By on April 25, 2016

Porsche's Third Man, Left to Right: Adolf Rosenberger, Ferdinand Porsche, Anton Piech

According to official Porsche lore, the automotive design firm, Dr. Ing. Hc F. Porsche GmbH, was founded in Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen in 1931 by Dr. Ferdinand Porsche and his son-in-law Anton Piëch. The Porsche and Piëch families still control the sports car company and the larger Volkswagen Group that owns it. At that beginning though, there was a third, now forgotten man without whom there would likely not be a Porsche company today.

In fact, without Adolf Rosenberger, there would not have been a Porsche company in the first place.

Adolf Rosenberg was born in Pforzheim, Germany in 1900. His family owned cinemas and their financial success allowed him to be a gentleman racer, one of the more successful in Europe in the 1920s. As a privateer, he had enough success that he was hired as a factory driver and raced in the most famous racecars of his day — like the radically streamlined and mid-engined Benz Tropfenwagen and the Mercedes-Benz SSK.

drittermann1

Rosenberger won the Stuttgart Solitude race and the Kassel Herkules Bergpreis hill climb three years running — 1925 through 1927 — along with the grueling Klausenrennen mountain race those same years. At the Nürburgring’s inaugural race in 1927, he finished second behind the great Rudolf Caracciola, both of them driving supercharged Mercedes SSKs developed by Dr. Porsche.

 

Adolf Rosenberger at the wheel of the Benz Tropfenwagen streamlined mid-engine racer.

Adolf Rosenberger at the wheel of the Benz Tropfenwagen streamlined mid-engine racer.

Rosenberger’s racing career had tragedy as well. In the 1926 German Grand Prix at Berlin’s AVUS track, he lost control of his car and crashed into the timekeeper’s shed, killing three people. Rosenberger was hospitalized with a head injury.

Rosenberger crashed into a timekeeper's shed in 1926, killing three people and injuring himself.

That same year, Rosenberger’s met Ferdinand Porsche, Daimler’s technical director. It was also the year that Daimler merged with Benz. Porsche proposed a new, lightweight Mercedes-Benz, but the new company’s directors disapproved. In 1929, he left for Steyr Automobile in Austria.

Rosenberger driving in SWR documentary.

Dr. Porsche had an outstanding reputation as an engineer and had worked for many leading automakers in Germany and Austria, but it seems that one reason for his many positions of employment was his penchant for telling them what they didn’t want to hear. Perhaps an independent design firm was a better fit.

Also, Porsche didn’t have many options. His position at Steyr was eliminated in a cost cutting move due to the growing worldwide economic depression.

According to Ghislaine Kaes, Porsche’s personal secretary, the engineer had a good reputation — but not much money.

“Porsche didn’t have the financial means at the time for such an establishment. These funds were supplied by Adolf Rosenberg.” Adolf Rosenberger put up 30,000 marks to capitalize the design agency. Dr. Porsche got 80 percent of the stock, Anton Piëch received 10 percent and Rosenberger was allotted the remaining 10 percent. Facilities were rented at Kronenstrasse 24 in Stuttgart.

 

Left to Right: Adolf Rosenberger, Ferdinand Porsche, Anton Piech

Adolf Rosenberger (smoking) with his hands on the shoulders of Ferdinand Porsche.

Things were not easy in the early days. They had a contract with Wanderer to develop a people’s car, but the automaker had financial difficulties. A similar contract was made with Zundapp, but that car — the Porsche Type 12 — never made it to production, thus didn’t generate license fees. Many of the design elements of the Type 12, though, would find their way into the first Volkswagen. In a 1966 interview, Rosenberger said that development meetings for the Type 12 usually consisted of Dr. Porsche, designer Karl Rabe and himself.

Once Wanderer-Werke were approached in order to get a design commission, we decided to develop a drawing office in Stuttgart on 24 Kronenstrasse. After this model came a design so-called volkswagen for the Zuendapp-Werke in Nuernberg. This car already had most of the design features of Volkswagens that came later. The discussions about the development and what was required were always between Dr. Porsche and me as co-partner/owner and co-founder of the company, mostly with the input of our chief designer, Karl Rabe.

