Ferdinand Alexander Porsche, better known as Butzi, passed away on April 5, 2012. While his death was widely reported, I feel that his real contributions to design were underreported. Butzi Porsche was quietly responsible for three of the most important car designs ever. This might be for purely personal reasons. My first car was one of his designs, a 1974 Porsche 914. However, I think that simply gave me a unique perspective to critique his design thinking.
Car design is a field that has always been dominated by emotional designs. From the sexy lines of a Ferrari to the brutish Hummer, it seems that comparisons to emotion and personalities are never far away in the car industry. However, Butzi Porsche's contributions in the 1960's stand away from that. He consistently avoided showy design affectations like giant wings, scopes, bursting wheels, etc., to focus on a kind of logical and very distinctive styling all his own.
Butzi Porsche was the grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, the engineering genius responsible for the VW Beetle, mid-engined pre-war Auto Union Grand Prix cars and many other incredible and creative automobiles and transport. Butzi worked at Porsche from 1957 until 1972, when the Porsche family pulled out of the day-to-day management of the company. Before that, he studied industrial design for only a year before being dismissed. It could be because his drawing skills were not up to snuff, something he made up for with his model-making ability.
After joining Porsche, Butzi was moved around the company by the design director Karl Rabe. He spent nine months in engine development before moving to the car body division. This gave him a wider vision of design's place at the company, "I was already sure what I was going to do one day. It was definitely to work with the car body in relation to the engine, and in connection with that, the design." A very modernist vision that is as fresh today as it was in the 1960's.
Car design has always been a form before function domain. Up until the 1940's, many luxury car companies didn't even make the body or interior of their cars. That was left to coachbuilders who designed the bodies and interiors around a finished frame. This resulted in beautiful sculpture that contributed nothing to the mechanical functions of the car. Even in 2011, VW's designers developed the Up concept, imagining it was a rear engine vehicle. Without changing the design, the engineers managed to change the Up to a front-engine layout. That's how little design and engineering are considered together in most auto design. As always, Porsche thinks differently.
Butzi's first projects were in the racing department. He worked with the body department to craft the very simple cigar shape of the 1962 Formula 1 car. Then, he worked in tandem on the rebodied production racer, the 356B 2000GS Carrera 2 and his first masterpiece, the 904. Working with the Stuttgart University on aerodynamic models, Porsche found that a chopped roof would reduce lift while maintaining the efficiency of their normal fastback form. Using this knowledge and sculpting the front end of his 904 prototype onto the 356 production car, Porsche created the very awkward, but fast 2000GS Carrera 2. From there, using the same design principles and a clean sheet of paper, Butzi created the sleek, purpose-built 904 race car.
The 904 prototype race car was a rushed project. Porsche retired from F1 after 1962 and wanted to make an impact in the 1963 sports car racing season. Therefore, Butzi and the racing department only had 4 months to design and build the first car. Like all great design, Butzi was forced to start with constraints. In this case, the race organizer's rules constrained the wheelbase, track or width between the tyres, overall length and width as well as certain interior dimensions. The body even needed to accept a regulation specified suitcase in its trunk. Working around these strict constraints, and with the help of an all fiber glass body, Butzi created a lithe and extremely simple body.
Even in the 1960's, race cars normally had odd projections, scopes, holes and grilles peppered over their bodies. Because the 904 had to be quickly frozen to meet the four month deadline, Butzi's sleek design had to be left unaltered by the engineers. The only openings on the 904 were a small linear opening at the front to feed brake cooling and oil coolers, two small openings behind the doors which followed the sloping roof and a grille above the engine which featured a delicate slat grille. Like the other designs that would follow, it wasn't showy. The tires were narrow and tucked into the body, the windscreen stood upright, the form minimized as much as could be. Even the hardware was delicately applied: just a button with the door pull being a recess in the fender to allow the door to be grabbed. Nothing could be added to the design without making it busy and nothing could be taken away without rendering it unsafe or slow.
Butzi's next project was the 911 for production in 1964. The 911 would replace the firm's only road car, the 356. Where the 356 liberally used the VW parts bin— the engine, suspension, transmission, wheels and more were only slightly modified versions of the VW Beetle versions—the 911 would be an enormous risk for the company as it would need to design and build nearly every part from scratch.
