Killer cars, tractors, and a Harley Davidson.
Porsche has one hell of a history for road and race cars, and is preceded by Ferdinand Porsche's creation of the Volkswagen and Tiger tank for Nazi Germany. After World War II, Ferdinand spent 20 months in prison but wasn't tried for war crimes, which is a whole other subject for discussion.
While he was languishing behind bars, his son, also Ferdinand but known as Ferry, went back to work keeping the business alive while building a sports car. When Ferdinand got out of prison, it became the 356 and Porsche's first production road car. The rest is well-documented history, but there are some facts about Porsche you might not know. Here are nine of them.
The 356 was Porsche's first road car as a company and was built using a new chassis and bodywork while utilizing components from Volkswagen. However, the first car to wear the Porsche name was a full-blooded mid-engined Grand Prix race car. The Porsche family had a history with race cars from working for Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union, but this one was designed by Porsche and built by Cisitalia with help from Porsche workers.
The single Porsche 360 Cisitalia prototype never raced seriously due to development and financial issues before a rule change that barred the 1.5-liter supercharged engine. Despite its pre-war styling, it's a real "could have been" race car as it was advanced for 1947. The 360 Cisitalia is now under the stewardship of the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart.
It's hard to tell if Ferdinand Porsche was a Nazi of conviction or if he was just the "mad scientist" of his nickname and just wanted to build cars. It appears more likely the latter, but he was still a key figure in creating technology for the war.
Based on Adolph Hitler's recommendation, or directive, the German labor front commissioned Porsche the man to design a small and universal "people's tractor" to modernize Germany's agriculture industry. After the war, Porsche developed a couple more models and licensed them to be built by Allgaier Werkzeugbau GmbH. All diesel models were air-cooled designs, and the tractors featured Porsche badges.
Porsche started off by building engines for small race teams in the 1950s, but the 1969 Porsche 917 started a legend by winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Porsche is currently the world's largest race car manufacturer and builds an insane amount of cars for various events.
Its Le Mans and road racing history is well documented, but Porsche has appeared in just about every form of motorsport including, rally, Indycar, Formula 1, and even kicked off the IROC racing series. It has also created its own race series to promote amateur racing across the world, most famously the Carrera Cup in several countries.
It sounds like one of the strangest collaborations of the new century, but Porsche and Harley Davidson have worked together as far back as the 1970s. In 2002, Porsche designed a V2 engine based on Harley's VR-1000 race unit for the iconic American brand's new model, the V-Rod cruiser and muscle bike. Harley was, and still is, looking to attract new and younger riders and needed a new, affordable, and reliable bike.
The V2 engine is water-cooled, a first for Harley, and revs out to 9000 rpm. It became Harley's best-selling bike in other countries and stayed in production until 2017 with various models under the name.
The fact that Peugeot claimed the trademark on three-digit numbers with a zero in the middle, so Porsche simply changed 901 to 911 before release is well documented. What isn't so well documented is why it was the 901 or what other models were changed. The why was because the 900 series mirrored the Volkswagen part number convention at the time. Internally, Porsche kept the convention going, so, for example, the 904 was the Carrera GTS, and the 905 was the Carrera 6.
Peugeot wasn't using its three-digit with a zero in the middle convention for racing or competing with Porsche, so the company used 907, 908, and 909 for race cars. The 901 number became shorthand amongst enthusiasts for the early 911's aluminum five-speed transmission as its 11 digit code began with 901.
This wasn't a nickname for a small car that came out of sexism. When the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) announced a homologated class for sports cars with a minimum weight of 1760 pounds and engines up to five liters in size, Porsche got on the case and designed the now legendary 917. To race in the class, Porsche had to create 25 units by April of 1969 so it could participate in that year's season. Porsche had six cars and all the parts to make the other 19 as the deadline approached, but the FIA insisted all 25 had to be built to qualify. Porsche's racing department's resources were being stretched thin, so "We put together apprentices, messenger boys, bookkeepers, office people, and secretaries," said Rico Steinemann, Porsche's Racing Manager at the time.
There have been over eleven different versions of the 917 since 1969 and 59 units in total and is often considered the greatest race car in history. However, the first 25 were to be forever affectionately known as the "secretary cars."
Another well-documented piece of Porsche history is how actor James Dean died while driving his Porsche 550 Spyder to a race meeting. Dean had laughed off the ominous feeling and warning from Sir Alec Guinness when he saw the car. However, even after getting a speeding ticket just outside of Bakersfield, California, Dean kept up the pace as he tried to get used to the car on the way to the race just nine days after buying it. Unfortunately, he hit another vehicle at around 85 mph on Route 46 and was declared dead at the nearest hospital that evening. What's less well known is that the "Little Bastard" car (named for Dean's nickname) claimed another victim's life later on. Dr. William Eschrich bought the car from a Burbank salvage yard and used the engine in his Lotus IX race car. He also loaned out the suspension and transmission to another doctor, Troy McHenry, and took part in the same race. Eschrich crashed in the race but survived while McHenry didn't. He hit a tree and was killed.
There are further unfortunate stories about the car, mostly unsubstantiated, and claims of it being cursed. There's not much left of Dean's 550 Spyder now, though, and the transaxle was recently sold for a crazy $382,000.
Porsche came close to ending the 911 in the 1970s as there was a belief it couldn't be developed anymore. However, in 2017, the millionth 911 rolled off the production line. It's an Irish Green Carrera S that is now kept at the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart. It's estimated that two-thirds of all 911 models built are still on the road, which would be an incredible number for a sports car that was introduced to the world in 1964.
It's hard to imagine a car nowadays gaining the nickname "Widowmaker." Modern ESC systems can tame even the most brutally fast cars, but in 1977 that wasn't the case. That's when Porsche took what it had learned experimenting with turbos and stuck one in its new generation of 911, the 930. The first Porsche 911 Turbo weighed 2,850 pounds and made 256 hp and 304 lb-ft from its turbocharged flat-six engine.
The 911 Turbo was a wickedly fast car if you knew how to use the rear-engined dynamics properly, but it takes some mastering and an iron stomach to follow the golden rule of do not lift during corners when the back starts brake free. Coming off throttle and shifting weight to the front increases the grip and loosens it on the back where all the weight is, and suddenly you're driving a pendulum. Adding to that was something that could catch out the most experienced of drivers - the turbo.
If you've only driven modern turbocharged cars, you might have experienced turbo lag as the turbo spins up before having the desired effect, but not like early examples. The KKK K24 turbo used in the early 911 could be erratic about when it delivered boost at higher rpm, and when there's a sudden and unexpected dose of power pushing out the rear wheels mid-corner, buttocks will clench, and feet will reflexively come off the throttle.
If you were, say, a doctor or a lawyer in the 1970s with cash to burn on the latest and greatest sports car, the 911 Turbo was it. However, you didn't need training to buy one, and the car inspired confidence right up until things could go catastrophically wrong. Hence, the "Widowmaker."