 

Porsche Zundapp Type 12

Porsche Zundapp Type 12

Rosenberger acted as both commercial director and managing director of the Stuttgart engineering firm. His financial and business skills were not his only contributions, however. Rosenberger’s technical experience with the mid-engine Tropfenwagen was of great value as Porsche embarked on designing a 16-cylinder Grand Prix race car for Auto Union with the engine behind the driver.

 

Benz Tropfenwagen

Benz Tropfenwagen

Rosenberger also accompanied Ferry Porsche when Dr. Porsche dispatched his son in 1931 to evaluate Josef Ganz’ Maikäfer [May beetle] “volkswagen” prototype, considered by many to be a direct influence on Dr. Porsche’s own people’s car.

 

Porsche_Rosenberger_Maikafer_1931

Ferry Porsche and Adolf Rosenberger test Josef Ganz’ Maikäfer, 1931

According to automotive historian Prof. Peter Kirchberg, the Auto Union racers may have been Rosenberger’s idea in the first place.

Kirchberg believes that Rosenberger also had an influential role in creating Auto Union in 1932, the merger of four German automakers — Audi, DKW, Horch, and Wanderer.

“For me, Rosenberg was the key player in the accomplishment of the merger, that one must say, it is in the time before the Auto Union that the idea — Rosenberger and von Oertzen as members of the Rotary Club gave birth to the idea to push a race car by Porsche — and they succeeded.”

Rosenberger and Wanderer sales manager Baron Klaus von Oertzen were both members of the Berlin Rotary Club and it was there that the idea of a Porsche designed, 16-cylinder race car for Wanderer was born. Wanderer, however, became financially insolvent in 1932, which prompted creating Auto Union. The race car idea survived the bankruptcy and merger. Auto Union wanted the Grand Prix racer built provided that the Porsche agency could find a sponsor.

Auto Union Typ C, Image: Lothar Spurzem/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In 1933, that sponsor was found in the person of Adolf Hitler, newly installed as German chancellor. Hitler saw auto racing as a means of projecting German prowess and power. In February 1933, Hitler gave a speech opening the Berlin auto show and Dr. Porsche sent the soon-to-be-dictator a congratulatory letter, offering his services. A month later, Ferdinand Porsche, Baron von Oertzen, and racer Hans Stuck met with Hitler in the Reich Chancellery. The result was that Porsche and Auto Union were given 300,000 reichsmarks to build a race car.

Later, of course, Hitler’s commission to Porsche for the KdF Volkswagen people’s car would put Dr. Porsche’s company on even better financial footing.

 

Dr. Porsche and another Adolf.

Dr. Porsche and another Adolf.

While all that was going on, Rosenberger began to have concerns about himself being a Jew in Germany and Adolf Hitler, no great judeophile, being in power. Rosenberger brought in his friend Baron Hans von Veyder-Malberg to serve as Managing Director of the design agency and apparently gave nominal control of his shares in the company to Malberg in a strawman deal.

In a 1966 interview, Ghislaine Kaes described the situation.

“Adolf Rosenberger’s position was haunted soon after 1933, as he was Jewish. He must have anticipated this early on, because in January of 1933, he had begun to install a commercial director as his replacement, Hans Baron Veyder-Malberg.”

Though the Grand Prix racer project was good for the young Porsche design bureau’s reputation, it didn’t generate any revenue for the company early on. There was also the depression. To keep the company afloat before Hitler’s sponsorship of the Auto Union racecar came through, Rosenberger made a stockholder loan of 80,000 reichsmarks to the firm. That means that not only did Rosenberger provide the startup capital for the Porsche company, he kept it in business for the first two years of its existence.

In that 1966 interview, Ghislaine Kaes said that Rosenberger left Germany for Paris and then to Switzerland.

“Adolf Rosenberg was prosecuted under several pretenses. One day, in the clutches of the Gestapo, Rosenberger was just able to escape and this left him in Paris.”

He worked as Porsche’s sales representative in Switzerland and France. In the summer of 1935, however, Rosenberger returned to Germany.

