PORSCHE AT GMÜND 44
We turn the clock back 70 years and head for Austria…
Towards the end of the war, Porsche was forced to retreat to an Austrian backwater to save the company from allied bombing. But neither the remoteness of Gmünd nor the logistics disruptions of the post war period slowed the Porsche dynamic: by the time the firm returned to its native Stuttgart, the consulting engineer had also become a noted sports car maker and within a year its cars were participating at Le Mans
In 1931 Professor Porsche established his own business, Dr. Ing.h.c.F. Porsche Gmbh,K on st ruktio ne nu nd Be ratungfür
Motoren und Fahrzeuge, usually referred to as the Konstruktions Büro. He was by then a well-known figure in the European automotive industry having worked at some point formany of the big names, notablyaustro-daimler and Steyr inaustria andmercedes in Stuttgart. Abrilliant and innovatory engineer, Ferdinand Porsche was also a restless spirit and he complained that if companies, meaning his employers, could live off his ideas for ten years, he couldnʼt.
Founding his own consultancy broadened the range of challenges he could take on. His firmwas very successful – amongmany projects it designed and engineered was the Wanderer, an upmarket four- and six-cylinder saloon. An old name, Wanderer had become part of theauto Union stable which also controlled Horch, Dkwandaudi. This connection led to Porscheʼs work on theauto Union racers which in the late 1930s were locked in a struggle withmercedes, which left all other competitors far behind. And of course, the Volkswagen…
Ferdinand Porscheʼs abiding interest in developing a small, mass production car coincided with Hitlerʼs dream of motorising the German population. The professor was not unaccustomed to operating at such high levels: in 1932 the Russian government had offered himthe post of director of the Sovietmotor industry which he turned down ʻonly because I amtoo old (he was 57) to change career and I could never work through interpreters,ʼ he told son Ferry who had accompanied himon the trip tomoscow.
In fact Ferry Porsche had worked closely with his father even before the inception of the Konstruktions Büro. By 1939 he was managing the office in Stuttgart because his fatherʼs involvement with the VW project was so intense that he was either travelling or working at Fallersleben, later known as Wolfsburg. Dr Porsche was supported there by Anton Piëch, the Viennese lawyer who had married Ferryʼs older sister Louise, and an enthusiastic early recruit to the firm.
During the war, governments on both sides commandeered engineering firms, aviation and vehicle manufacturers to build equipment or weapons for the war effort. For the newly established VW plant it was no different and Dr Porsche was pressed to design battlefield vehicles, producing several varieties of the Kübelwagen, an open lightweight ʻjeepʼ based on the Beetle; Porsche also designed tanks – indeed the Leopard would stay in production till the 1970s, as well as the Maus 200 tonne tank, so heavy in fact that Dr Porsche had to engineer a dedicated railway truck to carry it.
As were most German cities, Stuttgart was bombed periodically, but from 1944 as the might of the USAF began to make itself felt, the Swabian capital came under sustained bombardment. As a strategic producer, Porsche was given permission to leave Stuttgart and relocation to Czechoslovakia
was offered. Ferry turned this down and after protracted arguments persuaded the authorities to allow the company to move to Kärnten in southern Austria.
He managed to secure two sites, one at the airfield at Zell am See, which they would use for storage and conveniently close to the family home of Schüttgut, and a sawmill at a village called Gmünd. About 120km south of Salzburg and 15km from the nearest railway station at Spittal, Gmünd was a remote spot by any yardstick, but in the shambles as Germany began to collapse, the move was vital to save their company.
Ferry Porsche did not hesitate: in November 1944, a large group of mostly Porscheʼs Austrian engineers and workers moved to Gmünd; machine tools and materials were warehoused at Zell am See and a skeleton staff remained in Stuttgart because Ferry believed survival was more likely if the firmʼs assets were spread between three places. Work continued and, as the war ended in April 1945, the Stuttgart men were working on a second Maus prototype.
1945 proved, indeed, to be a fraught year. Travel was difficult as under allied partitioning of Austria Zell am See was in the Amercian zone and Gmünd in the British, and permission was required to go between them. Ferry recounts in his autobiography that American officers were billeted on them at Zell am See. They helped themselves to the contents of the familyʼs wine cellar then calmly emptied the sheds which contained machines, parts and unfinished prototypes; they also confiscated everything else, including the car built for the 1939 Rome-berlin race, which Ferry had driven as his own transport during the war. The Americans decided this would be better as an open car and hacked the roof off it, more or less wrecking it before Ferryʼs eyes. Against this setback, the Americans carried out denazification procedures efficiently and by the summer, all the Porsches had been acquitted.
