Porsche’s first CEO is frequently maligned as the man who tried to kill off the 911. There is far more to his Porsche career than this misconception as he was the inspiration behind the 911 Turbo.
Viennese Ernst Fuhrmann was one of Ferry Porsche’s first post war employees, joining the Konstructionsbüro, then based in Gmünd in 1947. The pair worked together on several major projects, including the Cisitalia 360 racing car, a dauntingly complex 1500 cc supercharged flat-12 with four-wheel drive. Then the company moved back to Stuttgart and production of what would become known as the Type 356 got underway.
Soon after Porsche’s pioneering appearance at Le Mans in 1951, Ferry began to wonder if much more power could be extracted from what was still basically the VW flat-four, and he turned to Ernst Fuhrmann to investigate the possibilities. The result was the four- or quad-cam engine for which Ernst Fuhrmann led the design, drawing the cylinder heads himself. Using double overhead camshafts (instead of the VW unit’s overhead valves and pushrods) it had twin ignition and roller bearings for the crankshaft and the connecting rods. It was also dry sumped, the start of a long production engineering tradition at Porsche. Comprising 1498 cc capacity, the prototype engine produced a remarkable 112 bhp at 6400 rpm, revving on to 7500 rpm. This exceptionally potent unit would become the backbone of Porsche’s major competition successes through the 1950s.
While many customers were buying the 356 for competition, it was also logical to build a production version using this engine. Porsche named this model the Carrera after the company’s racing successes in Mexico. Fuhrmann proudly drove a pre-production model version himself, but such was the demand for the new Porsche when it was presented at the 1955 Frankfurt Show, that he was prevailed upon to give it up as a demonstrator. When a customer wrecked it, Ferry intervened to ensure that as a replacement his engineer got the original Frankfurt show car, complete with chromed wheels, a measure of the esteem in which he held his fellow Austrian.
Fuhrmann was a man of exceptional energy and ambition: it was said that if he could not obtain components he needed for development projects from the factory at Zuffenhausen, he would go out to one of Stuttgart’s many engineering firms and buy parts out of his own pocket. Finally, the frustrations evidently became too much when in 1956 Klaus von Rücker was appointed technical director, a post that Fuhrmann believed that after a decade at Porsche should be his. He resigned, but he would not remain unemployed for long: one of the enthusiastic Porsche Carrera driving privateers was Rolf Goetze, head of the piston ring and engine parts maker. Both Fuhrmann’s engine and the man himself had impressed Goetze and he invited the Austrian to join his company where within a relatively short time he would become technical director.
Porsche at that time was still managed by its owners, essentially Ferry and his sister Louise Piëch. Family run concerns are prone to disagreements, as the pair discovered, and the problems of integrating each of Ferry’s and Louise’s children in the family firm simply worsened as the 1960s wore on. In 1970, the ruling families elected to bring in professional, third party management at Porsche to end the automatic right of family members to positions of authority in the firm. These appointments had caused often paralysing internecine warfare, particularly the differences between Ferry Porsche and his turbulent nephew Ferdinand Piëch. To lead this new team of managers, Ferry thought of his erstwhile colleague Ernst Fuhrmann.
He knew through the grapevine that Fuhrmann had fallen out with Goetze and no longer worked there. To see how interested his fellow Austrian might be in returning to Porsche, Ferry deputed Helmuth Bott and Ferdinand Piëch to find out. The pair drove to Fuhrmann’s home at Teufenbach in southern Austria and made Fuhrmann an attractive offer: Ferry would stand back to become chairman of the supervisory board of the new Porsche AG and Fuhrmann would be technical director, with R&D at Weissach and production at Zuffenhausen under his authority. The experienced and reliable Helmuth Bott would be his second in command. Fuhrmann accepted: this was a far bigger promotion than he had aspired to in 1956, as he told writer and historian Randy Leffingwell 20 years later: “The telephone rang: it was Helmuth Bott asking whether he and Piëch could pay me a visit. They showed me designs for new cars. I had nothing else to do: the position was simple, easy to handle. It was nothing complicated.”
Dr Fuhrmann, the only Porsche CEO who has ever been a ‘total car nut,’ according to his former assistant, Tilman Brodbeck who knew all the CEO’s up to Wiedeking well, was as interested in the racing scene as in technical development. For Fuhrmann, the hothouse engineering of competition cars improved the breed and early Porsche Archive pictures show him at Schauinsland and Le Mans with Porsche clients. After Porsche’s victorious 1970/1971 season with the 917, there was plenty to excite him when he rejoined Porsche. The FIA banned the 917 in Europe after 1971, but prizes lay in the Canadian-American series, the Can-Am, hitherto dominated by McLaren. Through the Penske team and drivers Mark Donohue and George Follmer, Porsche would win two consecutive championships for the now turbocharged 917/30.
