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Creative spirit: Hans Mezger

Hans Mezger has been responsible for Porsche's most successful race cars and engines for more than three decades. On November 18, 2019, the legendary engineer for Dr. Ing. h.c. F. Porsche AG turns 90.

When a motorsport fan recalls a list of the outstanding designers of race cars and racing engines, not many names come up. However, one is always among them – and for many fans and experts his is the top name: Hans Mezger. Designer of the Porsche 911's air-cooled, six-cylinder boxer engine, overall designer of the 917 and its V12 with a 180-degree bank angle, and the arrangement of two connecting rods on one crankpin, as is typical of V engines, and also creator of the TAG Turbo Formula One engine, Hans Mezger and his portfolio of work have long since become legendary.

Interest in art and technology from an early age

Hans Mezger was born on November 18, 1929 in Ottmarsheim, a small village near Ludwigsburg on the outskirts of Stuttgart. The youngest of five children, his parents ran a country inn. Art and culture were very important to the Mezger household. "Almost everyone in our family had a talent for painting and played a musical instrument. Life in the country was exciting for me. I was interested in becoming all kinds of things, from a musician to a physicist,” reminisces Hans Mezger about his youth. From an early age, aeroplanes and flying also fascinated the young Hans, and he occasionally undertook a trip to Kirchheim/Teck with a group of gliding enthusiasts from his neighbourhood, where he would watch the bungee launches of the school’s glider, an SG-38, with fascination. “I really wanted to fly myself, but I was still too young then,” he explains.

As if from nowhere, right in the middle of his carefree childhood and adolescence, and while at grammar school, the Third Reich and Second World War emerged. On April 18, 1945, just three weeks before the end of the war, the 15-year-old Hans Mezger only escaped being enlisted by a stroke of luck and a faked medical certificate from a German commander. Eventually, Mezger continued his grammar school studies in Besigheim through the 6th grade, then followed by German A-levels in Ludwigsburg. "In 1946, I experienced my very first car race. It was at Hockenheim where old pre-war race cars lined up, along with Hans Stuck, whom I photographed with my old camera," Hans Mezger describes his first motorsport experience immediately after the Second World War.

Mechanical engineering degree, motor scooter and jazz music

Since the design, construction and operation of aircraft were banned by the Allies in 1945 – gliding was only possible again in 1951 and motorised flight in 1955 – an aeronautics career was out of the question for aviation enthusiast Mezger. “That would have meant waiting too long. So I decided to study mechanical engineering at the Technical University, now the University of Stuttgart,” recalls the Swabian, who always found mathematics particularly easy.

However, at this time the universities were very crowded because the young men who had returned from the war were given preferential treatment for admission. Hans Mezger used the university requirement for a twelve-month internship to practise numerous stages such as machining, welding, model making and a few weeks in the grey cast iron and aluminium foundry. "At that time I was riding a motor scooter, an NSU Lambretta. Apart from my brother’s 250 cc DKW it was my first and last motorised two-wheeler. I rode the Lambretta until 1960, when I bought my first car, an old and quite worn-out 356. It was not until years later that I came into contact with motorised two-wheelers again, when in the late 1970s it became necessary to develop new motorcycle engines for Harley-Davidson," Hans Mezger continues.

"During my time as a student, I wanted to improve my English further and so I listened to AFN, the American station for soldiers. I discovered jazz music and then also visited the first jazz clubs," he recalls. "My favourite composer is George Gershwin, whom I appreciate equally for his music and his piano artistry. In my youth, I took piano lessons from a music professor," says Hans Mezger, pointing to the harmonium in his office, which he had bought at a flea market for less than 100 German marks. "You have to produce the air yourself using the pedals, but it can be struck faster than conventional models. That's why it's ideal even for fast jazz pieces," says the Porsche designer, explaining the technology behind the instrument. Equally well suited to each other are Hans Mezger and technology itself – they are practically inseparable, in terms of a musical instrument and certainly when it comes to Porsche race cars and their engines.

He joined Porsche on October 1, 1956 in the calculation department.