Butzi's work began with several concepts between 1959 and 1963, when the design was frozen. The 911 design clearly followed where his father and grandfather had tread. It still featured a fastback shape in the rear and upright round headlights at the front. However, the overall form was simplified, making it look less organic and more functional. Again, Butzi had to work across departments to achieve the final shape. An aerodynamicist named Josef Mickl fine-tuned bumpers, grilles and overall form. Hans Mezger, in charge of engine design, developed a dry sump system, where the engine oil is stored in a tank outside the engine, instead of at the bottom of the engine. This allowed the engine to be lowered, and in turn the body work was lowered as well.
The result was a car that solidified the Porsche style while stripping the design down to the minimum. The curves of the 356 were straightened slightly and any trim being paired back to the basics. As Butzi would reflect, "I just think that you start creating edges when the body of the car is bad. This is true too for protective stripes, or styling stripes. They are lines that support something that ties the designer down." The same simplicity carries over to the interior. The dash a horizontal bar interrupted only by the gauges, similar to the first Miata nearly 30 years later. The gauges were expanded from 3 in the 356 to 5 in the 911.
The final car that Butzi would work on during this period is the Porsche 914. Sadly, it was a confused project that never got the chance it deserved. It started in 1966 when VW contracted Porsche to develop a replacement for their Karmann-Ghia as part of a larger contract to replace the Beetle. The larger project was cancelled after a change in VW management, and the 914 project drastically cut back. VW would still produce the 914, but left marketing to Porsche. Because of this, it was never a priority at VW and suffered horrible quality problems, specifically the body fit. As a 914 owner, we have a joke about how to spot a 914 that has been in an accident: the body panels fit right.
For design, the project started at Butzi's old design school in the hands of his ex-professor Hans Gugelot. Gugelot, a designer who had worked with Dieter Rams on Braun appliances, had created a basic model of a two door sports car for BMW. After BMW rejected the project, Gugelot had proposed the design to Porsche management. However, Gugelot died in 1965 and Porsche brought the project in house. Butzi Porsche, working with stylist Heinrich Klie and engineer Gerhard Schroder began to refine the design.
The very low nose and pop-up headlights were taken from Gugelot's models. Porsche applied a Targa-style roof, similar to one that Porsche pioneered on the 911. They dramatically improved the proportions of the car, and changed the wheel wells to make the car look even lower. The surfaces were cleaned up, removing some awkward vents and door handles. Lastly, the b-pillar sails were cut back giving less of a fastback look to the car.
The results were one of the simplest cars ever to make it to production. The hood and trunk were completely devoid of any superfluous forms, being nearly flat. The sides of the car only featured a thin lip around the wheel wells, necessary to give the metal rigidity and one of the most beautiful door handles ever sitting flush on the body. The front gained personality from fitting the turn signals upright, similar to the headlights on a 911. In back, the car ends nearly vertically with rectangular taillights carefully fit between the bumper and trunk. The interior continued the simplicity of the 911 with its horizontal bar dashboard and gauge pod.
After the 914, Butzi's career at Porsche was over. In order to protect the long-term viability of the company, the Porsche family thought it best to pull out of day-to-day operations and hire professionals to run the company. Butzi Porsche went on to start his own design consultancy, Porsche Design. In 2002, He stated that he offered his advice on the very different and flashy Porsche Cayenne SUV. Similar to the work that he did at his consultancy, it was never quite as exciting or refined as his 1960's work. Perhaps it's because he could never be as integrated in manufacturing and business working as a consultant as he did as the son of the owner at Porsche. Or maybe, it could have been that his modeling-heavy process was just more successful with auto design than consumer products.
Looking back on Butzi Porsche's 1960's work however, I feel that he should be put into that elite pantheon of modernist designers: Mies van de Rohe, Dieter Rams and Paul Rand. Just as those designers pioneered modernism in the fields of architecture, product design and graphic design, Butzi Porsche pioneered it in car design. Just like the others in my list, it's easy to pass over Porsche's contributions. When I started my design education in 1997, Dieter Rams was just another name to remember for a design history exam. After Apple reminded us of how great his designs were, he's returned to the celebrated place at the front of our minds. However, car design has never had this kind of modernist renaissance, and perhaps, never will.
O'Dell, John. "Form, function and the shape of things to come." The Winnepeg Free Press 22 November 2002
Leffingwell, Randy. Porsche: A History of Excellence. Minneapolis: Motorbooks, 2008.