In a 34-year career at Porsche, the influence of Peter Falk – Porsche’s enduring engineer, can be found throughout the air-cooled and transaxle model ranges, and extends even to the 986/996 generation. He was also team manager for many of Porsche’s Le Mans efforts and oversaw the company’s rise from class winner to crushing overall victory in 1970/71, repeating this performance through the 1980s.
Peter Falk is one of those seminal Porsche figures who seem to have been around forever and it is hard to imagine that he retired from Weissach 24 years ago. Now in his ninth decade, he is still keen to participate in local Porsche functions and is always a highly popular personality at classic events.
“My father was an archaeologist and I was born in Athens. My parents returned to Germany in 1939 and settled in Pforzheim [30 miles west of Stuttgart]. After my studies, I joined Daimler Benz as an apprentice.” Although he had the opportunity to become a senior engineer at Mercedes, he turned this down, preferring an altogether less prestigious, but potentially more exciting sports car builder on the other side of Stuttgart. “I loved sports cars,” he said “and Mercedes cars were all too big and heavy to inspire me.” The appeal of Porsche’s neat 356 Coupé, not to mention its racing derivatives was obvious, and having presented himself at Zuffenhausen, the experienced but youthful 26-year old Falk was recruited straight into the experimental department, reporting initially to Helmut Rombold, and later to Helmuth Bott.
“In those days, it was still a small company and production and competition cars were built alongside each other, so development overlapped. My tasks involved the 356s and RSKs.”
Soon he was involved in testing the 901 (911 to be). He acknowledges that the model’s handling difficulties were not ironed out before the launch despite a summer of gruelling testing at the Nürburgring in 1963, and development continued for another year and more.
Life at Porsche involved an immense amount of practical testing and Falk had to get used to driving huge mileages, something he says he never minded, indeed he was described as a highly skilled wheelman. He also recalls the frustrations of testing: “We had a 904 at Ehra-Lessien (VW’s proving ground) in late 1964, where I was with Herbert Linge and Colin Davies. We did 2500km in a couple of days then the gearbox seized. A year later, we took a 906 there again and we found it cornered faster than the 904 (1.24g to 1.10g), but we couldn’t complete the planned 1000km test because of oil starvation.”
To establish the 911’s sporting credentials and with minimal preparation, he and Herbert Linge drove an almost standard car to an unprecedented fifth place in the 1965 Monte Carlo Rally. Falk is characteristically modest about this: “Linge drove all the special stages. I did the in-between driving.”
Sometimes testing could be particularly dispiriting, for example at Monza in December 1968. Falk was supervising the testing of a pair of 908s for the forthcoming Daytona race, but both cars crashed in the rain and burned out. He had to return and explain this to his boss, and so a pair of new 908s had to be hastily assembled for trials to continue at a freezing Weissach. Nevertheless, Falk, a solid exponent of the Bott ethos of sticking to the job till it was done, was rewarded by appointment to the head of vehicle testing in April 1969.
Porsche enthusiasts will recognise Peter Falk though above all, as the mainstay of numerous racing teams and in particular the company’s attempts at Le Mans. At Zuffenhausen in 1966, Ferdinand Piëch had become motorsport chief and it was immediately apparent that the von Hanstein regime, which had concentrated on visibility and class wins, was being replaced by something far more ambitions. Piëch wanted to win Le Mans outright, and his energy and personality would galvanise Porsche’s racing effort as never before. Ferry Porsche’s nephew had his eyes on his uncle’s job and competition success was his chosen weapon. The space frame 906 was the first of a series of sports racers which would culminate in perhaps the greatest sports racing car of all time, the 917.
Famously, although it was a prototype, Porsche still had to build 25 to satisfy the FIA. Falk remembers the day in late March 1969, with all twenty-five 917s aligned in a perfect row at Zuffenhausen for the FIA inspectors’ approbation. It is now known that few of the cars were strictly race ready. “But they were all complete,” says Falk, “and they were all driveable even if they had 911 brakes and other production components.” Even by today’s standards, the 917 is a dauntingly big car. “Piëch said openly to the inspectors – drive one, any one – but none of them accepted his offer!”
With the 917 duly approved, it went to Le Mans for the 1969 race. The 917’s subsequent aerodynamic woes have been well documented, and Peter Falk simply confirms that it was the John Wyer team that devised the modification to the tail which stabilised the car at high speed, though Porsche had also reached the same conclusion.
