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Influential Porsche engineer Hans Mezger dies at 90

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Article by Damon Lowney
Photos courtesy Porsche

Hans Mezger, the engineer behind some of Porsche’s greatest successes in motorsports and its venerable air-cooled flat six, died on June 10, 2020. He was 90 years old.

Among his many achievements are the development of the 911’s air-cooled flat six, the overall construction of the 917 (including its flat-12 engine) — Porsche’s first car to win overall at the 24 Hours of Le Mans — and a Formula 1 engine that powered McLaren's Niki Lauda and Alain Prost to several world championships.

Above: Niki Lauda (left) and Hans Mezger circa 1984.

Mezger, the youngest of five children, was born on November 18, 1929 in Ottmarsheim, Germany, conveniently close to the home of his future employer in Stuttgart. When World War II erupted in 1938, he was too young to be drafted into the military, but near the war’s end, at the age of 15, he narrowly escaped service with a faked medical exemption.

After the war ended, he went on to study mechanical engineering at what is now called the University of Stuttgart. In 1956 joined Porsche in the calculations department, where he developed a formula for calculating camshaft profiles. In 1960 he started work on Porsche’s first Formula 1 car, experience from which he applied to the development of the air-cooled flat six that powered the now famous 911.

Above: Mezger standing next to the TAG Turbo Formula 1 engine in 2017. The engine powered McLaren's Niki Lauda and Alain Prost to three World Championships.

For the rest of Mezger’s career, he focused mainly on motorsports projects, including the aforementioned F1 engine; the 917 and its 917/10 and 917/30 variations; the 910, 907, and 908; the flat sixes that powered the 935 and later the 956 and the 962; an IndyCar engine; and another Formula 1 engine in 1990. Along the way he helped with the 2.0-liter flat four in the 914 and even designed Harley-Davidson’s four-cylinder engine in the late 1970s.

Above: Mezger at a race at Kyalami Grand Prix Circuit in 1983.

Though the brilliance of the 911’s air-cooled flat six is not lost on most people, only after Porsche switched to water-cooled engines in the late-1990s did the term “Mezger engine” become a common utterance among enthusiasts who knew the biggest difference between a 911 Carrera and Porsche’s higher-performance 911s. The reason: Not only did some of the newly designed Carrera (and Boxster) engines develop infamous problems, but when Porsche released the Turbo, GT2, and GT3, the highest performing Porsches at the time, Mezger’s engine design was used as a starting point. Over time, they proved to be more reliable as well as capable of more performance than the Carrera flat sixes, solidifying his legend for a new generation of car enthusiasts well after his retirement in 1993.

The contributions Mezger made to Porsche during the course of his career can’t be overstated, and it can be argued that the automaker we know today would look very different had they not crossed paths.

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