A circa-1960 Porsche Junior 1-cylinder diesel tractor owned and restored by Ed Brenner, Kensington, Ohio. Photo by Sam Moore.
When most people hear the name “Porsche,” the first thing they think of is a fast, sleek, German sports car. However, Dr. Ferdinand Porsche and his son Ferry designed and built electric cars and artillery tractors, airplane engines and battle tanks, as well as the lowly Volkswagen that became so popular in this country in the 1950s, besides fast sports cars. The Porsche firm also was involved in designing farm tractors, and briefly built its own line of diesel tractors.
The elder Porsche was born in Austria-Hungary in 1875. While working at an electric company in Vienna he sketched ideas for an electric car with a separate electric motor in each wheel hub. In 1898, Porsche went to work for a Viennese carriage builder, Jakob Lohner, and in 1900, the Porsche-Lohner Chaise won Grand Prize at the Paris Universal Exposition. The front-drive Chaise had Porsche's hub-drive motors and could go 30 to 50 miles, at 9 mph, without recharging. Porsche's next car combined a Daimler gas engine and a generator to drive the hub-mounted motors. This car was a success, but Porsche became restless and in 1905 accepted a job at the Austro-Daimler Motor Works.
There, Porsche developed a conventional car with a 4-cylinder engine and 4-speed transmission. He later built a streamlined version that he entered in endurance runs where he usually won. As war threatened in Europe, Porsche designed lightweight engines for military aircraft and in 1913, he built a large tractor for the Austrian army that was capable of pulling heavy artillery over most any kind of terrain. This vehicle had a gasoline engine that drove a generator, which fed power to electric motors in each wheel hub.
After the war, Porsche moved to Germany’s Daimler-Benz, where he designed the legendary S, SS, SSK and SSKL Mercedes-Benz sport-touring cars with their powerful super-charged engines. Porsche had long believed that the working classes of Europe were ripe for a cheap family car like the Ford Model T that had taken America by storm. His employers, however, felt that the peasants should be happy to walk or take the streetcar, and insisted on making large, expensive machines for the upper classes.
In 1931, Porsche left the auto industry and, with son Ferry, opened a design studio in Stuttgart. The Porsche team developed torsion bar suspension and in 1934, designed a small car for the NSU company. This car featured torsion bar suspension and an air-cooled, horizontally opposed, rear-mounted, 4-cylinder engine and, although it never went into production, it resembled the later VW Beetle.
About that time, German Chancellor Adolph Hitler agreed to subsidize a Porsche-designed racing car built by Auto-Union, a 200 MPH, V-16, mid-engine machine that dominated Grand Prix racing in Europe for several years. Hitler also wanted a “People’s Car” and began to back Porsche’s efforts to build such a vehicle. By October 1936, three prototypes of what would become the Volkswagen were ready for testing and, despite some problems, were successful enough that 30 more were built. In 1937, 44 improved VW cars with 24 hp engines were made that were almost identical to the final production models.
A new factory was built at Wolfsburg to produce the Volkswagen, but the start of war in September 1939 meant that very few cars were actually built and most of those went to Army or party officials. During the war, Porsche designed a military version of the VW called the “Kubelwagen,” translated as “bucket-car,” apparently due to its shape. This machine was to the German Army what the Jeep was to the Allied forces and it was used on the sand of the African desert and in the bottomless mud of Russia. Porsche also designed several different heavy tanks for the Krupp Armament works, although, with the exception of the much-feared Tigerpanzer, those weren’t at all successful.
After the war, the Porsches were imprisoned for nearly two years for their war-time activities. After their release in 1947, they resurrected their design company and turned their attention to a small, rear-engine sports car. The prototype Model 356 was built in 1948 and clearly showed its Volkswagen heritage. The Porsche sports cars have since enjoyed a reputation for speed, handling and meticulous craftsmanship.
There is evidence that Porsche was involved in designing a “Volksschlepper,” or “People’s Tractor,” in the days before the war, although no prototype was ever built. In 1947, the Allgaier 18 and 22 hp, 1-cylinder diesel tractors debuted. The Allgaier machines were crude, being not much more than an engine on a simple frame with wheels and a seat, so in 1949, Allgaier asked Porsche to design a new tractor. The Porsche-designed Allgaier had a distinctive, streamlined hood and air-cooled diesel engine. Several models, from a 12 hp single-cylinder to a 4-cylinder, 44 hp version were sold. The Allgaiers were painted orange with red wheels and almost 40,000 were built before production ended in 1955.
From 1956 to about 1964, Porsche tractors were built in Friedrichschafen, West Germany. Offered with 1, 2, 3 and 4-cylinder, air-cooled diesel engines, Porsche tractors had a rounded, shark-nose hood and were painted bright red with off-white wheels. The 1-cylinder Porsche Junior and the 3-cylinder Porsche Super were tested at Nebraska, with the Junior putting out 9.58 drawbar hp and the Super 33.4 hp. (To see an unusual Porsche P312 “Coffee Train,” a narrow and streamlined tractor built for use in the Brazil coffee plantations, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1BTqjXrlcI and watch the very first, bright orange tractor as it sets off on a road run.)
Ferdinand the elder died in 1951 and Ferry in 1998, bringing to a close a remarkable career of more than a century of automotive invention, design and development.
Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.