Oct 18 2015
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!
In 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.
When 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: