Gottlieb Daimler’s company had grown into a staid, conservative enterprise producing a succession of dreary automobiles when Ferdinand Anton Porsche strode in the door in the 1920’s. Daimler, of course, was one of the earliest auto pioneers, assembling a motor carriage in 1886 almost on top of the work being done by his fellow German, Karl Benz. In 1907, Paul, Gottlieb Daimler’s son, took over the chief engineering post at the company, and, while he made certain it maintained its reputation and a builder of sound engines, there wasn’t much excitement or verve attached to the Daimler brand.
Ferdinand Porsche, however, would alter all that.
It wasn’t that the Porsche was personally exciting. He wore the title Doktor well, because there was a definitely professorial air about him from his rumpled outfits to his fedora hat. But the genius embodied in the vehicles he built, from first to last, was sensationally exciting.
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Porsche exhibits early engineering prowess
In 1875, Porsche was born in Maffersdorf, Bohemia, the son of a tin man, and his father wanted desperately for him to take over the tin shop he ran. But Ferdinand Porsche had other ideas. Despite his father’s objections, he attended an engineering and electrical trade school and, by age 18, he had created a miniature generating station at his home.
As the millennium turned, Porsche lent his considerable talents to Lohner, designing a vehicle that had individual electric motors attached in the front wheel hubs, an arrangement that most of today’s electric vehicle designers favor. He was so confident of his design that he competed with it, setting a record for negotiating Austria’s Semmering Pass.
Further work on electrics ensued, including a four-wheel-drive model with motors in each wheel hub and a gasoline-electric hybrid that utilized an internal combustion engine to generate electric power. Then Porsche left for Austro-Daimler, an Austrian company that created cars under license from Gottlieb Daimler’s German company.
Shakeup at Daimler
The arrival of Porsche in 1905 began a new era for Austro-Daimler. He engineered a series of advanced automobiles and directed the company’s entry into the Prince Henry trials, a well-regarded European reliability and speed event. With Porsche himself at the wheel of one of the cars, Austro-Daimler ended first, second, and third in the initial event. The 5.9-liter overhead cam four cylinder Porsche designed for Prince Henry was one of the best engines of the pre-World War I period.
The onset of the Great War limited Austro-Daimler’s progress, but quickly after its conclusion, Porsche put together the AD 617, a tourer armed with a 60-horsepower 4.2-liter overhead cam six. Porsche also drew up the first of his “people’s car” ideas that would eventually result in the Volkswagen. The 1.1-liter car called the Sasha was to be financed by Count Alexander Kolowrat, a silent movie millionaire, but the project never reached completion.
Mercedes engines jumped ahead
Soon after, Porsche moved to Mercedes and started to put together a string of ahead-of-their time engines. While he developed a two-liter 8-cylinder for racing that developed as much as 150 horsepower with a supercharger, he focused on sixes for passenger cars. Among those vehicles was the 400, equipped with a 4-liter 70 horsepower engine (100 horsepower mit kompressor,) and the 630, equipped with a 6.3-liter engine that belted out 100 horsepower (or 140 horsepower in supercharged form.)
These proved but a prelude to what Porsche would put together after Benz and Daimler completed their brief courtship with marriage in 1926. Among the first cars launched by the new combined concern was the 630K with the “K” denoting the car’s short wheelbase. This is the version that would soon evolve into the Mercedes-Benz S, SS, and SSK variants that were to become the scourge of the European racing circuit.
Engine stood out with alloy
At the core of all these cars was an engine that was very likely the most advanced powerplant of the decade. In an era when even the most successful racing engines were largely made of cast iron, the single overhead cam six cylinder that Porsche designed utilized an incredible amount of aluminum alloy. In fact, alloy was used for the pistons, short block, and crankcase. In fact, the cylinders were lined with cast iron.
In his pursuit for perfection, Porsche left no stone unturned. Rather than using the conventional gasket between crankcase and block, the professor made certain that the two parts were machined so precisely that no gasket was necessary. The same incredible attention to detail was displayed in both lubrication and cooling systems, two areas where many racing cars of the day were sadly lacking.
Reaching back as far as his days in the Prince Henry trials, Porsche was well aware that if you expected to win races you had to finish them, so the S, SS, and SSK are a cunning combination of bulky and lightweight pieces, depending upon their function. The running gear was substantially heavier than that of many of the cars’ contemporaries. The universal joints and differential were nothing short of beefy.
Early account of power brakes
Moreso, Porsche didn’t skimp in the brakes either. The giant mechanically operated drums are so big that some versions of the S were fitted with Bosch vacuum-operated motors to help in applying them. (Power brakes wouldn’t come to many areas of racing until 50 years later.) Once again, the Porsche genius was to add innovation to innovation. In several models, the brakes were hand-adjustable from the driver’s seat and the brake drums were copper-plated to accelerate heat dissipation.
With the same basic construction, the 6.3-liter engine was followed by the 6.8-liter, which supplied 180 horsepower in supercharged form under the hood of the 680 S. The S also benefited from a lower frame than the 680. In 1927, at Nurburgring, the Mercedes-Benz S totally dominated the German Grand Prix, placing first, second, third and fifth.
Supercharger improves power even further
The subsequent year, Porsche, who was on his way out at Mercedes-Benz, bumped up the engine’s displacement to 7.1-liters. In this form, the engine was good for 170 horsepower at 2900 rpm when normally aspirated, and when the Rootes-type supercharger kicked in horsepower dashed up to 225. In straightforward Porsche fashion, the supercharger was attached forward of the block and driven by the crankshaft, sending its 12 pounds/square inch of boost into the side-draft carburetor. Drivers were requested to limit their supercharged burst to less than 15 seconds in duration.
With this enormously powerful engine driving his short-wheelbase SSK, Rudolph Caracciola led another Mercedes-Benz sweep in the 1928 German Grand Prix. Mercedes-Benz SS models, fortunately finished second and third.
Consumer model developed
However, far from just a racing special, the S and SS models (and a few SSK’s) were also fitted with roadster or 4-seat touring bodies and sold to customers for everyday use. Even in this form, the SS was capable of speeds of more than 100 miles per hour, and a special SSKL (“L” designating light) with a streamlined body attained 156 miles per hour at a Berlin race circuit in 1931.
By 1931, of course, Porsche had gone on into the consulting work that would eventually result in the Kubelwagen, the Volkswagen, the rear-engined Auto Union Grand Prix car and the German Tiger tank. By then, both his fame and the fame of the legendary Mercedes-Benz S, SS, and SSK had been secured forever.
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