Helmuth Bott

The engineer who helped define Porsche's philosophy of excellence

Photo: Helmuth Bott 1
May 29, 2013

Porsche’s longest serving senior engineer when he retired abruptly 25 years ago, the former R&D chief is usually remembered for the space-age 959, but there is much more to the career of Helmuth Bott, long the backbone of the Weissach he was instrumental in creating.

Born and schooled in Kircheim unter Teck, 15 miles southeast of Stuttgart, in 1925, Helmuth Bott was pressed into the Wehrmacht as tank crew in the latter stages of the war. When hostilities ended, he continued his studies and became an assistant teacher at different locations in the Swabian region. As Germany recovered, Bott found himself looking beyond teaching at some of the engineering enterprises that were reopening or starting up in Stuttgart.

From 1947-49, he worked as a mechanic at Daimler-Benz, and then from 1949-52 studied mechanical engineering at the University of Stuttgart. During those studies he also was a design trainee at Daimler and a test trainee at Bosch.

In March, 1952, he was hired by a small Austrian company in Zuffenhausen that was renting premises from coachbuilder Reutter. Porsche had moved its sports car production to Zuffenhausen two years earlier, and 26-year-old Helmuth Bott became a factory assistant.

Photo: Helmuth Bott 2

In those exciting early days, there was as much work as you could handle, and capable individuals were promoted quickly. Bott soon had his first major task: the Porsche (not yet called the 356) already had too much torque for its original VW transmission, and the company urgently needed a new gearbox. Getrag offered an alternative unit, and Bott had to build the test rigs to prove the new transmission. He was soon writing service manuals, and his evident pedagogical skills were soon put to use training new apprentices as the company grew.

The following year Porsche outshopped the 10,000th 356, and the company took advantage of expanding from Werk 1 to Werk 2 to increase output of what was now the 356A to 17 cars per day. The Zuffenhausen firm was already thinking in terms of the 356’s successor and Bott was reporting to Leopold Schmid, head of the design office. Bott, now an acknowledged chassis specialist, was instrumental in designing the MacPherson strut front suspension of the new 901. Never afraid to experiment, he rebuilt a crashed 356 with a Mercedes-Benz front suspension and applied lessons learned to the new Porsche.

By 1961, he was leading the team of road testers charged with resolving the new car’s handling. It was a daunting task. The two extra cylinders of the flat six upset the balance that, thanks in large measure to Bott’s incessant trial and error testing, had been such a feature of the 356. The challenge now was to achieve the same balance for the unpredictable 901.

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!”

Photo: Helmuth Bott 3

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.”

Photo: Helmuth Bott 4

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.

The decision by new CEO Ernst Fuhrmann to turbocharge the 911 would open a new chapter in the history of Porsche Motorsport, which had faded after the ban of the 917. Bott recognized that the essentially obsolete platform of the 911 was all the company had to work with, and throughout the decade, starting with the 934 and followed by the 935, Porsche continued to produce race winners from it.

Peter Schutz, who took over the CEO’s chair from Fuhrmann in 1981, describes how Bott got the best from his engineers: “He reorganized them every day to keep them focused on the task and the customer. He developed people to handle specific tasks, he reconfigured teams regularly, and it kept his engineers creative as he was always feeding them challenges.”

Photo: Helmuth Bott 5

It was this atmosphere that inspired the kind of lateral thinking from Norbert Singer which produced the “silhouette” 935 that took the 1976/7 World Championship of Makes. Wolfhelm Gorissen, project leader on the “Weissach axle” (invented by Dr. H.H. Braess and converted for road use in the design department of Wolfgang Eyb), remembers a boss who was always “highly dynamic.” Part of Bott’s success was his consensual approach. He would not just issue an edict as Fuhrmann tended to; he would get agreement through discussion. By delegating responsibility deftly, he kept control, and by continually adding to his engineers’ experience it meant his group had the confidence to take on any task.

“Nobody ever succeeded in overloading Bott,” reflected Tony Lapine, design chief and one of the R&D director’s rare detractors. “He would send out his troops. You could work easily with them. Bott was a development man, not a designer. He communicated more with the mechanics.”

