Employee number one

Herbert Linge was the first person taken on by Porsche in 1949. Heading its racing department while enjoying a successful career at the wheel made his name synonymous with the marque. Colin Goodwin charts his career

In 1943 a father escorted his 15-year-old son to a factory gate in Stuttgart. It was the first day of the boy’s apprenticeship as a mechanic. The lad had only the most basic education but was obviously very skilled with his hands because 100 people had applied for only eight apprenticeships. The company was Porsche and the boy was Herbert Linge. Over the next 45 years this boy would help shape Porsche’s road and racing cars, and make his own mark on racing’s pages.

Linge proved to be the most talented of his peers and was awarded a scholarship to the local engineering school, which he attended three afternoons a week. They were tough times. The RAF was pounding German industry and there were many shortages as the war in the East started to go badly wrong. The bus that used to take young Linge from his home to Zuffenhausen stopped running and Linge had to make the 25km journey by bicycle.

Almost 20 years later Porsche was planning to build a test track near the factory so that its racing team could test its cars without having to go to the Nürburgring or to Hockenheim – or test racing cars on the autobahn with dodgy number plates, as Linge had done many times. A site was found near the Stuttgart factory that seemed ideal. Unfortunately, Ferry Porsche was not happy at the thought of tearing up good farmland. Linge, however, knew of an ideal site near his home (where he had lived his whole life) in Weissach. The test track was built and, later in the 1960s, the entire racing shop was moved to the site. So, nearly 30 years after a teenage Linge had to cycle to work, work came to him.

The biography of Herbert Linge is the history of Porsche. From 1946 to 1948 in the turmoil that was postwar Germany, Linge worked in Baden Baden repairing Volkswagens for the French army. In Gmünd, Austria, Porsche built its first car and then in November 1949 moved back to Stuttgart. The first employee taken on by the company was Linge.

The Porsche cars built in Gmünd were alloy-bodied – the perfect material for very low volumes, but for larger scale production steel would be far cheaper. Porsche chose coachbuilder Reutter, which among other work looked after Stuttgart’s trams, to build the 356.

“We were working in a corner of Reutter’s factory,” recalls Linge. “Porsche didn’t even have tools so I used my own and borrowed what I didn’t have from people at Reutter. Every day Ferdinand Porsche would come around and see how we were doing. To me he was like a god. But not only was he an idol, he was also an extremely pleasant man.”

In 1948 American entrepreneur Max Hoffman signed up as Porsche’s North American agent. Hoffman loved the cars and within a couple of years had established the US as the source of 30 per cent of Porsche’s sales. There were, however, a couple of problems. First off, the fuel quality in the US was higher than in Europe and that made the cars run poorly. Second, American customers weren’t used to shifting gears so there were problems with clutches and gearboxes. In 1952 Linge was sent to America to sort the problems. “Customers couldn’t believe it when a mechanic from the factory arrived to sort out their car,” says Linge, “and the factory couldn’t believe it when I told them about the adjustments that were needed to make the engines run properly. Traffic jams were unheard of in Europe in the early ’50s, but in New York they were an everyday experience and the cars had to deal with them.”

In November 1952 Linge was asked to go down to Mexico to help a couple of Porsche customers competing in the Carrera Panamericana. Linge was to act as a riding mechanic for Konstantin Berckheim in his 356. “I just turned up with a small toolbox, which was a bit of a contrast to the Mercedes set-up. Alfred Neubauer was there with 25 mechanics and three trucks,” remembers Linge.

“Neubauer saw me underneath one of the cars adjusting the valve clearances at the end of a day’s driving. I had it up on the simple jack supplied with the car. Neubauer said ‘You can’t work on your car in the dust’ and turned to his chief mechanic and told him to find me a space in their garage. Later I had the engine out of the car and, when it was ready to go back in, Neubauer told his drivers Karl Kling and Hermann Lang to roll up their sleeves and help me refit the engine. Which they did.” Neubauer was so impressed by Linge’s determination that he offered him a job. Which, fortunately for Porsche, Linge turned down.

