The inspired engineer behind so much of Porsche’s success, Helmuth Bott has long remained the company’s eminence grise, but little has been written about him. Now, Porsche Road & Race, looks at both the professional and private life of one of Porsche’s most devoted servants, revered by his subordinates, but whose contribution went increasingly unrecognised by the supervisory board, and who ultimately made a scapegoat of him.
The younger of two brothers, Helmuth Bott was born in Kirchheim unter Teck, 15 miles south east of Stuttgart, in 1925 and schooled in Esslingen in the outskirts of the Swabian capital. His father was an electrician for the local power company and used to joke that he could turn off all the lights in Turkheim. From him, the young Helmuth acquired his interest in things technical, fettling motorcycles like many teenagers, but the 1930s were harsh. Bott senior lost his job in the depression and in 1939 was drafted into the military despite being 44 and in poor health. It was during this time that the young Helmuth learned to become self-reliant. Before he could manage to complete his schooling though, in 1943 he too was pressed into the Wehrmacht as tank crew, seeing service in Yugoslavia. Hostilities over, he returned to Turkheim and completed his studies. He wanted to become a teacher, but his ambition to work in a Gymnasium was thwarted by the rigid education authority which deemed him, because of his interrupted studies, capable only of teaching in Grundschule. Frustrated, Bott spent his savings on furthering his technical qualifications and then joined Bosch as an apprentice. Six months later he moved on to Daimler Benz where he stayed a year and a half.
In March 1952, he was hired by a small Austrian company in Zuffenhausen which was renting premises from coachbuilder Reutter. Porsche had moved its sports car production to Zuffenhausen two years earlier and 26-year old Helmuth Bott became a factory assistant. In those exciting early days, there was as much work as you could handle and capable individuals were promoted quickly. Within months and whilst continuing his studies, Bott had his first major task: the Porsche (not yet called the 356) already had too much torque for its original VW transmission and the company urgently needed a new gearbox. Getrag offered an alternative unit, and Bott had to build the test rigs to prove the new transmission. He was soon writing service manuals and his evident pedagogical skills were soon put to use training new apprentices as the company grew. By 1955, he was Porsche’s chief test engineer and boss of the Versuchsabteilung.
The following year Porsche produced the 10,000th 356 and the company took advantage of expanding from Werk 1 to Werk 2 to increase output of what was now the 356A to 17 cars/day. The Zuffenhausen firm was already thinking in terms of the 356’s successor and reporting to Leopold Schmid, head of the design office, Bott, now an acknowledged chassis specialist, was instrumental in designing the MacPherson strut front suspension of the new 901. Never afraid to experiment, he rebuilt a crashed 356 with a Mercedes Benz front suspension and applied lessons learned to the new Porsche. By 1961 he was leading the team of road testers charged with resolving the new car’s handling. It was a daunting task. The two extra cylinders of the flat six upset the balance which, thanks in large measure to Bott’s incessant trial and error testing, had been such a feature of the 356. The challenge now was to achieve the same balance for the unpredictable 901. After an initial outing in a 901 prototype in November 1961, Bott’s frustration showed: “Terrible road holding, no brakes, too much steering slop, excessive roll and I can’t see out of the back. Katastrophal!”
However, one great improvement would be the completion of the test track at Weissach. Now Bott and his colleagues would have an alternative to the long and tedious drive to Ehra Lessien, the VW proving ground near Wolfsburg. In 1960, Porsche had purchased a 100-acre plot west of Stuttgart, between the villages of Flacht and Weissach. Helmuth Bott readily took the job of designing a 3km test track on a site which was to become possibly the best known automotive R&D centre in the world. As the process of taming the 901’s handling would go on, even after its launch in October 1964, being able to carry this out both in private and near the factory was a huge advantage.
In fact, the man who would finally resolve the 911’s wayward nature was Ferdinand Piëch who had joined Porsche in 1963 as a graduate engineer. Within three years Ferry Porsche’s 29-year old nephew had elbowed out development director Hans Tomala and taken over technical development and for good measure had also made himself chief of Porsche’s fledgling motorsport department. It is clear now that he sought nothing less than the control of his grandfather’s company and building Porsche’s racing image was central to his strategy. Piëch’s five years in this role have become the stuff of legend: Butzi’s elegant but heavy 904 Coupé was cast aside for the 906 Carrera 6 which would win the 1966 Targa Florio ‘straight out of the box’. This functional looking, but effective racer would be Piëch’s opening shot in an amazing series of sports racing cars which would culminate in the 917 and the first of 19 Le Mans wins. Piëch’s all-conquering 917, outlawed in Europe because it flattened all competition, then did the same in the Can-Am series, has become perhaps the most revered race car of all time. Meanwhile the 911’s flat six had been bored out to 2.4 litres and on the test bench was a 2.7 which would yield 210bhp in the breathtaking Carrera RS. But behind the mercurial Piëch whose energy was boundless and whose ambition overcame all objections, was the steadying hand of the man who was effectively his deputy, Helmuth Bott. With fifteen years at the heart of the company, Bott knew how to get things done in Porsche. Always ready to experiment, he was measured and above all he knew what to take over from earlier designs. As Hans Mezger later put it: “The more extensive the experience, the smaller the risk in a new development and the quicker and cheaper that development process.”
