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"The little-known secrets behind the men & women who shaped America"

German engineer becomes one of world's top car designers

By Paul Niemann

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[July 09, 2009]  The engineer 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.

HardwareHe 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 engineer's father owned a plumbing business, and Ferdinand was expected to take it over when his father retired. Despite earning his plumber apprenticeship, 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 a 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. Ferdinand was not driving the archduke's car on that fateful day, however.

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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 automotive history.

His car became known as the "people's car." Then-chancellor Adolph Hitler decided that every family needed a small car or tractor, with a radio in it, 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 Ferdinand's other car 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."

[By PAUL NIEMANN]

Paul Niemann's column has appeared in more than 80 newspapers and counting. He is the author of the "Invention Mysteries" series of books and can be reached at niemann7@aol.com.

Copyright Paul Niemann 2009

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