After graduating in 1956 at the time of the German economic miracle, there was a veritable flood of job offers. “There were 28. But Porsche was not among them. I wanted to join Porsche because the Type 356 sports car inspired me. So I applied, got an interview, and the company offered me a job in diesel engine development. Until then, I didn’t even know that Porsche had such a thing. But I envisioned working on sports cars. They showed understanding and that's how I started in the calculations department at Porsche," says Hans Mezger about his start at the Zuffenhausen sports car manufacturer. A little later in 1958, Hans Mezger and his wife Helga, with whom he still lives happily today, got married. This was followed by the move to their first flat together in Ludwigsburg and, shortly afterwards, their two children, Daniela and Oliver.

Things then began happening one after the other. 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. “On this Formula 1 project I also learned a lot about the design of combustion chambers. This also directly benefited the design of the 6-cylinder boxer engine for the later 901/911. Ferry Porsche, with his visionary leadership of the company, his human qualities, dignity and great dedication, became my role model. I wholeheartedly shared his philosophy of racing in order to build the best sports car for the road, was impressive and had a lasting impact on myself and my work during the entire period I spent at the company," he reports from that early era at Porsche.

Family atmosphere in the still small Porsche company

His creativity and artistic talent did not go unnoticed by Porsche, however, even beyond any design tasks. Porsche was still a small company then with a strong family atmosphere, in which social interaction could flourish. For example, a traditional Christmas party was held for the employees' children in the canteen of Plant 2, where Ferry Porsche's wife Dorothea always personally distributed gifts. "For the adults, the designers' ball was an annual highlight. I had barely joined the company when I was asked to organize this carnival event. It was always very nice, sometimes of course marked by funny jokes between us constructors and the experimentalists, who were of course also invited," recalls Hans Mezger of this annual event, for which he even designed his own posters.

Artistic creativity, skill and creative power run like a common thread through Hans Mezger's life. He is still fascinated by photography and painting, especially Impressionism, and it is not surprising that some of these works adorn the walls of his house – including some of his very own paintings. “When I had more free time, I used to paint pictures myself, usually with oil pastels,” explains Hans Mezger, pointing to a townscape of Ottmarsheim in the winter.

Design of the 911 engine and head of "Race car design"

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. This 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 – 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.

From the 917 to the TAG turbo for Formula 1

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 series-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.

But 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," adds Hans Mezger.

Strong coffee and Wendelin the tomcat

His loyalty to, and solidarity with, Porsche are as pronounced today as they were 50 or 60 years ago, and he continues to be available to journalists, technicians and interested fans for a good discussion – preferably over a good cup of coffee at the Porsche Museum. It's a sure way to win Hans Mezger over for a chat. "You know, when I sat together with Peter Falk at Le Mans several times through the night while timekeeping, a good, strong coffee was the most important thing. First, not to nod off and second, to warm up a bit, as it could sometimes be quite cold," says the Porsche designer. Laughing, he adds, "What always bothered me, however, was that the cup was either too hot to hold or that the coffee was only lukewarm. At some point, when I was sitting at my desk again at home at night, I designed a double-walled coffee cup with good insulation. However, the design remained but a sketch because my real work was obviously quite different."

Even today, Hans Mezger sometimes works late into the night at his desk. "In my active time, our tomcat Wendelin kept me company. We had named him after Wendelin Wiedeking, then Chairman of the Board of Management. He always lay on the windowsill and when he thought that I had done enough work and should now devote myself to him, he always lay across my working papers and I would give in," says Hans Mezger with a smile.

Closely connected to Porsche to this day

His commitment to Porsche has made him reject all offers from other manufacturers throughout his career and he still owns his 911 Carrera 3.0 in Grand Prix white – a coveted Porsche classic which has "his" engine. In closing, he also has a special story to tell about his 911: "It was built in 1977, but the vehicle registration certificate states 1979 as the date of first registration. At Porsche, it was driven with a red license plate for two years. But when I took it over in 1979, the vehicle registration authority in Ludwigsburg did not want to accept the actual year of construction despite a Porsche certificate. On paper, it is two years younger than it actually is. It is a genuine Porsche classic, in its original condition, which I drive with as much enthusiasm today as I did then, in addition to my current 911 Carrera S Type 992."