Married by now with two daughters and a son, commitments at Porsche meant that Bott was often away from home. Daughter Hildegrund, always known as ‘Grundy’, remembers that when her father did have time for them, it was always special. He was a brilliant story teller, captivating the children and he had a clever system of rewards, telling them when they were small that first one down to breakfast could take a rocket ship, which certainly got them out of bed in the morning. They could earn points and win a piece of garden to do what they liked with. Other prizes were books on their chosen subjects. This gift for motivating people was one of the first aspects Peter Schutz would later observe. Always very close to her father, Grundy remembers how she used to get up at 6:30 just to ride with him into Zuffenhausen even though she had a two mile walk to school afterwards. Later, being picked up by Vati in the latest 911 was always an event and deeply impressed her would-be boyfriends.
The year 1971 proved something of a watershed: Bott and his wife divorced: Grundy was seventeen and still feels the pain of that separation, and Porsche too reorganised itself. After years of rivalry which all sides recognised held the company back, family members including Ferdinand Piëch left the firm and Bott’s promotion to head of R&D a year later was just recompense for two decades of unstinting service. A competent and perceptive engineer, Bott was also an effective manager and he recognised and consistently he would bring on talent. He plucked Roland Kussmaul from the Leopold tank project and put him into test driving cars. Helmut Flegl, Norbert Singer and Tilman Brodbeck were other ‘Young Turks’ under his command. Today Brodman recalls an inspiring “father figure” who was approachable and always positive. He recalls how Bott reacted in 1978 when he told him he had been offered a higher paid job elsewhere. “He told me he couldn’t promise me anything, but as soon as something came up, he would put in a word for me.”
The decision by new CEO Ernst Fuhrmann to turbocharge the 911 would open a new chapter in the history of Porsche Motorsport which had faded after the banning of the 917. Bott recognised that the essentially obsolete platform of the 911 was all the company had to work with and throughout the decade, starting with the 934 and followed the 935 and 936, Porsche continued to produce race winners from it. Peter Schutz, who took over the CEO’s chair from Fuhrmann in 1981, describes how Bott got the best from his engineers: “He reorganised them every day to keep them focused on the task and the customer. He developed people to handle specific tasks, he reconfigured teams regularly and it kept his engineers creative as he was always feeding them challenges.”
It was this atmosphere that inspired the kind of lateral thinking from Norbert Singer that produced the ‘silhouette’ 935 which took the 1976/7 World Championship of makes. Wolfhelm Gorissen, project leader on the ‘Weissach Axle,’ remembers a boss who was always ‘highly dynamic.’ Part of Bott’s success was his consensual approach. He would not just issue an edict as Fuhrmann tended to, he would get agreement through discussion. By delegating responsibility deftly, he kept control and by continually adding to his engineers’ experience it meant his group had the confidence to take on any task.
“Nobody ever succeeded in overloading Bott,” reflected Tony Lapine, design chief and one of the R&D director’s rare detractors. “He would send out his troops. You could work easily with them. Bott was a development man, not a designer. He communicated more with the mechanics.”