Both Fuhrmann and Ferry recognised that after the grandiose 917 programme, Porsche would have to cut back its racing budget; Fuhrmann saw too that, given the development time and budget a new production model would need, the 911 would have to be Porsche’s mainstay for the foreseeable future. He also understood the importance of racing for Porsche’s reputation and at his urging, the Carrera 2.7 was developed from the 2.4 911 S for Group 3. He had to overcome a conservative Porsche establishment which previously, by rejecting the proposed 911 R, had seen off no lesser figure than Ferdinand Piëch. Randy Leffingwell describes graphically how Fuhrmann won his case through logic and strength of character:
“The naysayers and their successors who had dismissed the viability of the 911 R saw here a new R and threw up obstacles. This time the naysayers were more numerous and they had additional allies now: Porsche and VW had joined sales forces as the VW Porsche marketing company based at Ludwigsburg. However, Fuhrmann was motivated: what if Zuffenhausen assembled 500 cars, each stripped as needed for homologation? What if buyers could order them with the same interior as the 911 S with sound proofing and steel bumpers?”
It was a classic divide and conquer approach: having weakened the opposition – the marketing department had already decided they could call this special 911 the Carrera RS, Fuhrmann struck. In a dramatic scene witnessed by chance by Tilman Brodbeck, Fuhrmann forcibly told his sales chief he would either sell 250 cars or none at all. Production went ahead.
It would prove an inspired decision: the time was right, word went around, and the RS famously sold out practically on its launch at Paris in 1972, obliging Porsche to scramble build another thousand simply to meet demand. The Group 4 track derivative, the brutal 2.8 RSR, won at Daytona in February 1973 before the RS’s homologation papers were even complete.
Porsche was not alone in turbocharging racers and turbochargers were now on several car manufacturers’ agendas: in 1971/1972, factory turbocharged BMW 2002s had the measure of naturally aspirated 911 Ts in the German championships. To set the ball in motion, Fuhrmann had his engineers dust off the early turbo projects initiated by Piëch in 1969. His determination dismissed the ‘can’t be done’ attitude that sometimes prevailed among the Weissach men who claimed the 911’s engine compartment had no space for a turbocharger. Fuhrmann simply overrode them: “make it fit,” he commanded. He had seen from the blown 917s that turbocharging did not fundamentally affect the engine, so there was no need to undertake expensive structural work to make blocks or cylinder heads stronger. The most important aspect for a production car would be fuelling and emissions, and he pressed 911 development manager Paul Hensler to make the turbo installation work with the Bosch injection system which was replacing mechanical fuel injection on the rest of the 911s. An enthusiastic motorist, Fuhrmann was keen to drive a turbocharged Porsche himself and by May 1973 had a blown 2.7 development car. It suffered long turbo lag, but typically Fuhrmann used this to demonstrate to his engineers what they had to overcome for production.
Launched at the 1974 Paris Salon, the series production 3.0 911 Turbo, the 930 became a far bigger success than Porsche had imagined, endowing the company with a genuine supercar and bringing a new and well-heeled clientele into the Porsche fold. As Karl Ludwigsen puts it, the Turbo was just the car needed to keep Porsche’s dream of great cars alive. The 400 unit FIA homologation requirement for the Turbo was achieved in a few months and by 1977, barely three years later, the 911’s track supremacy reached its zenith with customer turbocharged 934s, and ‘silhouette’ 935s dominating GT and sports car racing. As victories accrued, Porsche would become a byword for turbo mastery.
Fuhrmann was an engineer’s engineer: in his first years as CEO he liked to involve himself in projects instead of going through his subordinates, dealing directly with Valentin Schäffer for example who built the first turbo prototype. This used to exasperate technical director Helmuth Bott as Schäffer recalls that Fuhrmann merely regarded Bott as a ‘chassis man.’ He would also attend testing sessions and Mark Donohue amongst others was impressed to see him pick up a spanner to work on a 917 at a winter testing outing at Paul Ricard. The Austrian always had a taste for the latest technology and had his 930 fitted with an early ABS system, though he quickly had it removed (and vetoed further development) when the system failed completely when he sailed through a busy cross-road, miraculously without accident.
Often imperious with colleagues, which inside Porsche eventually made him deeply unpopular, with outsiders Fuhrmann could also be extremely personable. Mark Donohue recalled how Porsche’s CEO had sought him out after the American finished a bitterly disappointing fourth at Riverside in 1972. A pit misunderstanding had cost him a certain win though Porsche still took the Can-Am title. In his autobiography, Donohue recalls how, disconsolate, he had gone back to his motorhome in the paddock only to have Fuhrmann knock on the door, “He said: ‘you should have won: let’s have a drink.’ And he produced a bottle of whiskey which we drank without ice or glasses: it showed me how much he appreciated what I had done for Porsche and what a fabulous down-to-earth guy he was.”