Lapine was right. Bott was rarely happier than being in the workshop or out on the road, and he drove hundreds of thousands of test miles for Porsche. Lapine recalled an occasion when he had been co-opted (one senses somewhat reluctantly) into testing the 928 in Algeria with Bott. As they drove through deserts for days at a stretch, he found Bott’s long, self-contained silences hard going. Their relationship did not recover, but the ebullient Lapine and the self-effacing Bott were totally different characters. The former’s waspish comments reflect the rivalry between Porsche’s design and engineering departments, which did not improve from Lapine’s point of view when Schutz arrived and he found himself reporting to Bott rather than directly to the CEO as he had with Fuhrmann.

Bott’s instinct was to keep away from the politics and involve himself in his projects. And because he was so close to events, he could react quickly. A good example occurred when Peter Schutz joined Porsche. Fuhrmann had wound down development of the 911 and, with it, racing activity, in favor of the 928 model, a minority view which led to his acrimonious departure from Porsche. Schutz, hired partly due to his marketing strengths, was appalled to find as a result that Porsche’s entry for the 1981 Le Mans consisted merely of a brace of 924s, which clearly would not win. Schutz quickly vetoed this defeatist entry and told his staff that Porsche would participate with a potential winner or not at all.

Photo: Helmuth Bott 6

One of Bott’s lieutenants, Peter Falk, thought of the 540-hp “Indy” engine developed some years earlier but never used, as U.S. rules changes had made it uncompetitive for its intended American series—but, in a sports car chassis, it might be. There was a rules change that year at Le Mans that allowed displacements of turbo-prototypes higher than 2.1L, a lucky situation. Bott immediately saw the possibilities and approved the project: The Indy unit was installed in a 936 from the Porsche museum and famously won at la Sarthe.

What is probably the fastest successful development project in the history of Le Mans is largely attributable to the way Bott ran engineering at Porsche, and it opened the way for another decade of success in Group C racing for Porsche with the 956 and 962.

Porsche historian Randy Leffingwell describes how Bott would discipline himself to come up with eight or 12 ideas a week to develop for future use. Many of these ideas would resurface after his lifetime. Leffingwell recalls an incident when Bott was track-testing a car with Rolf Wütherich, and neither could understand why the lap times were slower than they should have been. Then Bott thought of mounting a camera on the car, and the subsequent footage showed the car was moving laterally in the corners, imperceptibly to the driver but enough to add a crucial second or two to a lap. Bott wanted to fit a g meter to the 959, says Leffingwell. He also nurtured PDK in the hope that it could be fitted to the 959.

Much as Ferdinand Piëch had, Peter Schutz found himself relying on Bott’s judgment, and he too was struck by the chief engineer’s incessant output of ideas. He cites examples: Bott wanted Porsche to build tracks and driving centers to bring on Porsche customers (the idea crystalized 20 years later with the advent of the “Porsche Experience”); Schutz describes how Bott’s involvement in the (ultimately aborted) flat-six aero engine project taught him to introduce avionic levels of quality and source control of components to make the race cars more reliable.

Photo: Helmuth Bott 7

The 959, of course, remains the apogée of Bott’s Porsche career. It was intended to showcase Porsche technology, which of course it did magnificently, and provide a platform for this technology to be extended to the other models. Indeed, as Randy Leffingwell remarks, the 959 effectively established a new automotive category, the supercar. Alas. the 959’s development overran its budget.

“He and I both took a hell of a beating over the 959,” recalls Schutz, “but just look how much of that technology has found its way into subsequent Porsches. All that stuff that nobody was asking for, yet Helmuth Bott anticipated it.”

Schutz points out that while most technical organizations were resisting the kinds of safety and environmental changes that were afoot in the 1970s, Bott was quietly working towards them.

“He instigated proper crash testing, got Porsche to look at emissions, and got the budget to build a wind tunnel. He made these things a Porsche specialty. When VW pulled the carpet from under Porsche in 1973 by taking all the development work away from Weissach, it was Bott who went out and got new third-party customers—GM, Volvo, eventually even Mercedes-Benz.”

Photo: Helmuth Bott 8

This is a very good point. It was Piëch’s energy that got Porsche to build up Weissach from a mere handling circuit to a proper R&D establishment, but it was income from research carried out for VW that paid for it. However, it was Bott who established Weissach’s reputation and so secured its future profitability.

