Book Review – Porsche: A History of Excellence

Automotive history books offer fascinating looks at the evolution of the ever important automobile. Books focusing on a single manufacturer show the design changes throughout the years, and each progressive generation demonstrates an improvement in refinement and looks. A book tracing the history of the Ford Motor Company, for instance, traces how we’ve ended up at a late model Taurus when we started with a Model T.

A History of Excellence

Porsche however, has an interesting position as an automaker whose most important car looks almost exactly the same now as it did 50 years ago. Yes, the 911 first hit the road in 1963 and looks like it does now, only slightly smaller. It’s not a tribute to the past either like the new Mustang, it’s the exact same lines. However, the technology behind the 911 and other Porsche models has come a very long way since the beginning of the company.

“Porsche: A History of Excellence” (Randy Leffingwell; Motorbooks; 2011) provides a penetrating look into the history of the one of the world’s most prestigious sports and race car manufacturers. We follow Ferdinand Porsche’s beginning as an engineer for Mercedes and designer of the Volkswagen Beetle to Porsche’s assent to its current position as a leading sports car maker.

The book features an excellent blend of text and clear photographs, tracing Porsche’s roots from 1930. That year, Ferdinand Porsche was fired from Mercedes after helping design a batch of winning racers earlier in the 1920s.

Daimler-Benz’s reason for firing him was that his designs were too expensive in the years after the stock market crash. He then designed the Volkswagen, at the behest of Adolf Hitler. After the war, this association would hurt Porsche’s attempts to restart his business as the French arrested him for war crimes and held him for 20 months without trial. He was eventually let out and returned to Stuttgart.

The First Porsche

The first car to have the Porsche name was the 356. Designed by Ferry Porsche, Ferdinand’s son, the car was used to raise enough money to launch the company. The 356 was mechanically similar to the Beetle in many ways. For example, the rear mounted, air-cooled engine was lifted from the Beetle as was the suspension and chassis. However, the company began to refine the car very shortly after its release, and a performance focus was born.

Porsche’s involvement in motorsport is a key part of the company. Racing more than anything else put Porsche on the map as a serious car builder in the late 1940s. The variety of racing series present at the time would foreshadow the various motorsports in which Porsche participated in the last 60 years.

The first Porsche racer was Walter Glocker. Glocker built roadster style racers with Porsche power in 1950 and took the car to a championship in the 1100cc class. In 1952, Ferry Porsche decided to build race cars in-house. Thus, Porsche’s racing heritage was born.

Porsche Racing Machines

Throughout the years, the racing Porsches have remained the most exciting cars the brand produces. Over half of the book focuses on the various racing machines developed by the company over the years. Today, Porsche participates in a huge variety of motorsports.

Through the years, Porsche has fielded cars in Le Mans, IndyCar, Can-Am, Formula 1 and numerous sports car racing leagues. Porsche is rarely thought of as a participant in open wheel racing, but in the 1980s, the company provided engines to front running McLaren. Porsche has also built IndyCars, although the first United States open wheel conflict between the USAC and CART resulted in the car never running.

Despite the various Porsche racing efforts, the biggest, most insane cars are the Le Mans beasts the company has built throughout the years. The 1970 Porsche 917 gave the company its first overall win. The car was the result of a project similar to Henry Ford II’s: win Le Mans, beat Ferrari. The 917 was also modified for the ridiculous North American racing series known as Can-Am. A series with very little regulation, the 917/30’s V-12 produced over 1,500 horsepower, probably the most of any road racing car ever. However, this setup was only run during qualifying, as running full turbo boost was dangerous for the engine. Still, the race trim of 1,100 horsepower was still quite ridiculous.

Another interesting Porsche racing project was their rally racing 959. While the production 959 was a technologically advanced supercar, the race version was designed to meet Group B rally standards for the Paris-Dakar rally. A raised, rally Porsche looks very out of place next to the many road racers, but it illustrates Porsche’s attempts to win at everything.

Porsche has, of course, continued to improve the 911, and the car is now regarded as one of the best in the world. The model is a superb road car as well as a fixture in sports car leagues around the world, including the 24-hour races at Le Mons and Daytona.

Non-Traditional Porsche Models

As of late, Porsche has branched out into several nontraditional cars including the Cayenne SUV, mid-engine Boxster and Cayman, and the Panamera sedan. Most radical is the 918 Spyder, a high powered hybrid which is featured on the cover of the new paperback edition of this book. However, the book has not been edited to include this latest model, nor the Panamera sedan. The book does provide comprehensive coverage of the historical models, and the true value of the title lies there. Everything important in Porsche’s history is here, pictures included.

Resources

“Porsche: A History of Excellence”; Randy Leffingwell; Motorbooks; 2011

Edmunds: Porsche Overview


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Harrison Card is a student at UNC Charlotte. He writes for UNCC's University Times, covering a variety of topics. Harrison is an avid motorsports fan, and has a huge interest in all sorts of automobiles ranging from the Ford Model B to the Honda Civic Type R.

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