Why is the Porsche 911’s Engine at the Back?

A History Lesson

Here’s something interesting. Did you know that Professor Dr.-Ing.h.c.Ferdinand Porsche and Anton Piech were incarcerated by the French in a prison in Dijon at the end of WWII after being invited to ‘discussions’ in November 1945 at Baden Baden?

It turns out the French had a plan to transfer post war Germany’s VW technology to themselves! Interestingly the French car industry led by Peugeot and its friends in the French government stopped the idea but the French decided to demand a ransom for their return!

In the time Dr Porsche was away in prison his son Ferry had developed the 356/1 from VW components, incidentally it was the first car to carry the Porsche name. It was a mid-engined sports car with the power unit ahead of the rear axle and the gearbox behind, it had rear luggage space over the gearbox, exactly the same layout as the Porsche Boxster and Cayman.

Porsche 356/1

Porsche 356/1 in 1948

Porsche 356 No1

Porsche 356/1 in Porsche Museum

Also the clever people at Vintage Replicars in the USA have made a beautiful replica of the 356/1. Take a couple of minutes out to look this video of this stunning replica which really gives a feel for the mid-engined layout of the car.  www.vintagereplicar.com

180 Degree Change

Dr Porsche and Anton Piech were eventually released by the French after 2 years, after Ferry found 1 million Francs ransom. One of the first things old Dr Porsche looked at was Ferry’s 356/1 prototype. He liked it but told young Ferry that the layout of the new Porsche was all wrong! He said that by turning the engine and gearbox assembly 180 degrees placing the engine at the back there would be room for rear seats (admittedly for very small people) over the gearbox.

The change made great sense to the genius who had developed the VW Beetle which had a light engine and didn’t put much cantilever load at the rear. Of course he also argued that engine maintenance was eased, air-cooling was easier and the gearbox linkage was mechanically simpler.

This change went through and so emerged the 356/2 that we all know and love and Porsche had by then committed itself to the rear engined layout with all of its instability challenges rather than being an innovative manufacturer of mid-engined sports cars from way back in 1948!

Don’t get me wrong, the 911 is a fantastic car and is one of the worlds most famous icons. I used to have one. I used to feel its iconic status every time I walked up to it. Then I swapped it for a Cayman S which aside from its comparatively lowly status, Porsche don’t even make a 1.32 scale model of it, and the fact that it is engineered to ensure that the performance superiority of the 911 is maintained, is a more involving driver’s car perhaps far truer to the original Porsche 911 emotional concept.

So What Does this tell us?

In my post Take the Path Less Trodden I stressed the importance of balancing the re-use of previous ideas with the creativity of a blank sheet of paper. Here we see Ferry Porsche, freed from the trammels of his father’s influence whilst he is in prison, come up with something new, something radical, innovative and exquisite from an engineering perspective.

Then we see that innovation eventually stifled by his father who preferred to move forward with what he knew. These are simply preferences and in this case because of the father son dynamic the father’s preference dictated the eventual outcome and so was born the icon that is the 911. The 911 has evolved very slowly through all of its incarnations to the present 911. See www.subtielman.com which gives the 911 Evolution image you see below.

There have been tremendous engineering advances under the skin in terms of engine, gearbox and suspension advancement but the 911 profile and DNA was then baked in and that profile was dictated by Dr Porsche’s change.

You could argue that if Ferry’s mid engined concept had been accepted by his father, or if Dr Porsche had been detained another 6 months, that iconic outline would never have been so recognisable and Porsche may not have been so successful over the years. Essentially the Porsche brand is the 911 and the 911 is the outline that people have in their subconscious when they say the word Porsche to themselves.

Porsche 911 Evolution

Porsche 911 Evolution (www.subteilman.com)

There is no right answer but ironically in this case Ferry’s inherently stable mid-engined sports car design was changed by his father for reasons of practicality of maintenance and the addition of, very occasional rear seats. From an engineering perspective the weight of the engine behind the rear axle gave rise to all sorts of engineering, stability and driver challenges because in a skid situation the heavy engine at the back simply wants to overtake the front and if often does.

6 Things to Do When Starting Something New

  1. Always check what you have done before, make a list, collect the collateral then set it aside, try to build on experience rather than dogged re-use
  2. Spend time with a blank sheet, a blank canvas, try various ideas, try different approaches
  3. Come up with a series of options including 50% based on what you have done before and 50% based on completely fresh ideas
  4. Produced a structured assessment scheme to evaluate and rank the resulting options
  5. Check how the top ranked option sits with your gut feel
  6. Select your option and commit to it, don’t be half hearted or easily swayed by others, always remember there are few ‘right’ solutions and plenty of ‘wrong’ ones
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