The 1980s began well for Porsche: Peter Schutz rescued the 911 from Fuhrmann’s planned oblivion, revamped U.S. distribution in Porsche’s most important market, and, as the U.S. dollar gained strength, so did Porsche sales and profits. Then, in 1985, it all began to crumble. The dollar fell steadily and with it the reputations of the men at the top of Porsche. Also, Ferry Porsche’s wife, Dorothea, died. “That really hit Ferry. He was never the same man afterwards,” remembers Schutz. The family owners and board members became restive. Previously enthusiastic supporters of the 959 project, they became critical of it, Ferdinand Piëch especially so, and the 959 seemed to symbolize everything that was going wrong at Porsche. The knives came out.

Schutz had to quit the company at the end of 1987, leaving Bott, his second in command, in an exposed position. Wolfhelm Gorissen recounts that Bott was deeply dismayed by the rounds of budget reductions that frustrated his engineering projects. When Wendelin Wiedeking, then a production manager, pointed to the total absence of common parts between the 911 and the 944 and famously charged Bott with “trying to wreck the company,” the accusation may not have been entirely unrelated to Wiedeking’s pique at not being promoted.

But, the episode undoubtedly seared Bott, and he would resign a few months later, two weeks before the launch of the 964 Carrera 4, a radical new 911 in which his involvement had been instrumental. Characteristically, he seems not to have communicated the depth of his disquiet to his colleagues. “It was a complete shock,” says Gorissen. “We never expected him to go.”

Photo: Helmuth Bott 9

It would be all change at Porsche, for on the heels of the departing Schutz was also styling director Lapine. Of Bott, Paul Frère would observe, “Until now, he still operated as one would in a much smaller business. The atmosphere will probably change with the coming of a younger and more management-oriented generation.” Bott’s successor, former Porsche engineer Ulrich Bez and recruited from BMW, was indeed only 45, yet he would survive barely three years at Porsche.

At 63, Bott’s energy was undiminished. He moved from Pforzheim to Münsingen-Buttenhausen in the Swabian hills south of Stuttgart and near his birthplace. He set up his own consultancy, reflecting his need to remain creative. When Randy Leffingwell visited him there in October 1992, he was busy designing a road sweeper and was a member of the board of directors at Kärcher.

“I remember his garage was full of Kärcher stuff,” says Leffingwell, who felt that the wounds left by Bott’s premature departure from Porsche had not healed, and the subject was not broached directly. Gorissen says that Ferry missed him and stayed in touch with his former employee. Perhaps the last time Helmuth Bott was seen in a Porsche context was in September the following year at the 30th birthday celebrations of the 911. Photographs show a smiling Bott together with Ferry and Huschke von Hanstein, chatting and signing autographs among the 9lls gathered in the sunshine in front of Stuttgart Rathaus. Within nine months, though, Helmuth Bott was dead, felled by a cancer which some believe was a legacy of his unhappy end at Porsche.

“He certainly deserved better,” reflects author and journalist Michael Cotton, who knew Bott from his days as press officer at Porsche in the UK. “We did a tour of dealers for the launch of the 944. I admired his English and his enthusiastic advocacy of all things Porsche. He impressed everybody we met; a fine ambassador.”

A cultured man, he spoke French, too, and his linguistic talent, says Leffingwell, was one of the reasons Porsche recruited him. The engineering hothouse that was Porsche allowed Helmuth Bott to develop not just his other talents, but those of his charges—dozens of productive careers, often men who would subsequently become highly successful and, but for the example set by their chief, perhaps taken their skills to higher bidders, as Tilman Brodbeck almost did, instead of staying at Porsche to finish the job.

Bott once told Christophorus, “For sports racing cars, the task is: without regard for cost, comfort or noise and in the shortest possible time a competitive car needs to be built which meets the rules and offers optimal performance and road holding with the smallest possible weight and volume.”

This was the Porsche philosophy, and it also defines Bott’s dedicated and methodical approach to an exceptional job, which clearly was his life’s work. Beneath the skin of the modern Porsche, those who know can point to any number of features attributable to Helmuth Bott’s department. Hindsight and a little research simply confirm that this indefatigable and modest man probably contributed more to the “Excellence which is Porsche” than any other individual.

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  • 911 Cabriolet buyer's guide
  • 997 GT3 RSR
  • Zwart's 911s
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  • SC vs. C2 buying comparison
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