Helmuth Bott

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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 3.0km test track on a site that was to become the best-known automotive R&D center 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. (By 1962, Bott was Porsche’s chief test engineer and boss of the Versuchsabteilung, the experimental department.) 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 uncle’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 904 coupe was cast aside for the 906 Carrera Six, which would win the 1966 Targa Florio “straight out of the box.” Already it was Porsche’s sixth win in Sicily! This functional-looking but effective racer would be Piëch’s opening shot in an amazing series of sports racing cars that would culminate in the 917 and the first of Porsche’s 16 Le Mans wins. Piëch’s all-conquering 917, outlawed in Europe because it flattened all competition and 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 liters. On the test bench was a 2.7 that would yield 210 hp 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 15 years at the heart of the company, Bott knew how to get things done at Porsche. Always ready to experiment, he was measured and above all 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.”

It was a strength that would put Bott in good stead, and when Porsche was reorganized in 1971 (after years of a rivalry that both sides recognized 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 recognized and brought on talent. He plucked Roland Kussmaul from the Leopard tank project and put him into test-driving cars. Ulrich Bez, today CEO of Aston Martin, Norbert Singer and Tilman Brodbeck were other “young Turks” under his command.

Today Brodbeck recalls an inspiring “fatherly figure” who was open, approachable and above all always positive. He remembers how Bott reacted in 1976 when he told him he had been offered a higher paid job elsewhere. “He told me he could not promise me anything, but as soon as something came up, he would put in a word for me.” Designer of the RS 2.7’s Ducktail, Brodbeck would stay a further 33 years at Porsche and go on to work directly for five of its CEOs in a remarkable career. Singer would become world famous as Porsche’s aerodynamicist, and Kussmaul is the father of the later 911 RSR and GT3 models and their competition stablemates.

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