Although based in the US until 1956, Linge made frequent trips back to Europe, including one in 1954 to co-drive with Hans Hermann in the Mille Miglia. “I’d done a lot of test driving around Stuttgart in the Spyder, so knew the car pretty well.” Linge is modest to say the least, but his ability behind the wheel must have already been noticed. In the end Hermann did all the driving, but the plan was for Linge to take a turn at the wheel if the main driver needed a break. What Linge did do was spend a week reconnoitring the course. “I made up a road book that featured only the sections that were blind – I figured I wasn’t going to be of much help to a driver of Hermann’s ability by telling him what he could see for himself. Denis Jenkinson saw it and copied it for the next year with Moss – but he had the idea of saving space by putting it on a roll of paper.

“Anyway, by Rome we were 25sec ahead. Hans was quite careful for the first few hours, but once he gained some confidence in my notes he put his foot down.”

Before Rome, however, came a famous Mille Miglia anecdote. The pair arrived at a rail crossing just as the Rome express was approaching. The barriers came down but Hermann judged that the 550 Spyder would just slip underneath and, with his right hand pushed down on Linge’s head, they just cleared the barrier.

“We had a bit of a problem later when the car came to a halt. Hans was ready to pack up but I quickly realised that the rain had got to the distributor so I dried it out and wrapped it in tape.”

Hermann and Linge won their class. Linge’s contribution hadn’t gone unnoticed, and was he asked to co-drive for rally ace Helmut Polensky in that year’s Liège-Rome-Liège rally in a four-cam-engined Gmünd coupé with a lowered roof. “It was called a rally,” says Linge, “but the organisers set stage times so tight that it was essentially a race.” To give the driver a break on the 3100-mile event, the co-driver would share the driving. Polensky and Linge won it outright.

That Linge’s working life involved driving and testing all Porsche’s cars – including the competition models – doesn’t entirely explain his ability behind the wheel. He must also have had a large chunk of natural talent. “I used to race motorbikes, which was a big help,” explains Linge. “In fact, I remember Wolfgang Von Trips showing me a photograph of a motorcycle sprint in Weissach in the mid 1940s that he had competed in. I said I was riding at that meeting but didn’t remember seeing his name. ‘You wouldn’t have done,’ said Trips. ‘I was riding under another name so that my parents wouldn’t find out.’”

In 1955 Linge’s career as a driver took off with a class win at the Nürburgring 500Km in an experimental Spyder. The next year he partnered Huschke von Hanstein in a 550 Spyder at the Sebring 12 hours. “We actually borrowed the car from Briggs Cunningham,” says Linge. “It was brand new and hadn’t even been delivered. Imagine that, borrowing someone’s new car and then doing a 12-hour endurance race and handing it back afterwards.”

In 1958 Linge entered his first Le Mans driving with Carel de Beaufort in a 1.5-litre 550 Spyder. “It rained, which was a big help because we had very narrow tyres on the car because of its swing axles. We finished second in class and fifth overall.”

The next year was even more successful, with a second place at the Targa Florio. “I had to be pretty careful about the racing because I didn’t want my colleagues to say ‘Oh, Linge just wants to go racing and not work’ so the racing very much took second place. Often von Hanstein [who was in charge of the racing department as well as PR] would say, if he was short of a driver, ‘Linge has always got his helmet with him, go and find him.’”

He might not have raced every Porsche, but Linge certainly drove them all: “I didn’t like single-seaters. Watching the front wheels wobbling about really put me off. People would say ‘But Linge, they do the same on the sports cars that you are happy to drive’, but in a sports car they were hidden and I couldn’t see them doing it.”

Linge was at the Nürburgring in early 1962 when Joakim Bonnier was testing the new eight-cylinder 804 F1 car. The Swede hadn’t managed to get it around the circuit any quicker than the previous year’s four-cylinder 718, which he wanted to retain for the forthcoming season. Linge had a go and went substantially quicker, which was a bit of a choker for Bonnier. Then Dan Gurney had a go and did a blindingly fast lap. Gurney is Linge’s favourite driver (alongside his friend Hans Hermann). “Years later I saw Dan at some event and he said, ‘Herbert, do you know why I was so quick at the ’Ring in the F1 car that day? Because I was scared stiff that you would do to me what you did to Bonnier.’”

