Curbside Classic: Porsche 911 – Immortality Attained?

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(first posted 4/6/2012)    Until science makes a giant leap forward, there are two avenues through which humans can strive for some semblance of immortality. We can leave behind some of our genes, a fairly reliable method although hardly predictable. The other is to leave behind words or deeds of lasting import. The results are similarly unpredictable; did Thomas Crapper have any expectation that his improvements to the flush toilet would make his name immortal?

Ferdinand Alexander (“Butzi”) Porsche, who passed away yesterday (April 5th, 2012), shouldered a heavy burden when he set himself to the task of designing a replacement to the original Porsche 356. In his case, it was a double whammy: as a Porsche, he was literally responsible for the propagation of the family as well as the family business. That he succeeded with his Porsche 911 beyond any possible imagination is undisputed. Has it not replaced the VW Beetle as the most universally recognized car ever? How’s that for spreading your genes?

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It was an immense task that faced Ferry Porsche in the late fifties: to replace the already iconic 356, the only car ever to wear the storied Porsche name. But it would have to be done, and some of the best designers of the time were given a crack at it. But their proposals were either too much a continuation of the 356, or too drastically different; all were rejected. No one had the right vision of what the next Porsche was to be: a truly new Porsche, but still a Porsche. It’s like having children: you recognize them as yours, even if they’re not just like you. So the job fell on the next Porsche scion.

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“Butzi” had grown up around cars with his grandfather Ferdinand and father Ferry, exposed to every aspect of them. But design is what called him, even though he flunked out of design school after a year. So he joined the family company, training in the body design department under the designer of the Volkswagen Beetle and the 356, Erwin Komenda.

In that period of consideration of a 356 replacement, beginning in 1959, Butzi began fleshing out his own design, keeping in mind the dictum that his father laid out: it should have a bit more room, but “Comfort is not what makes driving fun, it is more on the opposite.” Although Butzi’s drafts were well received by his family, Komenda wanted to make very substantial changes. But blood is thicker than air(cooling); Ferry sent Butzi’s unadulterated blueprints to the coachbuilder Reutter, who built the prototype 901, and the rest is truly history.

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The result was a perfect synthesis of the old and new; unmistakably Porsche, yet undoubtedly a new generation. A very worthy scion indeed, and one that has never been bettered. It took a Porsche to father a truly new generation of Porsche. Others have tried since, but none has come close to keeping the bloodlines pure like Butzi did with the 911.

Butzi Porsche (left) and cousin Ferdinand Piech (right), here with grandpa Ferdinand, didn’t exactly see eye-to-eye about the affairs of the family business (who ever saw eye-to-eye with Piech?) So in 1972, the family kicked them both out of the company, made Porsche a public company, and banned any family members from ever holding a management position again. Ferdinand Piech eventually found a way around that: buy the company, via Volkswagen. Butzi went on to form Porsche Design, which achieved considerable success with watches, sunglasses and a myriad of other products, just no new Porsches.

And what are the qualities that can be attributed to the 911’s immortality? In Butzi’s own words: “Design must be functional, and functionality must be translated into visual aesthetics, without any reliance on gimmicks that have to be explained” What can I possibly add to that? Very rarely has an automobile followed that dictum so honestly and so successfully. Did it succeed because of, or despite of its adherence to those principles? From some angles, the 911 is almost brutally functional; or just brutally German. Is there a difference?

But from other angles, it delights the eye with its gracefully dropping tail and iconic rear side window sweep. But who would have thought in 1963 that half a century later, its design cues would still be fashionable?

It was amazing enough that the 911 was still going strong after ten or fifteen years, despite the doubts of its longevity that induced the Porsches to create the 928, presumed to be its successor. But the 911 just needed faith and continual updating, in ways that improved its performance consistently and evolved its appearance. That’s honest, since its function was performance. Some even thought it got better looking with age. Even purists will have to admit that it took to the eighties better than any other twenty-year old design.

Even whale tails and wheel flares couldn’t ruin the 911, though they might not have been everyone’s cup of tea. Why? Because it goes back to Butzi’s dictum: they were still fully functional, not gimmicks, directly stemming from the 911’s prodigious racing successes. That would not be the case with so many of the 911 Turbo’s imitators.

Anyone who’s ever had the privilege and pleasure to slip behind the wheel of a 911 will acknowledge that rarely (if ever) has a car’s interior design so faithfully reflected its exterior: efficient, functional, timeless, handsome and utterly satisfying. And of course, very difficult to improve upon. Which explains almost everything.

Even its wheels became iconic, and that gas tank filler, and… It’s like re-examining your first toy car: every line and detail is so familiar; or is it like looking at a member of the family? Have we all absorbed a bit of Porsche blood over the decades? Maybe it was the blood-curling scream of its chain-saw six under that louvered tail? Have you ever heard an original two-liter 911 approaching redline? I’ll up the ante: a two-liter 911S? An infernal-combustion dentist’s drill.

The problem was that the 911 became irreplaceable. With the Porsches out of management, a truly new scion of the 911 became seemingly impossible. Porsche has become the caretaker of the family jewels, which is not exactly the same as putting them to proper good use. No one has had the guts to do what Butzi did: sire a new generation.

Lacking the fortitude or means to regenerate in the way evolution saw fit, Porsche has taken to “cloning” the 911, seemingly perpetually. Well, the results could certainly be worse, and it is a tribute to Butzi’s design that it’s even been possible for so long. But it’s not quite the same either. Traditional reproduction and regeneration is a genetic gamble, and sometimes the results surpass all possible expectations. Or they don’t. But as long as Porsche plays it safe, that will never happen. No human Porsche will ever again feel the familial obligation and inspiration that created the original 911. Sometimes, it really is about the DNA.

In memory of Ernst Niedermeyer, who also passed away on April 5, 2012