How do you pack decades of history and hundreds of stories into a few paragraphs? Well, that’s what I am going to attempt to do here. I know there is so much more to this but I would rather many of you read some of it than most of you not read any of it. Thank you for taking the time to look at this.
What do Ford and Porsche have in common? Could two car companies be more opposite than these two? I made a statement a couple of weeks ago that the parallels between these two seemingly different companies could be a story on their own. Jobjoris called me on that and so here is a bit of that story.
Henry Ford’s first go at an automobile company was the Henry Ford Company in 1901. In August 1902, Ford would leave the Henry Ford Company, which would become Cadillac, with his name in tow. In 1903, he started the Ford Motor Company, backed by twelve investors, including the Dodge Brothers, who were slated to provide engine and chassis components to Ford. By 1908, Ford had gleaned onto an idea of expanding the assembly line to his automobile manufacturing. This allowed his company to increase production of the new Model T and, by bringing parts production in-house, made the car affordable to the masses. Ford has been incorrectly named as the inventor of the assembly line, but this is incorrect as the assembly line existed well before the Model T. Ransom Olds was actually the man to be credited with bringing the assembly line to car manufacturing, but it was Ford and his company that perfected it, using interchangeable parts amongst the different configurations, that allowed the Model T to be affordable and successful.
Ferdinand Porsche was an engineer with big ideas of his own. He first worked for Jakob Lohner and Company, which ultimately saw him design the world’s first gas-electric hybrid back in 1901. By 1902, Porsche was drafted into the Austrian army and served as chauffeur to Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the very man who’s assassination would spark The Great War, World War 1. In 1906, Porsche would be recruited by Austro-Daimler, a subsidiary of Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG), which would later merge with Benz & Cie, to become Mercedes-Benz. Here, Porsche would work on race car designs with supercharged engines that would later go on to become the Mercedes-Benz SSK racing cars.
After leaving Daimler-Benz due to a difference of opinion with the company’s board of directors (he was in favor of a new design for a small, light-weight Mercedes-Benz) he would go on to form his own consulting firm, Dr. Ing. h.c. F. Porsche GmbH, Konstruktionen und Beratungen für Motoren und Fahrzeugbau (designs and consulting services for engines and vehicles). This firm, called Porsche GmbH, with many former co-workers making up the bulk of employees as well as his son, Ferry Porsche, would first work on a car for Wanderer, who would become a part of Auto-Union (Audi, DKW, Horch and Wanderer). They would go on to become Audi and the four rings in the Audi logo represents each of these companies.
Porsche would go on to design several other cars, which grabbed the attention of an influential politician by the name of Adolph Hitler, who had recently become Chancellor of Germany. Hitler adopted Porsche into the Nazi fold and gave him a contract to build a Volkswagen, or People’s car. Not only was Germany trying to recover from the Great Depression, but they were also struggling to meet requirements for reparations incurred, having taken the majority of blame for World War I. Thus was born the Type 1 or Kraft durch Freude-wagen (KdF-wagen), which would become one of the most affordable mass-produced automobiles in the world, the Beetle.
Both Ford and Porsche benefitted from World War II: Porsche by developing and producing the Kübelsitzwagen (Kübelwagen) and Schwimmwagen, as well as limited production of the Type 1. Design would also be a part of Porsche as the firm was responsible for both the Tiger tank as well as the Elefant tank destroyer.
Ford on the other hand, took the assembly line ideas and applied them to the Willow Run assembly plant. Here, Ford’s use of the assembly line made it possible to produce half of all 18,000 B-24 heavy bombers manufactured in WWII making it the most-produced heavy bomber in history.
So as you can see, there are many similarities between the men and companies they founded. But I’ve mentioned Ferrari, haven’t I. What does Ferrari have to do with Ford and Porsche?
Henry Ford II, wanting to have Ford winning races in Europe, especially Le Mans, heard that Enzo Ferrari was interested in selling his company to Ford, with the caveat that Enzo would continue to run Scuderia Ferrari. Ford was interested and spent millions of dollars auditing Ferrari’s factory assets. But Enzo let it be known that he wanted to race open-wheel cars, specifically at the Indianapolis 500. Because Ford was fielding cars with Ford engines, Henry did not want Ferrari as competition and he told Enzo that he would not be competing at Indy. Enzo was angry about this and to spite Henry, cut the deal off. This infuriated Henry to the point he immediately ordered his racing division to find a company that could build a car to beat Ferrari.
Ford, working with Lola, developed the Ford GT (GT40) out of the Lola GT, a car that was already powered by a Ford engine and was mounted amidships. Ford would bring in John Wyer from Aston Martin as team manager. Results in 1964 were dismal and Ford decided to make a change, handing the team over to a former racing driver named Carroll Shelby. Shelby had plenty of reason’s to hate Ferrari. But with his Daytona Cobras taking on the 250 GTO’s and now running the prototype GT40 program, he was ready. “Next year,” said Shelby, “Ferrari’s ass is mine.”
