Historiography: Of Porsche, Piech and Volkswagen

"Like peas in a pod."

Or, would you rather think "Reese's peanut butter cup?"

The story of Porsche and Volkswagen has always been intertwined with each other. It is a story of a family – sounds like a television series already. Sometimes, you wonder if it really is a television series – almost like the "Hatfields and McCoys." Instead, their names are Porsche and Piech.

It all began with a single man. He got married, had a business partner – who became part of the family. The rest reads like a script from Dallas or Dynasty.

Dr. Ferdinand Porsche began as a builder and creator of automobiles going back to 1898. From earlier work with Jakob Lohner & Company of Austria, Austro-Daimler (later Daimler-Benz), Porsche founded a consulting firm in 1931 for other manufacturers to seek his design and engineering expertise. He designed not just passenger cars; Porsche also was involved with racing cars and implements of war.

Ironically, Porsche responded to the challenge announced by German Chancellor Adolf Hitler at the 1933 Berlin Auto Show. Hitler wanted to offer a "people's car" for everyone who can afford one. Porsche came up with a design for the "Volkswagen" which earned him a contract from the government to design, engineer and build it. To shorten up this period of world history, all of the work going into the KdF-Wagens led to the building of the Wolfsburg plant and the first prototypes.

After World War II ended, Porsche and his business partner Anton Piech were arrested on war crimes. After a brief capture, Porsche's son Ferry was freed by the Allies and returned to work in the family's business. The first commercial product under his own name was the Porsche 356 – a small two-seat, rear engine and air cooled coupe built at a sawmill in Gmund.

The story continues when the Porsche family returned to Stuttgart with one of the first 49 356s from the Gmund saw mill. Ferry took the car to VW dealers. If they agreed to sell, Ferry asked for the money in advance, since occupied allied forces – Americans, to be exact – froze the family’s ability to borrow capital to continue the business through local banks. In 1951, Ferdinand died from a stroke – leaving his heirs to run the business going forward.

After an agreement with Volkswagen to continue design and engineering work – and sell cars in Austria – Ferry was able to regain some manufacturing work in Zuffenhausen. Granted, American forces still occupied the plant property, Ferry rented some of it back to build the 356.

Through motorsport, Porsche's reputation grew. Countless victories racked up for the company. This enabled Ferry to concentrate the business in Stuttgart, by merging all of the family assets into one entity. The reputation on the track confirmed the rear-engine; air-cooled design was strong enough to build a strategy upon. That strategy included a more modern sports coupe – one that would be the backbone of the brand and its namesake.

In Stuttgart, the family business saw one of Ferdinand's grandsons moving through its ranks. Ferdinand Piech began as an engineer at Porsche. He was responsible for the 906 and 917 – both championship-winning cars. Though Piech has held 10 percent ownership in Porsche, an agreement amongst the family and shareholders led to a dictum that no one related to Ferdinand Porsche would ever run the namesake’s company. Piech left the firm for Audi, while Ferry retired.

The family business is one where collaboration actually happened. The thing is that usually the collaboration came from the larger company (Volkswagen) for Porsche products. For example, there was the 914. In North America, we call this a Porsche. In reality, it was sold in some markets with both brands attached to it. It was to replace the Karmann Ghia and the Porsche 912 – a 911 with a four-cylinder boxer engine. To complicate things, a six-cylinder Porsche engine was added to the two-seat targa lineup – thus the 914/6. It did spark some interest in the early 1970s; however, the last one was sold in 1974.

The next “collaboration” between Porsche and Volkswagen was an interesting proposition for both companies. Neither company has ever made a front engine/rear drive car – let alone a sports coupe. VW already introduced their first front engine, water cooled car – the original Passat (called the Dasher in North America). The original thought was that Volkswagen could sell this coupe by themselves. Instead, VW went ahead with a coupe based off of their first transverse-mounted front engine, water cooled, and front drive car – the Golf (we called it the Rabbit). Actually, that coupe was called the Scirocco…and the rest was history.

Considering how intertwined German business could be when prominent families are involved, this front engine/water cooled/rear drive coupe soon took on some Audi components – the engine and the gearbox. The body could be seen as Porsche-like. It was – designed by someone at Porsche.

The 924 arrived by 1976 to a somewhat shocked world. Why shocked? The 924 was considered the best handling Porsche of its day. Somehow, they took this mash-up of Porsche design and Audi drivetrain – and made it work as a Porsche. In 1978, U.S. Porsche enthusiasts snapped up 11,638 of these things. A lot of people went from shocked to "wow."

Obviously, the 924's success would lead to a successor. While it influenced the idea of making a Porsche outside of the traditional 911 – exhibited by the 928 and its water cooled V8 engine driven to the rear wheels – there was room for Porsche to develop more components for the smaller sports car. The 944 debuted in 1982 with a Porsche-built engine. It would be another two decades for the next collaboration between Porsche and Volkswagen to occur.

Of course, we are now living with the Porsche-VW collaboration on two levels. One is product. To create the next generation of front engine/rear drive models, Porsche had to get these platforms – at least their DNA – from VW, Audi, etc. Otherwise, Porsche would not expand into SUVs. Consider this: The Cayenne has shared DNA with the VW Touareg and Audi Q7. Though some may argue otherwise, the Macan is built off of a shared platform with the Audi Q5.

Most importantly, Porsche and Volkswagen AG are now joined at the corporate hip – thanks to the Porsche-Piech family. However, the 1972 rule of family management of this firm has been tossed aside. After all, how could you say "nein" to a family that owns half of the company?

Consider another thing: Have you ever ate something and not told what the ingredients were? It tasted so good that it was not even worth asking what was inside. Some people do, but see what happens when they find out about an ingredient that they never expected from such a delicious treat.

I was thinking about this recalling my drive several years ago in a Porsche Macan S. If I did not know it shared the platform with the Audi Q5, how would I react if I found out that was the secret ingredient to this small performance crossover? I could think of two reactions. The Porsche purist would have a conniption. He or she would demand the head the Ferdinand Piech on a silver platter.

Then, there is the person who always wanted a Porsche. However, they do not have any tangible history with the brand. You do not have to tell them about the platform or anything related to Audi or VW. Just let that person drive it. They may want seconds – or, to buy one.

It also brings up some lingering feelings about the Porsches and the Piechs. As related as they are, there was a generation who truly never seen eye to eye. However, it took Ferdinand Piech to help broker the merger between Volkswagen AG and Porsche. It might have been seen as "bringing the family together under one roof," some critics and analysts could call this another move towards "Piech's road to global automotive domination."

Old Ferdinand Porsche thought well of creating the Volkswagen as a rear engine/rear drive air cooled tool for a socialized, heterogeneous nation bent on global domination. His son carried the name for good intentions – making a line of desirable sports cars for the consumer and motorsport. His son-in-law became a maverick and left the family firm to rise to the top of the spawn of the elder's invention. This family drama has gone full circle with VW and Porsche all under the same corporate banner.

Heck of a history, this Porsche-Piech family. Not sure if it is more like watching Dallas or Dynasty when it comes to the actions of its members. One things is for certain – we love their products and could give a flying *blank* about who runs the show – regardless of they are named Porsche or Piech.

All photos by Randy Stern

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