After the war, Rosenberger filed for restitution in a German proceeding, saying that he had to cede his 10-percent share in the company to Ferry Porsche, Dr. Porsche’s son, in July of 1935 for just 3,000 marks in a year when Rosenberger’s share of the company’s 100,000 reichsmark profits alone should have been more than three times that amount. In 1949, Rosenberger sought a restitution payment of 180,000 marks for the true value of his stock and the loan he had made to the firm.

In September of 1935, after he had returned to Germany, the Gestapo arrested Rosenberger for “racial shame.” In other words, he had an “Aryan” German girlfriend. After about three weeks in the Kislau concentration camp, where the treatment was apparently brutal enough that it permanently affected his health, Rosenberger was released and made to pay 53 reichsmarks for the cost of his “protective custody.”

In 1945, Ferry Porsche, Dr. Porsche’s son said that the Porsche and Piech families had interceded on behalf of Rosenberger, to get him released. However, Rosenberger maintained until his death that the only help he got was from Baron von Veyder-Malberg, who bailed him out.

Once he was released from the Kislau prison camp, Rosenberger fled Germany, not to return until after World War II. He ended up in America in the late 1930s, first visiting in 1936.

In Part Two, we’ll look at Adolf Rosenberger’s life after Porsche, how he tried to start a new life under a new name in California, and his attempts to get restitution and recognition for his role in starting and running the Porsche company.

Special thanks to Jennifer Archibald for translating some of the German quotations.

[Image: Auto Union Typ C, Lothar Spurzem/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)]

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site.

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30 Comments on “Porsche’s Forgotten Man, Adolf Rosenberger: Dr. Porsche’s Jewish Partner, Part One...”


  • avatar
    CarnotCycle

    Whenever I learn about interwar Germany outside of the political narrative, it strikes me as oddly freewheeling, innovative time and place. Story of the VfR starting as bunch of space-dreamers then getting sucked up into Nazi political mothership is analog of this one.

    • 0 avatar
      Kenmore

      I was going to post a quickee reference to the Reichswehr’s collaboration with the Soviets for joint tank development and training but then I stumbled across this:

      https://etd.ohiolink.edu/rws_etd/document/get/osu1338500708/inline

      Biggee read but very interesting, speaking of a “freewheeling, innovative time and place”.

  • avatar
    Cole Grundy

    Ronnie, this isn’t the Times of Israel. Please.

    • 0 avatar
      Kenmore

      If Ronnie had discovered an ex-pat African American or a Persian, Chinese, Indian… whatever, who was similarly formative in an iconic German automaker’s history and persecuted because nazis… would you still be annoyed?

      One oops… they’d probably have had no problem with the Persian.

    • 0 avatar
      ScarecrowRepair

      Did you complain about the Uber class action settlement, or the Uber/taxi comparison articles?

      Did you complain about the obit for a movie director?

      Do you ever complain about any other articles, or only those which happen to include “Jew” references?

      There’s more car history in this article than your narrow mind can fathom.

      Edited to add that you are a perfect example of why I wish the government would get out of the business of making bigotry illegal. There’s no need for it. Bigots do themselves so much damage that they simply can’t succeed. Not only did Nazi Germany lose many skilled workers, but you yourself are so blinded by your bigotry that you can’t even see the interesting car history in this article. When bigotry blinds people so thoroughly, they cannot succeed.

    • 0 avatar
      Robert.Walter

      Yes, it’s the truth about cars, which is what this piece does tell.

      So please to you too sir.

    • 0 avatar

      How long have you had Jews on the brain?

      Israel isn’t even mentioned in the article, but I suppose saying “this isn’t the Jewish News” would have made your true feelings too obvious. Had I done a post on Takeo Fujisawa, who is not well known but was indispensable to the success of Soichiro Honda’s company, would you have said “this isn’t the Times of Japan”? I don’t recall you saying that my posts on Ab Jenkins and his Mormon Meteor speed record Duesenberg was more suitable to the Deseret Times.

