FRANKFURT — Peter Schutz, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany who became the only American to serve as chief executive of the German sports car maker Porsche, where he was credited with saving the company’s signature 911 model from oblivion, died on Oct. 29 in Naples, Fla. He was 87.
His wife, Sheila Harris-Schutz, said the cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease.
Mr. Schutz was a boy when he and his family fled Nazi Germany on the eve of World War II. He returned years later to lead a company whose founders had collaborated with Adolf Hitler. The man who hired Mr. Schutz for the job, Ferdinand Porsche Jr., better known as Ferry, had joined with his father in designing tanks for the German war machine. The elder man formed Porsche A.G. after the war, in 1948.
Among sports car connoisseurs, Mr. Schutz is best remembered for blocking plans in 1981 to end production of the 911 model, which remains the quintessential Porsche.
When Mr. Schutz took charge that year, the company, based in Stuttgart, had just suffered the first loss-making year in its history and was in crisis, largely because of slumping sales in the United States. The 911 had been plagued by quality problems, and its air-cooled motor, mounted in the rear, was considered anachronistic; most cars had water-cooled motors in the front. It was also tricky to drive because the heavy rear end gave it a tendency to spin out.
Sales were falling, and the Porsche board had already decided to kill the 911 in favor of other models, like the 928, which, with a motor in front, was easier to handle.
As Mr. Schutz told the story, about three weeks into his new job he noticed a chart on the office wall of Helmuth Bott, Porsche’s lead engineer, who was also unhappy about the 911’s impending demise. The graph plotted plans for the company’s models. The line for the 911 stopped in 1981.
“I grabbed a marker off Professor Bott’s desk,” Mr. Schutz wrote in Road & Track, “and extended the 911 line across the page, onto the wall, and out the door. When I came back, Bott stood there, grinning.”
Under Mr. Schutz, Porsche modernized and expanded the 911 line and unveiled a convertible version in 1982. Later versions retained the model’s trademark rear-mounted engine — now water cooled — and sleek lines.
Peter Werner Schutz was born in Berlin on April 20, 1930, the son of Erna Brugger, a seamstress, and Leopold Schutz, a pediatrician. The family fled in 1939, going first to Cuba because the United States had limited the number of Jewish refugees it would accept. Restrictions were loosened after the war began, and the family eventually settled in Chicago.
After studying at the Illinois Institute of Technology in that city, Mr. Schutz worked as an engineer for the tractor maker Caterpillar and later at the engine manufacturer Cummins. In 1978, a corporate recruiter lured him back to Germany after discovering that he could speak German, Ms. Harris-Schutz said. German companies at the time wanted executives who could help them build sales in the United States.
Mr. Schutz worked initially as head of the engine division of Klöckner-Humboldt-Deutz, an equipment manufacturer in Cologne now known simply as Deutz. Porsche hired him at the beginning of 1981 in the hope that he would be able to revive sales in America, the company’s most important market.
The Porsche and Piëch families, which owned Porsche, had a fraught history. Ferdinand Porsche Sr., a noted automotive engineer, designed the Volkswagen Beetle for Hitler with the help of his son and oversaw construction of the enormous factory in Wolfsburg that remains Volkswagen’s headquarters.
During the war, the factory produced rocket parts, antitank weapons and military vehicles using slave laborers, including Jews from Auschwitz who were overseen by S.S. guards. Ferdinand Sr. was held by the Allies after the war but never charged with any crimes.
After the war, Ferry Porsche used modified Volkswagen Beetle engines and chassis as the basis for the first Porsche sports cars, which evolved into the 911. (It was designed by a grandson of the founder, also named Ferdinand.)
Despite their association with the Nazis, the Porsche and Piëch families received Mr. Schutz warmly, Ms. Harris-Schutz said by telephone from Naples, adding that she and her husband had never felt hostility while living in Stuttgart.
Mr. Schutz was also credited with reviving the Porsche racing program. He told his engineers to pull a successful but aging 936 model from the company’s museum and fit it with a more modern engine. In 1982, Porsche won the 24 Hours of Le Mans race.
The company’s revenue more than tripled under Mr. Schutz. But it began to slump in the second half of the 1980s, leading his critics to complain that he was focusing excessively on the United States, which was heading toward recession. He left Porsche at the end of 1987.
After returning to the United States, Mr. Schutz and his wife started a consulting firm, and he became a sought-after speaker on management topics.
In addition to Ms. Harris-Schutz, he is survived by a brother, Rudolph; a daughter, Lori Schutz; two sons, Michael and Mitchel; and three grandchildren.
Even though his family had been persecuted by the Nazis, Mr. Schutz never bore a grudge toward the Porsches or toward Germans in general, Ms. Harris-Schutz said.
“For a kid who gets run out of the country then gets to run a prestigious company — that was a blessing,” she said. “That was the way he felt about it.”