Life on four wheels

Matthew Valentine checks out the Porsche extravaganza taking place at the Design Museum and finds a wealth of historical interest on display.

From the Volkswagen Beetle to the current 911 Carrera, the name Porsche has been bound up in the public imagination with the development of the car. And the force of the impact made by cars means the Porsche family has had a profound influence on the 20th century.

Staff at the Design Museum are well aware of that fact, and expect its latest exhibition, created by CDT Design, Ferdinand Porsche: Design Dynasty, to be the most successful event in the museum’s history. It highlights the fact that generations of Porsches, starting with Ferdinand, born in 1875, and carrying on via his son (the recently deceased Ferry) and grandson (Butzi) and a variety of in-laws, have exerted a constant influence over German car design.

Visitors, unless they are devoted students of motoring history, are likely to be surprised by the extent of Porsche’s influence, which started long before the Beetle or Porsche-badged sportscars.

The first exhibit to greet visitors makes just that point. A Lohner Porsche electric car, it celebrates its 98th birthday this year and uses a hub-mounted propulsion system patented by Porsche in 1898.

If you are in any doubt as to its long-term influence, you may wish to remind yourself that the same hub-mounted power system drove space agency NASA’s Lunar Rover, more popularly known as the Moon Buggy. The system was developed 100 years ago, because of the belief that internal combustion engines were noisy, dirty and environmentally harmful.

Ferdinand Porsche was not always so politically correct. His political leanings have been questioned, and he was imprisoned by the French after the Second World War because of two dead bodies found in his house. He was only released after the enterprising French government accepted a sizeable ransom from his family. Porsche also kept some dubious company.

The most historically loaded exhibit at the exhibition, a humble Volkswagen, concerns one of his acquaintances. No ordinary Beetle, it is one of two surviving experimental models from the Thirties. While the rest of the prototypes were tested to destruction this one was saved and given as a 1939 birthday present to Adolf Hitler, the driving force behind the development of the people’s car.

Historic racing cars which rarely see the light of day form part of the exhibition, including a 1922 Austro-Daimler Sascha and a 1924 Mercedes Monza. Generously loaned from private collections, serious followers of motor racing will jump at the chance to see them, as they may not be shown to the public again for decades.

They lead to an early example of the most famous Porsche, the 911. More than 30-years-old, every single component of the car has been altered in its subsequent development. But its basic shape and configuration, with the air-cooled engine hanging over the rear axle, remains the same.

Speed freaks can ogle a 959, the 200 mile-per-hour Eighties supercar, a Boxster and a current 911 too. But for real speed, they need look no further than the 1970 Type 917 Short Tail Coupe. In the Seventies this car won almost every race it was entered in, setting world records while it was at it.

But, despite the collection of rare and exotic cars on display, there is something missing. And while a lack of space, and a need to focus on the most important models, is the official excuse, an element of snobbery may have crept in.

Whatever the reason, there isn’t a single example of the front-engined models 924 or 944 on display, and only a scale model and an engine from the 928. These models didn’t appeal to a lot of enthusiasts, who were concerned that the engine was at the “wrong” end for a Porsche. They were also, especially the low-price 924, a bit, well, common.

More apt then, in a show which honours the company which produced the definitive Eighties icon, to focus on cars which are reassuringly expensive.

Ferdinand Porsche: Design Dynasty is at the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1 until 31 August

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