      I’m loathe to overuse the word irony, but I think it’s applicable to your comment in light of the fact that my primary source was a German documentary.

      Adolf Rosenberger’s role in the creation and early survival of the Porsche company is hardly an inappropriate subject for this site.

    • 0 avatar
      ToddAtlasF1

      Progressives are no different now than the were in the 1930s.

      • 0 avatar
        mr.cranky

        @ToddAtlasF1

        What the hell are you talking about? Are you seriously trying to compare today’s political progressives to the national-socialists of 1930s Germany? If so, a better comparison would be the rhetoric of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and just about most of the Republican Party at this point.

        • 0 avatar
          ToddAtlasF1

          Here’s a hint – the progressives tactics aren’t about who they hate, they’re about using hate to accumulate power. Japan was frustrated going into WWII by their lack of a domestic minority to vilify. They went to Germany and were envious of what Hitler was building around hatred of Jews. Today’s progressives have built a coalition with straight white males as the common enemy. Some straight white males have learned to appease and find their own niches in the current fascist power structure, just as some Jews did in past progressive movements. Maybe it will work out better for the morally bankrupt this time.

    • 0 avatar
      mr.cranky

      @Cole Grundy

      You’re not part of the “Best and Brightest”.

      Get lost.

    • 0 avatar
      DC Bruce

      No, it’s not. It’s “The Truth About Cars,” and in this article, the truth about an enthusiast car company. Well-done, as always, Ronnie. I look forward to reading the second installment.

  • avatar
    el scotto

    Thank you, another excellent article. Are you taking Sundays off from TTAC?

  • avatar
    -Nate

    As always fascinating history somehow left out of the other VW articles written by many others .

    THANK YOU .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    donyas

    Great read. Looking forward to part 2

  • avatar
    Astin Martin

    No discussion of the Volkswagen Beetle and Ferdinand Porsche is complete without mentioning the Tatra 97 which was the inspiration for the “people’s car.”

    • 0 avatar

      Ferdinand Porsche was undoubtedly influenced by Hans Ledwinka’s work at Tatra and later acknowledged it. The postwar VW company eventually paid Tatra a settlement of millions of marks. However, by the time the T97 came out in 1936, the design of what became the Beetle was pretty well set.

      In any case, the influences on Porsche’s design for the Volkswagen, Josef Ganz, Ledwinka, and others, would fill a couple of books. The Beetle story was only incidental to Rosenberger’s story.

  • avatar
    Snavehtrebor

    Longtime Porschephile here, and history buff. Content like this is why I visit TTAC and not MotorTrend.com. Please keep it up, Ronnie.

  • avatar
    brandeselitch

    Dear Ronnie,
    Over the years I have come to respect your writing as some of the best found at any automotive website, and I read a lot of them, and even write for one myself (velocetoday.com). But you have truly outdone yourself with the research on this piece, which I have not read anywhere else. Up to now, I always believed that Karl Ludvigsen was the authority on this subject, but you are now the contender. I am looking forward to reading part II. Keep up the good work.

    • 0 avatar

      Most of the credit for the research goes to German director Eberhard Reuss and his 2012 documentary about Adolf Rosenberger for the SWR2 television network, Die Akte Rosenberger: Porsches dritter Mann (The Rosenberger File: Porsche’s Third Man). I got lucky and found a script.

  • avatar
    jkross22

    Fascinating early history of Porsche. I recall hearing about this story, but never knew any of the names, dates or other specifics. Thanks for flushing out the meaningful details and the presentation. Looking forward to Part II.

    Some time ago I read The Pity of It All, an excellent book that outlines the history of Germany/Prussia from the mid 1700’s to the early 1930’s. Interesting overview of what was a progressive society until Hitler.

  • avatar
    Johnster

    I’m really looking forward to seeing part 2. This was something I’d never heard of It is great to learn about these people who were never given much attention in the history of the automobile, people like Frederick Patterson and Hearley Earl’s “Damsels of Design.”

  • avatar

    I realise that this is not a Porsche-generic website, but I’m obliged to mention that Porsche folks know all about Adolf Rosenberger from my various books about Porsche history. He’s not exactly secret or forgotten.

    That being said, I do plan to write more fully about Rosenberger in a future book. And praise is due here for the very good photos, many of which I haven’t seen before.

    Karl Ludvigsen

    • 0 avatar

      Karl,

      Thanks for your comments and clarification. I’m genuinely honored that you think my work is worthy of correction. I very much enjoyed your presentation about Dr. Porsche’s military hardware at the SAE convention last year and the earlier one about Colin Chapman.

      From the perspective of a general car enthusiast, not a Porschephile, I’d have to say that Rosenberger is relatively unknown. Also, there is some question as to whether or not the Porsche company and Porsche/Piech families have forgotten him.

      I’m glad Porsche enthusiasts know about Rosenberger through your work and I’m sure if a historian of your stature addresses his story in depth that will go a long way towards according Rosenberger a more prominent role in automotive history.

      To give credit where it’s due, most of the photos were pulled from Eberhard Reuss’ documentary.

      Perhaps you could clarify a couple of things for me.

      Do you know what Rosenberger/Robert’s Los Angeles business, Coach Craft, did?

      You say “Porsche folks” know about Rosenberger from your books. Would you include the Porsche company in that group and do you think the company today gives Rosenberger due credit for his seminal role in Porsche history?

      Thanks for reading.

      • 0 avatar

        Thanks for your thoughtful follow-up, Ronnie. It wasn’t so much a correction as a comment. As to your questions:

        Do you know what Rosenberger/Robert’s Los Angeles business, Coach Craft, did?

        Coach Craft is a difficult name. Peter Stengel and Rudy Stoessel founded Coachcraft in California in 1940 and built some beautiful auto bodies into the 1950s. But there is no suggestion in the company’s history of a connection with AR. My best source says that AR’s company produced baggage racks and exhaust systems for Chrysler. AR was a backer but ended his active involvement in 1958. This doesn’t rule out a possible connection with the Stengel/Stoessel Coachcraft.

        You say “Porsche folks” know about Rosenberger from your books. Would you include the Porsche company in that group and do you think the company today gives Rosenberger due credit for his seminal role in Porsche history?

        The company’s own little book about Porsche Engineering pictures Rosenberger and mentions his role in the founding of the new company in 1931. It gives him credit for keeping the company afloat and introducing Porsche in business circles. It doesn’t however credit him with influencing a rear-engine solution for the Auto Union. Certainly AR features more prominently in Porsche company annals than the man who succeeded him in that role, Veyder-Malberg. Who has heard of him?

        It’s fair to say that the later relationship between AR and Porsche was problematic, even vexing with his many entreaties for assistance. He must have driven Ferry right up the wall at times.

        We have to bear in mind that AR’s direct Porsche involvement ended in January 1933 before Hitler took power. I would like to think of him as a wealthy and knowledgeable enthusiast and a terrific driver who wholeheartedly backed Porsche’s initiatives both at Daimler-Benz and in his new business. We should do our best — as you have — to make sure he isn’t overlooked.

        • 0 avatar
          thattruthguy

          Post war, the Stoessel et al Coachcraft Ltd. made and sold luggage racks, continental kits, etc. While two body shops might trade under similar names, it seems unlikely that two unrelated manufacturers would. The end of AR’s active involvement in 1958 would match with the timing of the end of the original Coachcraft Ltd. The Stoessels started a new custom and body shop under the Coachcraft name after the closing of the original Coachcraft Ltd.

          There is a history of the Stengel/Stoessel Coachcraft in COLLECTIBLE AUTOMOBILE 2004 OCT.

  • avatar
    laphoneuser

    I’m just blown away.

    Blown away by the piece that Ronnie wrote, blown away by the participation of Karl Ludvigsen in the comments, and blown away by how the bigot was handled. I’m much too much of a hothead to deal with someone like that in the calm, intelligent way in which the B&B (and Ronnie) has.

    I love this site, and I love its contributors, both the writers and commenters. Thanks to all for this little piece of the internet that proves that the world hasn’t turned into “Idiocracy” quite yet.

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