Shelby-American would develop the GT40 from the MkI into the MkII with a bigger engine and would ultimately win Le Mans in 1966, the first and only fully American team to do so. In 1967, they would take the newly configured MkIV to victory again.
This would fulfill Ford’s desire to beat Ferrari and win Le Mans. As rule changes came into play, the MkIV GT40 no longer met the regulations for racing. However, John Wyer still wanted a go at Le Mans and, with MkI GT40's with smaller displacement engines, would go on to win Le Mans in 1968 and 1969. JWA, Wyer’s team, ran the GT40's in his sponsor’s colors sporting a light blue and orange livery. His sponsor was Gulf Oil.
The 1969 season saw new rules that would be implemented for the 1970 racing season, and once again, the GT40's did not meet these regulations. Now with Ford completely out of the program, JWA had a problem. What car would they race next year? Towards the end of the 1969 season, John received a call regarding this issue. He was offered the opportunity to be the factory team for a company that needed someone with his team’s wisdom to take their relatively new car and get it right. The company was Porsche and the car was the 917.
1969 proved to be another year of learning the new 917K as the first iteration of the 917L proved scary to the drivers. The long tail of the car, while designed to generate downforce, actually generated lift at high speeds, making the cars nearly uncontrollable. JWA chief engineer John Horsman noticed the pattern of dead gnats on the front of the car but, the tail itself was clean, meaning air was not flowing over the tail, but rather under it.
This led to the 917K short tail and Le mans wins for Porsche KG Salzburg, an Austrian privateer team winning the 1970 race, and the Martini Racing team winning the 1971 race. Gulf Oil liveried 917s, despite not having won Le Mans (except in the movie), would win many other races and go on to become one of the most recognized liveries in motorsports history.
Rule changes would take the 917 out of top contention for the 1972 season and effectively cause Porsche to lose interest in running a factory team. But Porsche would continue to develop new cars for teams and Porsches would continue to win races the world over. They would also continue to be raced at Le Mans becoming the first manufacturer to have a lower-classed car take the overall win with the 935 K3 (Kremer Racing) in 1979 and would go on to win Le Mans a record 17 times.
If Ford came to Europe to kick Ferrari’s ass, Porsche kept it well kicked. And while Ferrari have been successful competing in many different racing disciplines, they have not won overall at Le Mans since 1965.
So many similarities, for two seemingly different car companies. Early beginnings with people and companies that would become some of the biggest in the automotive world. Both founders were able to deliver cars that were affordable to the masses and got more people driving cars than any others. Racing successes are highlights of the histories of both of these companies. But there are two more items that parallel with these giants.
It is rare for a model of car to be continually developed under the same name for a long time. There are very few that make it past 25 years and fewer still are models that have continued production after 50 years. Started in 1963 as a replacement for the 356, Porsche began production of the venerable 911. Still in production in it’s seventh generation, it is probably the best exotic sports car available that can be driven every day. And in 1964, Ford introduced the New York World’s Fair and the world to it’s new sporty family car, the Mustang. Now in it’s sixth generation, this car has seen it’s fair share of ups and downs, but has managed to soldier on as cars it inspired faded away and were discontinued. And once again, it is at the top of the sales charts as 2015 saw the Mustang become a global car.
But, besides both cars being continually produced for over 50 years, what is the other similarity? Both of these cars, now icons for their respective manufacturers, were supposed to be discontinued. The 911 was supposed to be replaced by the 928, but owners and fans of the 911 resisted and Porsche plodded on with the 911, all the while making several other models that have come and gone, including the 928.
The Mustang was to see a similar fate. Sales were slipping and the world was into sporty front wheel drive Japanese coupes like the Acura Integra, Toyota Celica and Nissan 200sx. In a joint effort with Mazda, the Ford Probe/Mazda MX-6 was created. But once word got out that Ford was going to take the Mustang to the glue factory, again, owner’s and fans put up a fight, letting Ford know that if the Mustang was killed off, they would sell their Ford products and never buy Fords again. Like Porsche, Ford got the hint. The Probe, too, eventually went the way of the Pinto, but the Mustang carries on in it’s sixth generation.
I hope this little bit of history inspires you to take some time and read more about some of the people involved as well as the cars themselves.
Thank you to everyone who contributed photos to this post, making it more complete than I could have made it on my own. I also felt it necessary to include at least one picture from everyone that helped me out. I didn’t want anyone to feel left out. Please let me know if I didn’t include at least one picture that you shared with me and I will rectify the situation.
If you haven’t seen them already, take a look at the rest of the awesome photos in the comments that were shared to me as well.
Thanks for taking the time to read this.