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RIP Hans Mezger

by | Jun 12, 2020 | Classic Porsche Blog, Race and Rally

Revered Porsche designer, Hans Mezger, has passed away at the age of 90. His career was spent exclusively at Porsche, where he oversaw many iconic developments, including the flat-six engine, the development of turbocharging, the 917’s flat-12 engine and the development of the successful 1.5-litre Formula 1 engine.

Born in 1929 in Ludwigsburg, just outside Stuttgart, Hans Mezger was the youngest of five children. The son of innkeeper parents, young Hans was captivated by aero engineering and motorsport.

His first experience of racing came in 1946, when he photographed Hans Stuck in a race for pre-war cars at Hockenheim. Continued fascination with racing led to studies in mechanical engineering at the Stuttgart Technical Colege (now the University of Stuttgart). Delayed entry to the course by a large influx of de-mobbed soldiers, he took a gap year to apprentice in the various arts of fabrication, exploring casting, machining and model making.

College transport was an NSU Lambretta, which was used right through the early years of his employment with Porsche in 1956, when the NSU was replaced by “an old and quite worn-out 356”.

Mezger said that he had twenty-eight job offers at the end of his college course, but Porsche was not in the pile. Keen to work in racing, he applied to the sports car manufacturer and got an interview. This was successful and he was initially directed towards the diesel engine programme. He made no secret of his desire to go racing and was moved to the engine calculations department.

Porsche looks back at Mezger’s career

The Porsche release on the death of Hans Mezger shares his career history:

Hans Mezger gained his first experience with the four-camshaft engine Type 547, developed a formula for calculating cam profiles and became part of Porsche’s first Formula 1 project in 1960. He was involved in the development of the 1.5-litre eight-cylinder Type 753 as well as the corresponding chassis of the 804.

His career included designing the world-famous “Mezger engine” for the 901 and 911 in the early 1960s. In 1965, Mezger was promoted to head of the department for race car design initiated by Ferdinand Piëch. The department was the key to a new quality and dynamism in motorsport for Porsche. It was an exciting, fascinating time in the mid-1960s. “Sometimes we also worked around the clock,” said Hans, “like in 1965 when we created the Ollon-Villars Bergspyder in just 24 days and shortly thereafter the 910.” With its construction of a tubular frame, fibreglass body and design for new Formula 1 tyre technology, it became the blueprint for all the race cars that were built in the years to follow.

Porsche also relied on this design principle for the development of the 917 in 1968. With the 917, the first overall victory for Porsche at Le Mans was now finally possible, and once again Ferdinand Piëch relied on the skilfulness of Hans Mezger, who was responsible for the overall construction of the vehicle and its 12-cylinder engine. The 917 dominated at Le Mans and in the World Sportscar Championship in 1970 and 1971.

In 1972 and 1973, and right from the start, the 917/10 and 917/30 showed good responsiveness even on the curvy stretches of the CanAm series, thanks to a novel exhaust turbocharging technology developed by Porsche itself. For the first time, turbocharging was successfully given a responsiveness that allowed racing cars and production vehicles to be used on all race tracks and public roads. A technology that makes Porsche a pioneer in this field and Mezger and his team brought to series production in 1974 in the form of the 911 Turbo. Many other victorious developments followed: for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the World Sportscar Championship and the US Indy series.

Perhaps the most outstanding project took off in 1981, when Ron Dennis and his McLaren racing team set out in search of a powerful turbo engine for Formula 1. In the end, Porsche was chosen and the decision was made to design and build a completely new engine, as well as to provide on-site support during the races. Again, Hans Mezger was the creative mastermind behind the 1.5-litre, V6 engine with an 80-degree bank angle, which would later produce more than 1000 PS. In 1984, Niki Lauda became world champion with it, and again in 1985, followed in 1986 by Alain Prost. The TAG Turbo won a total of 25 races, plus the two Constructors’ World Championships in 1984 and 1985. “This was a resounding success and also the most significant development contract for Porsche from an external company.

