It was about Ferdinand Porsche

Last week, I posted a quote about a car industry executive and asked you to guess who it was from a list of famous leaders. 12 of the 29 respondents thought is was about Taiichi Ohno, and only 5 about Ferdinand Porsche, the designer of the best selling car in history, the Volkswagen Beetle, among others, including early electric and hybrid cars.

The quote is from p. 56 of Andrea Hiott’s book about the history of the beetle, called Thinking Small. Porsche was from Austria, and the paragraph is about his first experience in Germany, in 1923. I sanitized it a bit, removing, for example, the name of the previous boss, Paul Daimler, which would have made the answer obvious. Several of the elements left in, however, I thought pointed to Germany, in particular:

“This was a place where distance was part of the work environment and certain lines were just not crossed. […] The engineers in their clean white coats…”

I don’t know how German factories were in 1923, but, 90 year later, in the brand new Porsche plant in Leipzig, you still see ranks marked by coats of different colors. You don’t see that in Japan, and you rarely see it in the US.

German professionals explicitly mark their status by including their academic credentials on business cards, so that you know whether the person you are talking to has a PhD or a Masters. According to Hiott, Ferdinand Porsche was self-taught, and awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Vienna. His German employer in 1923, however, forbade him from putting “Dr. ” on his business card, because, even though the University of Vienna was not exactly a diploma mill, Porsche’s doctorate was not from a German University. A couple of years later, the University of Stuttgart solved the problem by granting Porsche another honorary doctorate!

1000thVWIn the minds of most Americans, including myself until reading this book, the Volkswagen Beetle is tainted by association with the Nazis. In fact, Porsche had been working on a “People’s Car” for almost 20 years before Hitler came to power, for a succession of employers and clients who did not follow through. In what Hiott describes as a “Faustian bargain,” Porsche took the support of a demented dictator in the hope of finally getting the car built, but it didn’t happen in any kind of volume until after World War II, and the success story redounds to the Federal Republic’s Germany, not Hitler’s. After the war, Porsche  was investigated by the allies and cleared.

thinksmallWhen discussing the success of the Beetle in the US market, Hiott also describes how it was advertised, particularly with the 1959 “Think small” ad which, down to the font used, looks like a precursor to Apple’s “Think Different” four decades later.

The complete poll results are as follows:

2 comments on “It was about Ferdinand Porsche

  1. Porsche’s genius ranged from the small Beetle to Germany’s largest tank of world war 2 to reach the prototype stage. The180 ton Maus (mouse). His legacy of engineering brilliance still dominates the company culture. Their production methods were influenced by TPS through the training and consulting they did with Shingijutsu’. I was on several of their workshops in Japan attended by Porsche people.

    • Yes, VW was influenced by TPS in the last two decades, but my interest — which prompted me to read Andrea Hiott’s book — is in what Toyota learned from Germany in the 1930s. Unfortunately, the book contains no mention of any Japanese contacts.

      I know that Toyota R&D chief Kazuo Kumabe went to Germany in 1936 and published a report about German factories in a Japanese technical journal, and I am trying to get my hands on it. It is referenced on the Toyota global website as follows:
      Kazuo Kumabe (隈部一雄) “Learning Lessons – A Look at German Factories” (他山の石-独逸の工場を見て) (Kikai oyobi Denki,機械及電気, May 1936)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *