The Brains Behind Porsche’s Brawn: Hans Mezger, 1929-2020
As we remember the mastermind behind some of Porsche’s very best engines, we also reflect on the genius of engineers at large.
Hans Mezger & his brainchild, the 917. Credit: Remi Dargeren Photography.
When we think of motor racing, we tend to think of that symbiotic relationship between man and machine—between driver and car. It’s a perfect symbol of what is natural dovetailing perfectly with what is artificial. But this is too simple a viewpoint. It really is quite a shame that the men and women who dream up these cars, and indeed bring them into reality are far too often forgotten about. Without these great minds, none of this would be possible. There were few minds greater in this regard than Hans Mezger, who passed away in June 2020 at the ripe old age of 90. Without his imagination, innovation and design, it’s safe to say that the Porsche brand would be very, very different today. Mezger began his Porsche career in 1957, when he worked as part of a team to develop the Carrera. He also worked on the 804’s engine and suspension, propelling the model to its first Formula One race.Soon after though, Mezger came up with arguably his most iconic creation, one which would go on to change the course of Porsche’s future.
The 356 Carrera’s four-cylinder engine was becoming obsolete, and seemingly had nowhere to go but downhill. Mezger, now in his thirties, was tasked with delivering a new engine. It was his idea to develop a more powerful six-cylinder model, which became the very blueprint for the iconic 911 engine. Indeed, today the concept is known simply as “The Mezger Engine”. In 1965, Mezger’s impressive body of work saw him promoted to the head of Porsche Motorsports Research & Development team. He was charged with building a car that could finally win the overall Le Mans 24 hour race, something the team had never achieved. The team toiled for a number of years, but in 1969, they rolled out a monstrously powerful 4.5 liter, v12 engined Porsche 917 Hommage. That it was even allowed to enter the race was down to a loophole in the rules. Engines above 3.0 liters were banned, unless they were to be built for homologation. Mezger seized upon the loophole ruthlessly, and with mere weeks left before the race, they developed and manufactured 25 models of the 917 Hommage. When they presented them at the Geneva Car Show, the entire motoring world looked on in shock.
The 917 was terrifyingly fast, and was by a distance the fastest car at the 1969 Le Mans.
However the hasty build rendered it unpredictable and hard to handle. So little time they had had to actually test it! Alas, not a single 917 finished its race—technical failures and crashes saw to each and every one of them.
"The Mezger Engine". Credit: Motorsport images
But that wasn’t the end of the 917. By the time the 1970 Le Mans came around, the full year of preparation afforded to the mastermind Mezga paid dividends. Incredibly, Porsche Motorsport took first, second and third place in uber-dominant fashion.
Mezger continued his work for Porsche right up into the mid 1990s. So numerous were his innovations and merits that there are simply too many to note here. What does warrant a second thought through, is the legacy of his designs. We know already that “The Mezger Engine” is the blueprint even for modern day Porsche models. Indeed, until as late as 2011, his two part aluminium crankcase for high performance engines was still in use.
Upon his death, few words summed up his legacy better than those of Porsche’s Chief Development Officer, Wolfgang Dürheimer, who said “(for) four decades, Porsche race cars have been winning with engines designed by Hans Mezger… he made the Porsche brand become synonymous with the idea of a sports car.”
Essentially, without the brains and imagination of Mezger, the Porsche we know and love today might have been very, very different indeed. So here’s to the engineers, to whom we owe it all.