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"The little-known stories behind well-known inventions"

German engineer becomes one of world's top car designers          By Paul Niemann

[April 26, 2007]  The inventor was born in 1875 in the village of Mattersdorf, in what later became known as the Czech Republic. He was an engineer despite having very little formal schooling, as was common back then.

He actually sneaked into night classes and eventually became a very successful engineer -- I'm sure there's a lesson here somewhere for the kids in the audience.

He had the same name -- Ferdinand -- as my dad. His father's name was Anton, which, coincidentally, was the name of my dad's grandfather.

The young inventor's father owned a plumbing business, and Ferdinand was expected to take it over when his father retired. Despite earning his apprenticeship as a plumber, he avoided working in the family business and was often trying to learn from electrical experiments, which his father called "nonsense."

In one of his early jobs, he helped design an electric carriage car that set several national speed records. The speed record at the time was just a little over 35 mph!

In 1902, a year before he got married, he served as the driver for Archduke Francis Ferdinand. Yes, that Archduke Francis Ferdinand, the one whose assassination in 1914 triggered the start of World War I, which was then known as "The Great War" because it was the only world war up to that point in history.

In 1906, Ferdinand went to work for Austro-Daimler as its chief engineer. At the time, Austro-Daimler was a unit of what is now Daimler-Chrysler. For most of the time period between 1910 and 1920, the company produced mainly war materials, yet Ferdinand went on to become one of the greatest engineers in the history of automaking.

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His car became known as the "people's car." Adolph Hitler, who was chancellor then, decided that every family needed a small car or tractor -- and a radio, to be able to listen to his propaganda speeches. The designer's vision was to create a mass-produced car that the average German could afford, yet to this day the car that bears Ferdinand's name is only affordable to the wealthy.

You probably recognize one of Ferdinand's cars by his last name -- Porsche.

But this story isn't about the Porsche sports car. Oh, sure, a man named Ferdinand Porsche did design the car that bears his name, but it was the son -- Ferdinand Porsche Jr. -- who was mainly responsible for the design.

The word "Porsche" does not mean "people's car." Not in German nor in any other language. The car that Ferdinand Porsche Sr. designed was… the Volkswagen Beetle.

After all, in English, the word "Volkswagen" translates into "people's car."

[Text from file received from Paul Niemann]

Paul Niemann may be reached at

Copyright Paul Niemann 2007

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