By the early 1960s Porsche’s racing workshop had a staff of 200, led by Linge. It was the beginning of the end of the era of Porsche the minnow and the start of another: the Piëch era. “Ferdinand Piëch was a hard taskmaster but once you had his respect he was fine to work with,” remembers Linge. “There was no going home early with him. He’d come around and say, ‘What are you going to do all evening if you go home early? You might as well stay at work.’”

With such a large staff, Linge’s racing activities had to be cut back. Not so much, however, that his name doesn’t pepper results sheets from the golden years of sports car racing, with a second place at the 1964 Targa Florio and a consistent record at Le Mans, usually well up the field. 

In 1969 Linge got the chance to drive a 917 at Le Mans. Private entrant John Woolfe had bought the first customer 917, which he was going to drive in the race with fellow Brit Digby Martland. Martland, who was successful in Chevron sports cars, wisely backed away, recognising that the mighty Porsche would be a bit too much to handle.

“Woolfe’s car was hardly running at the start of practice,” says Linge. “It had no performance at all yet you couldn’t hear it misfiring. In the garage that evening, when we had the engine running, we saw sparks arcing around the distributor cap. We put a new cap on and the engine ran on full power. That just left us the worry about Woolfe’s ability to drive such a fast car. I’d replaced Martland and Piëch tried very hard to persuade Woolfe to not drive. The aerodynamics were so wrong that on the Mulsanne straight you could hear the rear tyres spinning in fifth gear. Woolfe was determined to drive and unfortunately was killed at White House.”

Piëch finally gave Linge an ultimatum: driving seat or workshop. “Not a difficult decision,” says Linge. “I was already in my forties so my career as a driver was coming to a close anyway.”

Linge did drive one more big race, however. At Le Mans in 1970 he shared a Porsche 908 with Jonathan Williams. That the pair finished ninth was quite an achievement, because the 908 was the camera car entered by Steve McQueen’s Solar Productions for filming footage of the race. “We had to stop many more times than other cars to have the film changed in the cameras,” says Linge.

Porsche’s racing department continued to grow in the 1970s and ’80s until eventually Linge had 800 employees under him. He retired in 1988, but was asked back to start the Carrera Cup series. After which he retired for good.

An incredible career. From working on Panzers in the Second World War to a class win in the Mille Miglia. And, of course, overseeing the building of dozens of incredible Porsche racing cars.

But there is one other achievement which has nothing to do with Porsche and for which the name Herbert Linge should never be forgotten. Like many, Linge was horrified by the regular loss of life in racing and how, especially at places like Le Mans, the field might pass the site of an accident once or twice before help arrived.

Linge’s solution was a ‘safety car’ equipped with fire equipment, a doctor and a quick driver to reach the scene of the accident rapidly. In 1972 Linge got Porsche to supply a 914/6 for the job – which was then equipped with a foam sprayer and tools – and he drove it. Almost immediately the idea was justified when at an Interserie race Herbie Müller’s Porsche tangled with a McLaren. Linge and a doctor were on the scene promptly to attend to the drivers.

Linge also took the nascent safety car to an F2 race at Hockenheim, where it was seen by Bernie Ecclestone. “Bernie immediately wanted a safety car for F1 and for two years paid for one out of his own pocket. For three years I drove the safety car with Professor Sid Watkins beside me.”

Porsche is a funny company. My local Porsche ‘centre’ will sell you a teddy bear wearing a racing suit, but you can’t buy Linge’s biography, which was independently published and only available in German. Porsche should release it in the language of every country in which its cars are sold.

The book contains a picture of a young Herbert showing Ferdinand Porsche a cylinder head. It is the first Porsche cylinder head ever made – the perfect illustration of Linge’s incalculable contribution to the Porsche legend.