When Ernst Fuhrmann returned to Porsche in 1971, the future of cars like VWs and the 911 were in doubt because of impending American emissions and safety regulations. Besides widening the 911 offer with the 2.7 RS and the Turbo, he also saw his opportunity to make a Porsche according to his own interpretation. This amounted to a kind of better engineered Chevrolet Corvette, because, as Tony Lapine, who had the widest US experience put it, the Americans would be unlikely to outlaw the kinds of cars they were making themselves. Hence the futuristic-looking 928 combined a front mounted V8 with Fuhrmann’s famous transaxle – the gearbox mounted at the rear to achieve near perfect weight distribution, an obsession of his. The 928 proved a very fine GT, but, knowing observers remarked, built by the wrong company. Although they had worked hard and imaginatively to produce it, few in Porsche ultimately liked their creation: it was too far from the Porsche tradition, said Horst Marchart, the man who would later mastermind the 986/996 platform.
Meanwhile his worrying announcements about a timetable to end 911 production were causing tension in the company, and his emphasis on the 928 was driving a wedge between him and Ferry Porsche. The latter understandably felt the Porsche heritage was being usurped, though crucially he failed to say so openly. Ferry, essentially a mild-mannered man, could be very decisive when it mattered – the bold decision to buy out Reutter just as the company was tooling up to build the 911, or boldly evicting family placemen from the management. Yet he would not confront his CEO on the vexed question of the 911. The atmosphere caused Fuhrmann to turn in on himself. He lost interest in racing, became angry and shrill with subordinates and issued his famous Verbot on further 911 development, even threatening Bott with consequences if the latter pursued his Speedster project.
The American automobile writer, Jerrold Sloniger, then a close observer of the Porsche scene and later US editor of Christophorus, writes that in early 1979 there was a move to have Ferdinand Piëch brought back from Audi to serve as Fuhrmann’s deputy, taking over from him in 1983 when the latter reached statutory retirement age. The plan fell through when the union member of the supervisory board, a post today held by the heavyweight Uwe Hück, objected, pointing to the ill-feeling that Piëch’s intense style had caused during his time at Porsche. Piëch hardly helped his own cause by making less than favourable remarks about the 928 and claiming his turbocharged all-wheel drive Quattros were an ‘alarm signal’ for Porsche.
The 928 nevertheless won the 1978 Car of the Year Award, but in Ferry’s absence, it was a lonely triumph for Fuhrmann. Antagonism increased when Ferry discovered that his managing director had not followed up a four-wheel drive study project in conjunction with Piëch. Such technology would have been incompatible with the transaxle, but typically Ferry and his CEO had never discussed it. Fuhrmann became more defensive and unapproachable and his sense of isolation grew and Ferry had moved his office out of Werk 1 to Ludwigsburg, to avoid seeing his CEO on a daily basis. This surreal stand-off could not continue as the boardroom dissentions were affecting the whole company to the point where it was almost paralysed. At last, mutual friends arranged for Fuhrmann to retire elegantly by taking a professorship at Vienna Technical University which had become vacant.
It is easy with hindsight to say that Ernst Fuhrmann was wrong to want to phase out the 911, but in 1972 a distinct uncertainty hung over the 911 concept but in any case, few car designs could now expect to last the 15 years of the 356. As for the 928, in its early years, almost as many units were sold as 911s; its transaxle sibling, the 924 (and later 944) provided vital turnover for more than a decade and broadened Porsche’s market.
In 1991, reflecting on his departure from Porsche, Fuhrmann told Leffingwell, “The 928 failed because it wasn’t a 911. In 1979 I even said to Dr Porsche I was prepared to go any day he had a new man capable of starting a new (post 911) programme,” an offer which was probably responsible for bringing Ferdinand Piëch briefly into the discussion. With some justification, Fuhrmann maintained though, that his three achievements at Porsche were the 4-cam engine, turbocharging the 911 and giving Porsche engineers their head. He argued, again not without reason, that in 1972 he had saved the company. And his Porsche colleagues did not all forget him as in October 1993, technical director and fellow Austrian Horst Marchart journeyed with a small group of Mitarbeiter to Teufenbach to celebrate their old boss’s 75th birthday. Peter Falk, the engineer most associated with the first twenty-five years of the 911, was also a regular visitor. He has always maintained that Fuhrmann was not against the 911.
Small in stature, Ernst Fuhrmann had to make up for this disadvantage, says Karl Ludwigsen in Excellence was Expected, through sheer competence: and that he did. A brilliant engineer whose enthusiasm inspired others and whose vision for the 911 put it on race tracks and in the public eye as never before, he effectively created through the 911’s storming second decade, the icon it would become. If Ernst Fuhrmann erred, it was in not recognising this. His continued obsession with leaving his mark at Porsche finally blinded him to the fact that he already had. His vision gave a Porsche, flagging slightly after two momentous decades, a vital second wind and the 911 Turbo, arguably with the E-type Jaguar, the most recognisable and aspirational sports car of the twentieth century.
Ernst Fuhrmann was born on 21 October 1918 in Vienna, Austria. He died on 6 February 1995 in Teufenbach, Austria, aged 77 years
Written by: Kieron Fennelly
Images by: Porsche Werkfoto