Lapine was right. Bott was rarely happier than being in the workshop or out on the road and he drove hundreds of thousands of test miles for Porsche. Remarried and with a baby daughter, life in the mid 1970s regained an equilibrium for him. An opera enthusiast who could also sing well, he disconcerted Lapine on an occasion when the two were testing the 928 in Algeria. As they drove through deserts for days at a stretch, Lapine recalled he found Bott’s long, self-contained silences hard going, but then almost jumped out of his seat when the latter burst into song. Their relationship did not recover, but the ebullient Lapine and the self-effacing Bott were totally different characters. The former’s waspish comments reflect the rivalry between Porsche’s design and engineering departments which did not improve from Lapine’s point of view when Schutz arrived, and he found himself reporting to Bott rather than directly to the CEO as he had with Fuhrmann. Bott’s instinct was always to keep away from the politics and involve himself in his projects. And because he was so close to events, he could react quickly: a good example occurred when Peter Schutz joined Porsche. Fuhrmann had wound down development of the 911 and with it, racing activity, in favour of the 928 model, a minority view which led to his acrimonious departure from Porsche. Schutz, hired partly due to his marketing strengths, was appalled to find as a result that Porsche’s entry for the 1981 Le Mans consisted merely of three 924s which clearly would not win. Schutz told his staff that Porsche would participate with a potential winner or not at all. One of Bott’s lieutenants, Peter Falk thought of the 540bhp ‘Indy’ engine developed some years earlier, but never used, as US rules had changed making it uncompetitive for its intended American series; but in a sports car chassis it might be competitive. Bott immediately saw the possibilities and approved the project: the Indy unit was installed in a 936 recalled from the Porsche museum and famously won at la Sarthe. What is probably the fastest successful development project in the history of Le Mans is largely attributable to the way Bott ran engineering at Porsche and it opened the way for another decade of success in Group C racing for Porsche with the 956 and 962.
Grundy describes how, at home, her father was frequently busy in his workshop, disciplining himself it was said, to come up with eight or twelve ideas a week to develop for future use. Many of these ideas would resurface after his lifetime. American Porsche historian Randy Leffingwell speaks of an episode when Bott was track testing a car with Rolf Wütherich and neither could understand why the lap times were slower than they should have been. Then Bott thought of mounting a camera on the car and the subsequent footage showed that the car was moving laterally in the corners, imperceptibly to the driver, but enough to add a crucial second or two to a lap. Bott wanted to fit a G-meter to the 959. He also nurtured PDK in the hope that it could be fitted to the 959.
Much as Ferdinand Piëch had, Peter Schutz found himself relying on Bott’s judgement and he too was struck by the chief engineer’s incessant output of ideas and he cites more examples: Bott wanted Porsche to build tracks and driving centres to bring on Porsche customers (the idea crystallised 20 years later with the advent of the ‘Porsche Experience’); Schutz describes how Bott’s involvement in the (ultimately aborted) flat six aero engine project taught him to introduce aviation quality levels to component purchasing to make the race cars more reliable.
The 959 of course remains the apogée of Bott’s Porsche career. It was intended to showcase Porsche technical expertise, which of course it did magnificently, and provide a platform for this technology to be extended to the other models. But notoriously, the 959 overran its budget. “He and I both took a hell of a beating over that,” recalls Schutz, “but just look how much 959 technology has found its way into subsequent Porsches. All that stuff that nobody was asking for, yet Helmuth Bott anticipated it.”
Schutz points out that while most technical organisations were resisting the kinds of safety and environmental changes that were afoot in the 1970s, Bott was quietly working towards them: “He instigated proper crash testing, got Porsche to look at emissions and got the budget to build a wind tunnel. He made these things a Porsche speciality. When VW pulled the carpet from under Porsche in 1973 by taking all the development work away from Weissach, it was Bott who went out and got new third party customers – GM, Volvo, eventually even Mercedes Benz.”
This is a very good point. It was Piëch’s energy that got Porsche to build up Weissach from a mere handling circuit to a proper R&D establishment, and income from research carried out for VW which paid for it. However, it was Bott who established Weissach’s reputation and so secured its future profitability.
But life could bring unexpected and terrible twists. In 1977, Bott’s new wife succumbed to cancer leaving him with a four-year old daughter to care for. Nevertheless, at Porsche he successfully made the transition to a new boss, Peter Schutz, who would rescue the 911 from Fuhrmann’s planned oblivion and indulge Bott by sanctioning a new Speedster: Bott, a non-smoker and a fresh air enthusiast had quietly hidden his Speedster project away during the later Fuhrmann years.
As the US dollar gained strength, so did Porsche sales and profits. Bott married for a third time and in 1984 he moved his new wife Doris and now ten-year old daughter to a sprawling house at rural Buttenhausen, 60km south of Stuttgart. With its space and gardens, ‘Schloß Bott ‘at Buttenhausen became the focus of family gatherings. Here Helmuth Bott’s great pleasure was receiving and entertaining his increasingly numerous grandchildren. It was indeed a special time: the family has metres of cine film of a sixty-year old Bott, working in his substantial office or surrounded by adoring small children. In this domestic footage, is a visibly happy Helmuth Bott looking relaxed in a way he never does in Porsche Archive photographs.
