Ferry Porsche on the Styling/Engineering Compromise

Ferdinand Porsche’s second postwar visit to the USA was in August 1952. The trip was arranged by Max Hoffman, who had visited Austria for a summer vacation and brought news of a possible consultancy opportunity with Studebaker. This gave the Porsche chief a very good reason to travel.

To discuss the Studebaker project and to catch up with what else was going on across the Atlantic, Ferry, Dodo (his wife) and engineer Karl Rabe (pic, left) sailed to America on board the Queen Elizabeth from Cherbourg to New York. The following passage is from “We at Porsche”: Ferry’s autobiography, which was written with the help of John Bentley.

“I went on to Detroit and called on an old friend, Zora Arkus-Duntov, who had transformed the original lifeless Chevrolet Corvette into a world-famous sports car – in fact the only true machine of this type built in the United States. He took me to the Research Centre of General Motors where I met Bill Mitchell, the chief of styling. We talked about new cars and walked through his office where he had some models. He pointed to a particular one and held it up. Here was a typical example of the communications problem between styling and engineering.

“”To get a nice looking front end on this car,” Mitchell said, “the engine must be lowered. I therefore modified the carburetion system to bring it lower and made other changes in the engine.”

“Arkus-Duntov, who was standing beside me, did not react favourably. “What nonsense,” he said. “There is no way to build such an engine.”

“This was all I needed to realise how far apart a stylist was from an engineer. If it was necessary to bring these two minds together, a third person would be needed who had a clear idea of what could and could not be done by both parties. Such an individual need not be either the best stylist or the best engineer, but he must know exactly how to bring about the most effective compromise.”

Given the unique look of the 356 and the first 911s ahead, Ferry’s opinion on the need for compromise between styling and engineering is interesting. One could say that this was the key skill of Erwin Komenda (pic, centre), who brought such life to the early Porsche products. A talented engineer and a great visual artist, Komenda was perhaps the ultimate agent of positive compromise.

The original meaning of ‘compromise’ suggests a joint agreement, from the Latin ‘com’ (together) and ‘promittere’ (promise). The word has taken on a negative aspect in recent times, as in “compromised security”, which is just a soft PR way of saying broken, failed or ineffective. This sense of compromise is not how Porsche would have viewed it, but some of the compromises made on later models could be regarded as counterproductive. There is seldom an upside in compromised principles to reach shallow goals.

However styling and engineering were balanced, durability was never negotiable. Reliability was Ferry’s first priority in all things Porsche. Herr Doctor would sacrifice anything else to ensure Porsches were reliable, as no Porsche should ever be seen broken down. He would not have handled a flat tyre in a car with no spare wheel very well.

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