Mezger’s commitment to Porsche made him reject all offers from other manufacturers throughout his career and he still owned his 911 Carrera 3.0 in Grand Prix white – a coveted Porsche classic which has “his” engine. His loyalty and connection to Porsche was unbroken. He was available to journalists, technicians and interested fans as a discussion partner. The Porsche Museum hosted a celebration for his 90th birthday with family, friends and former companions. He accompanied Porsche at events, trade fairs and festivities until the very end.

A low profile in history

Mezger’s career is at the very heart of Porschelore. The engineer had a hand in pretty much everything until his retirement in 1993, but what is unusual is that his name has become widely known. Though Porsche has enjoyed the input of many great creative minds through its history, the company is not known for spotlighting individuals and allowing their names to be known in the way that Mezger’s became.

A look through the indices of serious Porsche literature shows scant mention of Mezger. “Excellence was Expected” mentions his name only twice across 1,500 pages: once in a photo caption and once in relation to cooling on Formula 1 engines. Paul Frère’s “Porsche 911 Story” again mentions Mezger only twice, both times in his capacity as head of engineering teams, rather than as a designer. Note that these books were written with substantial Porsche involvement.

Chris Harvey’s excellent “Porsche 911 in all its forms” has no mention of Mezger, nor does Ferry’s autobiography. So how do we read his importance?

While there is no doubt that Mezger’s enhanced profile is well-deserved, it is relatively recent and perhaps due in some part to the use of the Mezger name as a differentiator on 996 and 997 engines. The more reliable and higher power engines of the GT3 and Turbo models are now esteemed as Mezgers (by this logic, standard 996s and 997s must be non-Mezgers, but we’ll leave that stone unturned for now).

The long-running Porsche-Piëch feud and Stuttgart’s revisionist tendencies towards underplaying the role of Ferdinand Piëch in its history is another little throttle-push in favour of names such as Mezger, but no mention of Mezger in the story of Porsche would be complete without Piëch.

Hans Mezger and Ferdinand Piëch

Frère covers 911 engine development in detail, sharing how the programme started in the late 1950s under then Technical Director, Klaus von Rücker. Following the first unsuccessful engagement with Formula 1, Rücker left Porsche for BMW in 1962 and Hans Tomala was put in charge of everything to do with engineering on the 901 project.

An alumnus of Porsche’s tractor development team, Tomala was also responsible for engineering the 904. Harvey notes that Tomala’s first big decision for the 901/911 programme was to use the eight-cylinder F1 engine architecture as a basis for 901 engine development, rather than basing the six on Fuhrmann’s complex four-cylinder, which was being used in the 904. The second big decision was to use chain-driven cams.

While Harvey and Frère both note that Ferdinand Piëch was the engineer in charge of 911 engine development under Tomala from 1963, Porsche’s press release at the time of Piech’s death described his role as “an employee in the engine department”. Piëch apparently remained in this position until 1966, when Tomala was forced out over the handling of the SWB cars. Rather than introducing bodyshell changes that would allow production line workers to set the front strut angles, Tomala designed 11-kilo lumps of cast iron to be fixed to the 901’s front bumpers. While there is obviously much more to this story, Piëch replaced Tomala as development chief in 1966.

Once Piëch had control, the 911’s golden era – and the golden era of Porsche in racing – could begin. The 911 got a longer wheelbase, bigger engines with magnesium crankcases, lighter bodyshells and more. Simultaneous to 911 deveopment, Piëch developed the 908 and the 917. While there is little mention of Mezger in most of the history books, it should be clear that one man leant on the other and their partnership (along with the rest of their teams), became the stuff of legend.

Give thanks for Hans Mezger

However one views the story of Porsche, the role of Piëch and the countless unnamed engineers who contributed to the success of the sports car from Stuttgart, one cannot understate the importance of Mezger in the history of air-cooled Porsches, and it is right that his name is revered. As we live through the closing stages of the internal combustion era and prepare for a new automotive world, Mezger leaves an exceptional legacy in the story of great engine developments.

Before turning the key, all those who sit with a Mezger engine behind them should offer quiet thanks for what they are about to receive. You own a small part of a special history that will not be forgotten.

All credit to Hans – RIP.


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