A gifted engineer who played a key role in the creation of the Porsche empire but was airbrushed from history. Gone but not forgotten Porsche designer Erwin Komenda. Words Delwyn Mallett.
There’s a wonderful Academy Award-winning documentary called 20 Feet From Stardom that focuses on those forever anonymous voices that form the backing to the spotlit stars soaking up the adulation at front of stage.
You could say that Erwin Komenda – the man who drew the shape of the most recognised car of all time and created the template for one of the finest sports cars of the 20th Century – is just such a voice, for his entire career was spent out of the limelight as backing singer to frontman Professor Ferdinand Porsche and, later, his son Ferry.
Not only was he a background figure; for many years Komenda was the face on the cutting room floor. The Porsche PR machine seemed reluctant to acknowledge Komenda’s contribution at all, trimming him from the left of the oft-reproduced 1948 photograph of Porsche number one (above), leaving only the figures of the Porsches, father and son. Even today the German Wikipedia site can barely muster four lines of text to describe one of the country’s foremost industrial designers.
Komenda was born in 1904 in Jauern am Semmering, Austria, where his father was the technical director of the region’s first electricity plant. In 1913 the family moved to the village of Weyer, close to the industrial town of Steyr, where Komenda attended technical college and followed that with a car body construction course in Vienna. For six years from 1920 he worked in the Weiner Karosserie-Fabrik, before joining Steyr as a car body designer. There he met Ferdinand Porsche, who had joined Steyr in 1929 for a brief stint as technical director. Komenda then moved to Daimler-Benz as deputy director of body design, before joining Professor Porsche in his newly formed design consultancy in October 1931. He would remain with Porsche for the next 35 years.
As the chief body engineer for the Porsche team, Komenda combined the technical knowledge and skills of an engineer with the artistic flair of a stylist – a description of which he would not approve, as he considered himself first and foremost an engineer. There was a high degree of crossfertilisation between the members of Porsche’s tightly knit design team, but the products that rolled onto the road and race tracks wore suits that were drawn by Komenda, whether the humongously horsepowered 16-cylinder Auto Union Grand Prix cars or the built-down-to-a-price 25hp People’s Car.
In 1938 Komenda drew the ultimate version of the Beetle, an ultra-streamlined racer intended for a propaganda race from Berlin to Rome. The race was cancelled due to the outbreak of war but the Type 64 demonstrated the sporting potential of the VW and, a decade later, Komenda’s pen drew the car that set the template for the legendary Porsche 356. Through the 1950s Komenda regularly updated the 356, drawing Cabriolets and the immortal Speedster, as well as the competition Spyders on which Porsche’s racing reputation was steadily being built. The eventual need to replace the 356, however, led to conflict.
Although a quiet and undemonstrative character, Komenda was no push-over. It is reported that he did not automatically give the Nazi salute when in the presence of the regime’s panjandrums and was one of the few among his staff who would argue with Professor Porsche – both father and son. In the long run, though, his strongly held opinions pitched him against the third generation of Porsches (and Piëchs) who were joining the company.
Komenda’s final years with Porsche were fractious. He was of the ‘old guard’, and his ideas conflicted with those of the newly hired Butzi Porsche, son of Ferry and grandson of the Professor. The tortuous evolution of the 911 pushed the relationship to the edge. Komenda favoured a spacious four-seater and seemed reluctant to abandon his cherished sweeping curves, while Butzi wanted a svelte, sporty, harder-edged 2+2. Mock-ups were made for each proposal and, in a face-off, the man in the driving seat, Ferry Porsche, chose the model proposed by his son.
Although that decision might, on the surface, appear to be nepotism, it was clearly correct. The curves of the 356 had run their course and the new 901 (soon retitled 911) was the future, destined to be yet another classic. In a final twist, Butzi Porsche was appointed as the new head of design. Komenda, stricken by lung cancer, died on 22 August 1966. He was still employed by Porsche at the time of his death.
‘IT IS REPORTED THAT KOMENDA DIDN’T ALWAYS GIVE THE NAZI SALUTE WHEN IN THE PRESENCE OF THE REGIME’S PANJANDRUMS’