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For decades, Porsche has been practically synonymous with sports-car excellence. The earliest Volkswagen-based two-seaters captured the attention of Fifties sports-car fans. Soon afterward, the legendary 911 boosted the intensity of that interest, while the latter-day Boxster and Cayenne have stimulated other breeds of Porsche enthusiasts.
When Porsche's first Austrian-built two-seaters debuted in 1949, they were considered little more than sporty versions of the coming-soon Beetle. Ferdinand Porsche's sports-car project actually began long before. Way back in the 1880s, he'd worked in his family's metalsmith business. Interested in electricity, in 1890 he built a full electrical system for the family home.
While at college, Ferdinand also served an apprenticeship. By 1898, he was managing the test department at an electrical equipment company. Very soon, he joined with Jacob Lohner to develop automobiles with electric and gasoline/electric engines-the latter qualifying as the first hybrid-powertrain model, a century before hybrids came to prominence.
By the end of World War One, the elder Porsche was managing director at Austro-Daimler. In 1923, he moved to Daimler-Benz, where he worked on design for the memorable SSK road racers. Just as the Depression was about to explode, Porsche moved to the Steyr organization as head engineer. But he'd been pondering small cars for some time, so he formed his own design firm at Stuttgart in 1930. For that endeavor, Porsche was joined by Karl Rabe (who would serve as Porsche chief engineer into the Sixties).
Project 7 was a small car ordered by the Wanderer company, but the big one came in 1934. Requested by Adolf Hitler himself, Project 60 would become the Beetle, or "people's car." In 1936, the first three Volkswagen prototypes were ready. Meanwhile, Porsche also worked on massive mid-engined V-16 Auto Union Grand Prix racers.
Soon after V-E Day ended in 1945, Ferdinand and his son, Ferry, were arrested by American occupation forces. French authorities ordered them to help with creation of the Renault 4CV, and the Cisitalia racecar. Ferry was released in 1946, but Ferdinand remained incarcerated longer.
Both men were ready to start on a sporting variant of the Volkswagen, dubbed project 356, evolved from a design that originated before the war. Porsche's two-seater was largely based on VW components, including a tuned version of the air-cooled engine. A chassis was ready by March 1948. Soon came an open body with a low windshield-a profile that would help establish Porsche's identity as the years went by. By summer 1948, a streamlined closed coupe also was finished, and production began late that year.
Porsche exhibited at the Geneva Motor Show in 1949. About 47 cars were built in 1948-50, with aluminum body panels. After permission was granted to return to the original facility at Zuffenhausen, the first German-built Porsches left the factory in April 1950. Soon after, Ferdinand died of a stroke, but Ferry Porsche carried on.
Two new 356 models appeared at the 1951 Frankfurt show. In 1954, Porsche introduced the racy open-topped Speedster, which became especially popular in the U.S. By the mid-1950s, three-fourths of Porsches were coming to America.
Those early 356 models saw many improvements through the 1950s and early 1960s; but late in 1964, a new 911 series replaced the 356. The new model's 2-liter flat six-cylinder rear engine developed 130 horsepower.
Fuel injection became available in 1970, and 911 engines grew several times during that decade. In 1975, the turbo 911 adopted a 930 Carrera designation. Late in the 1960s, Porsche embarked upon a joint project with Volkswagen to created the 914.
Financial woes in the 1970s led Porsche to expand, turning out a lower-cost 924 and a more posh 928. That duo helped stimulate recovery. Unlike prior Porsches, the 924 had a front-mounted, water-cooled four-cylinder engine, while the 928 had a V-8. Through the 1980s, Porsche issued such disparate models as the moderately-priced 944, a 911 cabriolet, and the ultimate 959 supercar with a 450-hp six-cylinder engine, four-wheel drive, and Kevlar body. By then, Porsche's legendary reputation for quality and performance were firmly established.
A lower-priced Boxster roadster joined for 1997, joined nearly a decade later by the Cayman coupe. Porsche launched its first Cayenne sport-utility vehicle for 2003. Even more surprising to purists was the four-door Panamera, introduced in 2010. Still, that sleek 911 remains the mainstay of the Porsche stable, the prime example of Porsche excellence and exuberant performance.