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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

My Fascination Deepens as our Interviews Continue


This Typ 64 won for "oldest Porsche" during Sunday's great celebration that I described in the previous post. It was one of three assembled in 1939 for a planned race from Berlin to Rome. The race never happened and the cars remained with Porsche till after the war. Then one was destroyed, another nearly so, and this one survived, almost exactly as it is here. 

Monday morning started with the news that Norbert Singer still was in Belgium at Spa and, as a recently elected official of FIA, he needed to go to another racing circuit that afternoon. So our interview with him has shifted to this coming Friday at 1 p.m. That's all the better for us because Singer is a great storyteller with a wonderful sense of drama and, since he is our only Friday afternoon interview, we will sit in rapt awe listening to tales until sometime Saturday morning.

This is not to say that the rest of Monday was disappointing. How can you feel cheated when you get two hours with Hans Mezger, the Engine Maestro of Porsche? But with Hans, we barely got started and soon after we began, we hatched a plan to follow up with him next week. Mezger's career with Porsche began with the assignment to work with Mr. Wulf in engine design. Mezger had completed his graduate degree in engineering and, upon completion of his degree exams, he had 25 job offers. Ironically, not one was from Porsche. So he came here and knocked on the door. His reception was good news and bad. Mr. Wulf was in charge of diesel engine design for Porsche tractor division. Wulf told Mezger he would be designing new valve gear. Mezger admitted that he really had hoped to go into racing engineering and Wulf sent him home. But two weeks later, Egon Forstner, the head of technical calculation for Porsche called Mezger and hired him. There his first job was—again—valve gear, but this time, it was to revise the legendary Fuhrmann Typ 547 four-cylinder Carrera engine. That complicated engine set Mezger up for the rest of his career.

Following Mezger, we met Eugen Kolb. Kolb joined Porsche in 1953 after working at neighboring Reutter Carrosserie, preparing body panels for a prototype Studebaker that Porsche was preparing. When Kolb moved around the corner to Porsche, the company put him straight to work turning the 550 "Buckelwagen," the "humpback" prototype, into the racing car everyone knows and admires. His body-building skills kept him in the racing department and as Ferry Porsche's nephew, Ferdinand Piech, arrived in 1965, Piech's interests were in minimizing drag and achieving the highest top speeds. His philosophy was that tapered long bodies could accomplish that feat best and Kolb became the Long Tail man. He stretched the back ends of 906s, 907s, 908s, and 917s in the 1960s, and then provided aerodynamic tricks to improve the top speed of 956 and 962 coupes in the 1980s.

This morning, Tuesday, we renewed an acquaintance with Porsche designer Tony Hatter. Tony styled the 993 version of the 911, the last of the air-cooled models from 1994 through 1998. In the mid nineties the racing department decided it was time to win Le Mans again and to that with a car styled to reinforce Porsche’s brand identity—epitomized by the 911. So Tony was tagged to design the 911 GT1, a sleek, zoomy futuristic spaceship of a car that looked pretty much like the 993 from the front and like no 911 you ever have seen from the rear. Tony stayed on to do the 1997 and 1998 versions of the car, which won Le Mans in June of that year. He drove to the museum today in a car he found in one of my other books, the 911 Porsche Color Buyer’s Guide. And as Tony joked, he wished he had read that book before he bought the car. It needed work then. But we saw—and heard—it today and it was glorious.

We ended the day with more than two hours time with Helmut Flegl. He was the young talented engineer assigned to manage the 917 project from the start. He was 26, and he had to tame its challenging aerodynamic problems. He told us stories of dealing with John Wyer and his team to improve the body shape that helped keep the racer on the ground at speeds up to 380 kph (238 mph). Flegl also directed development of the luxurious and powerful 928 (which another of our interview subjects Walter Naher, took to Bonneville, Utah, and supervised its official run to 170 mph on the salt.) Flegl then got drafted to take on the ailing Indianapolis projects twice. It gave him a sour view of USAC the first time, and a sour view of his own management the second time. Then, of course, that management was dismissed, and Flegl stayed on.

Tomorrow, Wednesday, we have a full day starting with Tilman Brodbeck, an engineer who became administrative assistant to Ernst Fuhrmann, Peter Schutz, Arno Bohn, Heinz Branitzki, and Wendelin Wiedeking—that's more than 30 years of chairmen. I think his perspective on how Porsche's philosophy of racing has evolved should be interesting. Next is Christof Dimter who co-developed the racing PDK transmission with a team of others; and our final conversation tomorrow will be with current competition director Hartmut Kristen, who will bring us up to date with Porsche's latest thinking.

Stay tuned!

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