FA ‘Butzi’ Porsche
After designing his iconic 911, Butzi’s subsequent career at Porsche was surprisingly modest
In the aftermath of the new 992’s big reveal, we look back at the man responsible for designing the first 911
Known to his family as Butzi, which was also how writers would later refer to him to distinguish him from his father and grandfather, Ferdinand Alexander III was the first of Dorothea and Ferry Porsche’s four sons. Schooled in Austria and Germany, he went to Bosch in Stuttgart on a three-year apprenticeship and studied for two terms at the Ulm Institute of Design before joining the family firm in 1957. Initially working under engineering director Karl Rabe, Butzi soon graduated from technical drawings to modelling and design.
This was a fertile time at Porsche. The 356 needed a successor and Ferry, an admirer of Albrecht von Goertz’s BMW 507, had approached the designer for his ideas for the new Porsche. However, Von Goertz’s proposal disappointed Ferry intensely, being far more angular than the specification he had requested, and he realised that the new Porsche would have to be conceived in-house. All available talent was directed towards this end, and it was soon apparent to Ferry that those two terms at art college had not been wasted on his son.
Hitherto, body engineering had been in the hands of Erwin Komenda, a Porsche stalwart who designed the Beetle and the Porsche 356 Speedster. The oldschool Komenda ran his department autocratically: the question of style did not enter the argument and engineering requirements took precedence over design. For Butzi, design was paramount: it bestowed everything – looks, interior space, handling, the very essence of the car. Engineering should be subordinate to design. Neither party quite recognised it at the time, but Butzi’s generation was the first to incorporate styling as a concept.
Ferry Porsche could see this, though, and began to realise that his son’s ideas interpreted the future in a way his old colleague’s did not. Komenda thought that the market was in danger of being saturated by two-seater cars and that Porsche should move towards a four seater. This was not at all how Butzi saw it, and Ferry had to arbitrate, coming down in favour of his son and overruling his colleague of 30 years. Father and son also disagreed: Ferry wanted a wheelbase of at least 2.4 metres to give predictable handling; this was much too long for Butzi,
upsetting the roofline he planned, but he acquiesced and the prototype was built – project 695 or Type 7 – with the same 2.4-metre wheelbase as the Beetle.
As photographs show, the front of the future
911 as far as the A pillar was already apparent. The long-wheelbase design allowed for the 2+2 cabin, but the tail was more Citroën DS than 356 and the shape was an unhappy halfway house between true coupe and saloon. Ferry drove this car for a few months in 1960, but reportedly never liked it. Numerous further sketches would emerge from Butzi’s department, now called the design studio, until at last a shape was agreed in late 1961 and the design frozen. Ferry had given in to Butzi as the wheelbase was a mere 2.221mm. The 911 as we now know it was in gestation. Butzi’s drawings also produced the slim 804 Formula One car which Porsche campaigned in 1962, as well as the fared nose of the RS 60 and subsequent racers, a design feature which distinguished his remarkable 904, a model with which Ferdinand Alexander is as much associated with as the 911.
Erwin Komenda died in 1966 and Butzi was promoted to styling director, making official what had long been de facto. But Butzi’s influence was beginning to wane: he had already turned down the chance to fashion the only other new Porsche of the 1960s, the 914, delegating its design to modeller Heinrich Klie. Now Butzi had serious competition from his ambitious cousin Ferdinand Piëch, who in three short years at Porsche had become technical director and was by 1967 promoting the energetic racing programme which would result in victories at Le Mans and the incredible 917. Piëch also took the 911 in hand and resolved its unpredictable handling, partly by lengthening the wheelbase by 57mm. It was increasingly the intense Ferdinand Piëch and not the far easier going Butzi who began to look like the heir apparent to the Porsche empire, a rivalry ended when the family withdrew from the business in 1971, which meant Piëchs and Porsches could no longer be employees by right.
Remaining a Porsche shareholder, Butzi took his talents back to Austria where he established Porsche Design as an haute couture brand, putting the family name on any number of cleverly styled sunglasses, pens and watches and making it a watchword for stylised personal accessories. In one of his last full interviews, speaking in March 1997 to Autocar’s
Peter Robinson, a seasoned Porsche writer, Butzi expressed regret that he was no longer designing Porsche, but accepted that the family had to stand back from the business for it to develop. As a board member he still had responsibilities at Zuffenhausen, and from 1990 to 1993 he headed the supervisory board, taking over from the 81-year-old Ferry. He was never at ease in this role: soon-to-be-ousted CEO Arno Bohn later remarked, “Butzi was a nice guy, possibly too nice. I thought he couldn’t keep up in his role as chairman.”
In more recent years Butzi Porsche appeared less and less often in public, in 2005 ceding his board position to his son Oliver. That year too in a rare public outing and on his
70th birthday, he drove in his 993 Speedster up Grossglockner, Austria’s highest mountain pass, for a small gathering of open-topped 911 owners. Smiling sportingly for the camera, he looked frail, and subsequent rumours emerged that he was suffering from a debilitating nervous disease. In his last years he became housebound, and sadly passed away in April 2012.
When Robinson had asked him why the 911 had survived so long, he said, “It was my father’s idea that a car should not be so ostentatious, or so aggressive; the shape should be harmonious yet also have presence. The 911 has balance. It is also small. There is a modesty about the car which makes it notable. Good design is where you don’t force things into success or recognition. Catch a glimpse of the silhouette and you know it is a 911.”
“The 911 has balance. It is also small. There is a modesty about the car which makes it notable”
Below Ferry Alexander posing with a Typ 964 in 1992, a time when he headed the Supervisory Board