The single storey buldings at Gmünd were steadily transformed into workshops; an accommodation block was built and Porsche engineers devised water turbines to create a power source, even selling a few to local farmers. In this purely agricultural setting they worked on tractor designs, a small twostoke diesel, later the basis of the Allgaier Porsche tractor, and repaired army vehicles which had been pressed into civil service and which were now falling apart. In the post war months, transport of any type was in huge demand.
The Porsche men also constructed winches, made tractor equipment and trailers. By mid summer over 250 people were
working there. Then what Ferry refers to as the darkest days occurred: he and his father, and Anton Piëch, were arrested in what remains a disgraceful footnote in French history. The three were charged with maltreatment of French POWS at the VW plant. The real reason was concern by the new French government that Porsche planned to bring a VW type assembly to France, to the detriment of the French auto industry.
It was true that overtures had been made to Dr Porsche in 1945 and he had responded positively because at that point it had seemed the factory at Wolfsburg was to be dismantled and the land returned to agriculture. However, nothing concrete had ever been discussed.
It was also disappointing that Pierre Peugeot, who had made significant profits supplying parts to VW during the war and knew conditions at Wolfsburg, said nothing in the Porschesʼ defence. The French soon realised that they could not justify holding Ferry and he was released in the spring of 1946, but his father and Anton Piëch were held in appalling unheated conditions through the winter of 1946–7. The experience broke both menʼs health and they were finally released only to remain under house arrest in Kitzbühl in the French sector of Austria in June 1947. Never officially acquitted by the French, Dr Porsche was destined to remain stateless and therefore without a passport for the rest of his life.
In the absence of her husband, father and brother, Louise Piëch, assisted by Karl Rabe, whom the British had approved as manager of the Gmünd site, had held the fort through the difficult first winter until June 1946 when Ferry was finally released from house arrest. With his return, consultancy activity could begin again and through this, the most vital contact for the future of Porsche was made: Cisitalia.
Through a former VW employee, Rudolf Hruska, an Austrian now acting as an agent in Italy for Porsche, Ferry was introduced to Piero Dusio. An industrialist and amateur racer before the war, Dusio was now ploughing some of the vast fortune he had made selling boots to the Italian army into a sports car building enterprise. He was employing some of his countryʼs best auto engineers and had even ventured into building racing cars: veteran GP driver Tazio Nuvolari had already tested and raced a tiny Fiat-based single seater.
Dusioʼs ambitions seemed limitless and his engineers told him to seek out the German expertise which produced the Mercedes and Auto Unions. The arrival of Ferry Porsche on the scene was then quite providential.
The contract to design and engineer the Cisitalia GP car
“BY MID SUMMER OVER 250 PEOPLE WORKED THERE…”
provided not only the money to pay for Dr Porscheʼs release, but also the necessary contacts: Dusio, who had relative freedom to travel abroad, was able to use his friendship with renowned French journalist Charles Faroux in particular, to negotiate the Professorʼs freedom, or at least elevation to temporary house arrest in Austria. At the same time, Ferry and Karl Rabe, who were looking for other opportunities to develop Gmündʼs nascent tractor business, were very taken by Cisitaliaʼs successful small sports car, built like the single seater around a tubular frame and using Fiat engine and gearbox.
In 1947 Pininfarina had created a stunning coachbuilt version and tuned Cisitalias finished second, third and fourth in the Mille Miglia. Dusio planned to sell 500 of his cars for export at US $7000 a piece. For comparison a Cadillac cost $5000.
This set Ferry and Rabe thinking: there was no shortage of work at Gmünd and the Cisitalia contract would continue to occupy the engineers for some time, but the idea of a two-seater sports car assembled with mass-produced parts was firmly implanted. Although Dr Porsche still hoped to be able to return to VW and the Porsche tractor was already on trial with a local farming cooperative, Ferry could see that they also could emulate Dusio and build not a Fiat-, but a Volkswagen-based car, and, critically, they could do it at Gmünd. Later he would say ʻWe decided to build cars with the people we had, some very good engineers and mechanics.ʼ
Typ 356/1 was an open barchetta. Using VW engine and running gear, it had an elegant tubular frame, but differed from the Beetle in having its engine mounted ahead of the gearbox. This necessitated some reworking of the VWʼS torsion bar suspension, but by spring 1948 Ferry was testing a prototype on local roads, his cousin Herbert Kaes won a local hillclimb with it in July and journalists were able to drive it around the course at Berne prior to the Swiss GP.