From 1973 as head of testing for production cars, his attention focused on the new transaxle range. He explained how Porsche adapted to front-engined, transaxle format, “Fuhrmann pushed the 928 because in the early seventies it did appear that the 911 would not meet forthcoming federal emissions and safety legislation.” Falk respected Fuhrmann as a fine engineer, but it was a direction he and his colleagues would follow with a heavy heart. “Even then, the 911 was the image of Porsche and we didn’t want to stop the development.” But good professionals they were, and Falk’s group got on with the necessary proving of the transaxle prototypes.
Fuhrmann gave way to Peter Schutz and in a dramatic change of strategy, the 911’s development was revived. “Schutz was a salesman,” opined Falk the engineer. “He just wanted to sell cars, but he made one brilliant decision, and that was to return to Le Mans.” New to the company, Schutz went to Weissach where he was shown the 924 GTs, precursors of the 944 Turbo, being prepared for the company’s low key Le Mans entry. He asked whether they would win only to be told that a class victory was the best they could hope for. Schutz responded, famously, that Porsche would not go to the 24 hours unless it would win and told the assembled engineers to show him something that could win. Peter Falk had an idea, “I suggested we could use the 936 with the 2.7 engine we had developed for the North American CART series.”
The engineers converted the engine from methanol to run on petrol and in a fairy tale ending, one of the two 936/81s finished first at Le Mans driven by Ickx and Bell. “It opened the way for us in Europe in Group C with the 956 and the 962,” said Peter Falk.
In 1981, Porsche’s competition programme expanded again, having been scaled back by Fuhrmann, and as a sign of its new importance, Bott made Peter Falk head of the racing department. This suited Falk: “While I was on passenger car duty I’d always been interested in competition developments.” But Falk had plenty to contend with, “We concentrated on the Dakar because Bott and Schutz wanted a 4×4 911, given the success of the Audi Quattro. We needed to get into competition and by going for a desert rally like the Dakar, there were very few restrictions and we didn’t have to build the homologation minimum of 200 cars. I spent a lot of time test driving in the desert. We also made a prototype for Le Mans [Type 961] because we wanted to show that the Porsche 959 could be just as effective as a track car.”
By now Porsche was pioneering PDK in its sports racers and they wanted to use it in the 959, but for the 1986 season, PDK was used more widely in the 962. Peter Falk says they still kept a manual gearbox car for the Le Mans 24 hours that year though, a conservative decision which paid off – the manual car won, but the PDK 962 failed to finish. “By the 1980s we’d learned lot about strategy and making the cars last and we picked mature drivers like Bell, Ickx or Barth who could be relied on not to over work the car when not under pressure,” Falk added.
A production project which Falk did have qualms about was the first 4-door Porsche, the 989. “It was a very good car. We did much of the proving with the engine, gearbox and chassis installed in a Mercedes saloon, and the development went well, but it just kept getting more expensive.” How did he react to the final version that was built, “The Panamera is a fine car, but it isn’t a Porsche in the same way that a 911 is. Of course, the image of the 911 is not as strong now because Porsche makes a wider range of models. For me the Panamera is too much of a departure from this tradition. Panamera owners are not part of the Porsche tradition.”
Peter Falk went to Le Mans on Porsche’s behalf thirty times: “My last visit was in 1994 as a guest. To be honest, I was bored because for the first time ever, I wasn’t responsible for anything: I didn’t have anything to do.”
He is sanguine about today’s Le Mans operation: “Of course I want Porsche to win, but it’s not the same now, things were different then.” One senses the Porsche traditionalist coming to the fore in Peter Falk’s normally gentle and considered demeanour. “There is no criticism on the technical side, they’ve had 300 people working full time on this project. I just don’t have a good feeling about the way Porsche goes about it now and I know most of my retired colleagues think this way too. Heute gibt es keine Bescheidenheit mehr [today there is no longer the modesty there once was].” On one level, Falk is referring to the fact that once upon a time Porsche’s entire Le Mans winning effort comprised a mere 20 engineers and mechanics, yet they managed to win consistently. Today’s resources seem unlimited by comparison.
One of his final duties at Porsche was to prepare the seminal brief for the 993 after the relative disappointment of the 964. He wrote that the new 911 should be light, tactile and agile: essentially his paper sought to restore the purity of the relationship between driver and machine, the difference between a Porsche and other cars and which he evidently felt was in danger of being lost. If today’s Porsche operation lacks ‘modesty’ for him, this is understandable: Porsche was a small company which punched far above its weight, thanks to the absolute integrity of its engineering.
He was a man of his time and if the social, legislative and commercial imperatives of the twenty-first century dictate that ‘Excellence’ has had to be redefined, that diminishes nothing of the fine achievements of Peter Falk.
Written by: Kieron Fennelly
Images by: Porsche Archive