Ferdinand Alexander Porsche, who designed the first 911 sports car and went on to found a consumer products design firm that also carried the Porsche name, died Thursday in Salzburg, Austria. He was 76.
Born Dec. 11, 1935, in Stuttgart, Germany, he was the eldest son of Dorothea and Ferry Porsche, who along with Ferry’s father Ferdinand Porsche founded the business that grew into the sports car maker.
Porsche grew up in the auto business during a turbulent time. His grandfather designed the original Volkswagen Beetle for the Nazi regime in Germany in the 1930s as well as tanks that were used by the Germans in World War II.
As a child, “Butzi” — as he was known to his family and business associates — enjoyed designing and building his own toys. He attended the Waldorf School in Stuttgart and studied at the Ulm School of Design — a noted German design school that closed in 1968 — before starting work in the design department of the auto business in 1958.
Porsche officials recall that he quickly demonstrated strong design skills by producing the first Plasticine model of a successor to the 356 series — the 40- to 60-horsepower sports cars the automaker was developing at the time.
The Porsche 911, developed directly from the model and his drawings, was shown for the first time in September 1963 at the Frankfurt Motor Show.
The two-door, rear-engined car had large oval headlights and a low front hood. Its sloping teardrop roofline is renowned for its simplicity and gave the car an iconic silhouette that the current model still adheres to, more than half a century later.
The Porsche 911 went on sale in 1964. With the first model starting at $5,500, the rear-engine 911 evolved over the next four decades to become among the best-known sports cars internationally. The automaker debuted the seventh generation 911 late last year. It now sells for about $115,000.
Porsche headed the company’s design studio from 1962 to 1972 and is credited with developing the Porsche 904 Carrera GTS racing car.
“There has not been a single individual whose contribution to the Porsche brand over the decades since the ’60’s has been greater than that of Ferdinand ‘Butzi’ Porsche,” said Mike Sullivan, who owns the Porsche dealership in Torrance. “His iconic design of the original 911 has elevated Porsche to the top of the automotive world.”
Sullivan noted that the 911 that Porsche launched almost four decades ago “has singularly dominated sports car racing for most of the last 40 years as well as making Porsche the world’s most profitable auto manufacturer.”
Originally, the car was to be called 901 but the company had to change it to 911 because of a trademark dispute with French automaker and rival Peugeot.
“He established a design culture in our company that has shaped our sports car to this very day,” said Matthias Muller, chief executive of Porsche AG. “His philosophy of good design is a legacy to us that we will honor for all time.”
Porsche’s designs have had global influence, said Stewart Reed, chairman of transportation design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.
“Every designer has tremendous respect for Butzi’s influence. His work underscored the proof that small, passionate teams can accomplish great things,” said Reed, who recalled a visit to Porsche’s home when he viewed the original 911 plans with the designer.
Ford Motor Co. designer Freeman Thomas remembers seeing his first 911 in the mid-1960s at his neighbor’s house in suburban Orange County.
“I was smitten by Porsche by then and that inspired me to work for the company,” said Thomas, who later worked in the same department developing future 911s.
Thomas said Ferdinand Porsche’s design philosophy influenced his own work at a previous job designing the Audi TT sports car.
“His design work isn’t whimsical. It is very serious and is very user-oriented,” Thomas said.
Porsche was the honorary president of the automaker’s supervisory board at the time of his death but played a bigger role with the company as president of the board from 1990 to 1993, a period during which he helped execute an economic turnaround for the automaker.
In 1972, Porsche left the automaker to establish his own design studio, relocating it two years later from Germany to Zell am See in Austria.
He built the business by designing mostly men’s accessories such as watches, spectacles and writing instruments, which were marketed under the Porsche Design brand. His design team also worked on a variety of industrial products, household appliances and consumer goods for other companies.
“A product that is coherent in form requires no embellishment. It is enhanced by the purity of its form,” Porsche said of his design work. “Good design should be honest.”
Neither the automaker nor the design firm provided a cause of death or information about survivors when making the announcement.
Los Angeles Times auto reviewer David Undercoffler contributed to this report.