Their reports were enthusiastic and orders arrived from well-heeled Swiss enthusiasts unconstrained by the currency and travel restrictions imposed on everybody else. Meanwhile Ferry was already looking ahead: the harsher climate of Northern Europe would require a closed car and he had commissioned a coupé design, Typ 356/2, which would have the gearbox Vw-fashion ahead of the engine. This would create a roomier car. But if the factory at
“ORDERS ARRIVED FROM WELL-HEELED SWISS ENTHUSIASTS”
Gmünd was assembling chassis and running gear efficiently, the more complex coachwork required by the coupé was more difficult to make, and Gmünd turned them out too slowly.
In October 1949, Ferry commissioned Reutter in Stuttgart to build 500 coupé bodies, and was negotiating to take the company back to Stuttgart. As the return began in early 1950, final trimming and fitting out of 356 bodies was carried out by a Viennese coachbuilder foreshadowing the extensive use of subcontractors, notably Reutter and Karmann, that Porsche would rely on over the life of the 356.
The need to re-establish Porsche at Stuttgart was now imperative: in 1948 in the first flush of enthusiasm for the ʻDusio methodʼ Ferry had envisaged making 150 cars by 1951, but in two years only 60 had been shipped. Logistics delays and the lack of facilities and coachbuilders at Gmünd were all responsible, but Ferry began to wonder whether the venture into car building was wise. After all Porsche had renewed its potentially lucrative consultancy agreement with VW, where production was now well established and in setting up PorscheSalzburg, this organisation under Louise Piëch would now become not only Porscheʼs Austrian HQ, but also the VW importer. But if Porsche resumed working in Germany, a manufacturing operation was essential to avoid punitive taxation.
This was part of the thinking behind his decision to design the 356/2, a far more versatile model than the original roadster. Moreover the VW agreement enabled Porsche to use VWʼS effective sales network. An enthusiastic response from these dealers who readily stumped up deposits meant that by spring 1950 Porsche had enough working capital to justify investment in manufacture.
A year earlier, when he was once more allowed limited travel, Dr Porsche had negotiated the contract with Zuffenhausen-based Reutter, and the coachbuilder now provided Porsche with temporary factory space and sheds adjacent to its coachworks until the American Army moved out of Porscheʼs own building, the impressive Werk 1, purpose-built in the late 1930s. However this move was delayed by two more years when, because of the outbreak of hostilities in Korea, the US forces including the vehicle depot at Zuffenhausen were ordered to remain in Europe. This development obliged Porsche to buy a singlestorey wooden barrack building to house its engineering department, no doubt provoking ironic comments about the similarity with the conditions they had just left in Gmünd!
Today the site of Porscheʼs Austrian factory is recognisably as it was in the 1940s. A Porsche museum was established in a new building in 1982 and its proud curator claims that his was the first private Porsche museum. He has restored the various huts and it is not hard to imagine the sawmill humming with activity 70 years ago.
Gmünd, today a pilgrimage for dedicated Porsche fans, remains as remote and bucolic as it was when the Porsches and Piëchs first arrived there in 1944. CP
Above: Ferry Porsche (centre), his father Ferdinand Porsche (right) and Erwin Komenda with the 356 No.1 Roadster, the first vehicle to bear the name PorscheLeft: 1948 Porsche Type 356/2 Coupé at the Porsche factory in Gmünd, Carinthia; behind it the No.1 Roadster
Below left: Porsche KG took over an old sawmill in the summer of 1944 in order to be able to continue workBelow right: In Gmünd, the company lived on small orders such as winches, ski lifts and repairs to old Wehrmacht vehicles, until 1948 with the construction of the first Porsche
Above: 1948, Porsche Type 356/2 (Gmünd) Coupé production at Gmünd. The photo was taken in the main assembly workshop Below left: Wool threads were glued to the car to test the aerodynamics. In the background is the building with the office of Ferdinand Porsche and the adjoining gatehouse, which are the only buildings of the former factory site preserved today
Below right: 1948 Porsche 356/2 Gmünd Coupé outside the works, Gmünd, Carinthia
Below: Not every road test went without a hitch…
Above: The main assembly building, which was divided into a general workshop, an engine and transmission facility and assembly spaceAbove right: Ferry Porsche sits in the car, while Ferdinand Piëch, the son of Ghislaine Kaes (either Edwin or Phillipp) and Michel Piëch pose for the family album
Above: The small but dedicated Gmünd staff take a well-earned break! They could have had little idea how successful the company would become over the next 70 years…
Below left: 1948, 356/2 near Zell am See, Schüttgut, in the background is the Imbachhorn mountainBelow right: Out on road test. Note how the design of the trim on the nose changed…
Above: 1948, Porsche No.1 out on the road, with Operations Manager Otto Huslein at the wheel
Below left and right: These two photos give a clear idea of how rural the location of the first ʻfactoryʼ was. Far from ideal, the location served Porsche well…