat Porsche creates a small overall aerodynamic drag, explaining why the first Porsche #1 was able to reach speeds of 140 km/hr with a 1131 ccm engine and 35 hp.

A further susceptibility shown by Porsche was, as in the case of many streamlined designs, its side-wind sensitivity. Using tricks such as front bumper overriders weighted with iron – weight distribution subsequently being evened up by bringing the battery forward – driving stability was improved….Up until the time when production was discontinued in 1965 (the 911 having been reviewed in 1963), 76,300 of the 356 series had been built at prices ranging from DM 10,200 (1950) to DM 25,650 (1965). By way of comparison the Beetle cost 4,800 in 1950 and DM 4,485 in 1965.

Butzi Porsche was aiming to produce a car that was not too big, a neutral automobile with quiet yet exciting bodywork lines – basically a contradiction in terms. A larger wheelbase would provide more pace for a six cylinder engine and golf clubs, yet one thing Butzi Porsche definitely did not want was  a fastback. He regarded the fastback version with extended bodyshell as too stodgy-looking. The new model was to resemble the 356 yet would have a distinctive style of its own. With the hint of a notchback, his design had drawn closer to the 356 hardtop in formal terms and featured the thin roof pillars favored by contemporary trends. In the notchback, the air-cooled flat six engine had enough room to breathe under the body. The chassis sported details at both the front and rear that were later adopted by the series: front turn signals, mitiated from circular to strip form yet with integrated air vents – a motif also intended to feature on the taillights, though series models were built without rear louvers.


Father Ferry must be commended for his stubbornness in terms of influencing the 911 design. He insisted on the fastback.  Ferry insisted on his way thus paving the way for the now classical lines of the windows cutouts when viewed form the side.. No combination of straights and ellipses blends in so harmoniously with the volume of a fastback as the expanse of glass serving to prevent what Butzi had feared: the stodgy-looking fastback The 1:1 form study fashioned from over a hundredweight of clay, which, with thrift in mind, offered two design versions when slit down the middle, still had the suggestion of a notchback to it.

Juli 1963: First Photo of the 901 prototype: the car was camouflaged with tail






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