As the eighties went on, Porsche’s solidity began to crumble. The dollar fell steadily and with it, Porsche’s sales in the crucial North American market. The reputations of the men at the top of Porsche began to look fragile. The brilliant and much lauded 959 came to symbolise everything that was going wrong at Zuffenhausen. Previously enthusiastic supporters of the Porsche super car project, the family and board members became restive and finally the knives came out. Schutz quit the company at the end of 1987, leaving Bott, his second in command, in an exposed position. Wolfhelm Gorissen recounts that Bott was profoundly dismayed by the rounds of budget reductions which frustrated his engineering projects. When Wendelin Wiedeking, then a production manager, pointed to the total absence of common parts between the 911 and the 944 and famously charged Bott with “trying to wreck the company” the accusation may not have been entirely unrelated to Wiedeking’s pique at not being promoted. But the episode undoubtedly seared Bott. He would resign a few months later, two weeks before the launch of the 964 Carrera 4, a radical new 911 in which his involvement had been instrumental. Characteristically, he did not communicate the depth of his disquiet to his colleagues. “We were completely shocked,” said Gorissen, “We never expected him to go.” Their shock was understandable: father figure and mentor to almost all of Porsche’s senior engineers, Helmuth Bott still had two years left before normal retirement.
It would be all change at Zuffenhausen, for on the heels of the departing Schutz was also styling director Lapine. Of Bott, Paul Frère would observe, “Until now, he still operated as one would in a much smaller business. The atmosphere will probably change with the coming of a younger and more management-oriented generation.” Bott’s successor, a former Porsche engineer, the 45-year old Ulrich Bez headhunted from BMW, was already waiting in the wings. But Helmuth Bott’s shoes were too big for him. Bez’s return to Porsche would ultimately be a fiasco and he would survive barely three years.
At 63, Bott’s energy was undiminished. At Buttenhausen he set up his own consultancy reflecting his need to remain creative. After 37 years at one employer, self-employment was psychologically a huge move, yet he was surprised how straightforward it turned out to be and how readily he found challenges outside Porsche. Within a couple of years, he was a board member of Kärcher, the cleaning equipment manufacturer and Kögel, an automotive company. He told Grundy, “If I’d known how easy it was to become a consultant, I would have done it years ago.” When Leffingwell visited him at Buttenhausen in October 1992, he was designing a forklift and the workshop was full of Kärcher machines. Leffingwell felt though that the wounds left by Bott’s premature departure from Porsche had not healed and did not raise the subject. Grundy, for her part, is still angry at the unceremonious way Porsche bundled her father out.
Perhaps the last time Helmuth Bott was seen in a Porsche context was in September the following year at the 30th birthday celebrations of the 911. Photographs show a smiling Bott together with Ferry and Huschke von Hanstein chatting and signing autographs amongst the 9lls gathered in the sunshine in front of the Stuttgart Rathaus. But within nine months, Helmuth Bott was dead, felled by stomach cancer. “It came on very quickly, in February 1994,” recalls Grundy. We didn’t even know he was ill. The funeral was an awful wet day at the end of May. All the family was there, but we almost didn’t arrive in time because of traffic.”
There were few attendees from Porsche, but Ferdinand Piëch was there and afterwards he was generous to Doris, Bott’s widow, says Grundy. From the way she describes him, Piëch always had a soft spot for the oldest daughter of his former right-hand man. For her part, she remembers a present from him – her favourite cheese, at her confirmation in 1968, and visits to the Piëch home, a truly regal place with servants and very different from the Bott household. Today Piëch still sends a Christmas card.
“Helmuth Bott certainly deserved better from Porsche,” reflects author and journalist Michael Cotton who knew Porsche’s engineering chief from his days as press officer at Porsche in the UK. “We did a tour of dealers for the launch of the 944. I admired his English and his enthusiastic advocacy of all things Porsche. He impressed everybody we met, a fine ambassador.”
A cultured man who read widely, he spoke French too and his linguistic talent was one of the reasons Porsche recruited him. The engineering hothouse that was Porsche allowed Helmuth Bott to develop not just his other talents, but those of his charges – dozens of productive careers, often men who would subsequently become highly successful and, but for the example set by their chief, perhaps taken their skills to higher bidders, as Tilman Brodbeck almost did, instead of staying at Porsche to finish the job.
Bott once told Christophorous: “For sports racing cars, the task is: without regard for cost, comfort or noise and in the shortest possible time a competitive car needs to be built which meets the rules and offers optimal performance and road holding with the smallest possible weight and volume.” This was the Porsche philosophy and it also defines Bott’s dedicated and methodical approach to an exceptional job which clearly was his life’s work. Beneath the skin of the modern Porsche, those who know can point to any number of features attributable to Helmuth Bott’s department. Hindsight and a little research simply confirm that this indefatigable and modest man probably contributed more to the ‘Excellence which is Porsche’ than any other individual.
Written by: Kieron Fennelly
Images by: Porsche