Design

By Design: Three of Our All-Time Favorite Porsches

In honor of the company’s 70 years of sports car history, we showcase Porsche style

Last summer I was talking with a friend who possesses one of the finest design minds I’ve ever encountered. Although he has never worked on cars, he said something that I realized summed up Porsche’s operational philosophy perfectly: “The best way to do a new project is to use as much existing and off-the-shelf stuff as possible.” Cast your mind back to 1948 and Porsche’s humble beginnings as a car manufacturer, and you envision that hardy band in the Gmund sawmill doing just that. Quite literally making jewels out of junk, they rounded up off-the-shelf bits from military Kübelwagens and pieces they could get from an Austrian Volkswagen dealer to make VW hot rods.

Sophisticated hot rods to be sure, but reworked economy cars all the same. They were in essence doing what the returned G.I.s in California were doing with old Fords, saving the best bits and transforming both appearance and performance—the key difference being the Porsche engineers had designed their economy car source themselves.

There’s a mantra I’ve always liked, usually attributed to American Quakers and used widely during the Depression Era: Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without. The glorious Porsche 356 embodies some bad features that stayed to the end, so in effect Porsche made do with what it had available in the beginning and completely wore out the concept of using VW parts, but made it do for a long time until the 911 completely replaced the 356. Remember, the 911’s initial design was quite weak, and early models were simply bad cars, so Ferry Porsche rightly removed Hans Tomala, who had run the 911 development program. Porsche AG was too poor at the time, though, to tool up a complete alternative to what it had already spent most of its capital getting ready. So it had to make do with the 911, and as half a century of respected success has shown, it did so in spades. The last part of my favorite saying, “or do without,” applies to Porsche as well. For a full 50 years, the company did without radiators, water pumps, pipes, hoses, clamps, and other hardware miscellany in its cooling systems, and it benefited greatly from doing so.

1. These bulges at the wheel openings express the difference between the original 911 as a premium small sports car and today’s 911s as high-performance icons.

2. Marvelous sculpting gives a neat surface flow from the headlamp to the front wheel opening, then an indent to the nominal fender and door surfaces.

3. This cowl inlet is a nice punctuation mark on a bland, flowing surface. A strong visual reference, it doesn’t detract from the car’s profile.

4. This swirling gestural line separating hood, fenders, and bumper is elegant and unobtrusive. You don’t really notice it in the overall scheme at first glance, but when you do, it’s a powerful graphical statement.

5. Sorry, but without round, inclined headlamp shapes, 911 variants are not perfectly Porsche. These are classic, with minimal framing and maximum transparent area.

6. The three modest inlets below the bumper strike face are well sculpted and do not particularly call attention to themselves.

7. The necessary front-corner lamp cluster is again unobtrusive, elegantly shaped, and set off by the black rubber bumper buttresses.

8. These air inlet details are interesting but barely noticeable for a person standing near the car.

This particular car shows some examples of accessorizing, to which 911 owners are often partial. Not everyone would justify leather floor mats, least of all the Porsche factory— unless it can make a few bucks, of course.

1. From the inboard position of the footrest, you can see how the pedals are quite sharply moved to the right of the steering column and the driver’s body centerline. It seems awkward but has never bothered me driving a 911 of any vintage.

2. This small-radius section extending straight across the cockpit seems almost stupidly simple, but it provides a baseline for the handsome and matter-of-factly practical instrument panel. No flash, no fancy styling, just an ideal environment for a serious driver.

3. The tachometer is where it ought to be—where the driver can see it with minimal diversion of sight lines.

4. Airbags are smaller now, but this fairly big central container does not at all seem out of place in the Carrera 4S.

5. Porsche’s leather-wrapped shift lever adds a bit of class to the driver’s controls. However, the important thing about it is the proper placement and that it is ergonomic. And its movements are precise and kinesthetically satisfying.

6. Again, no fuss, no styling, just straightforward, simple design to purpose. The seats are good looking, comfortable, and—as from the early days with the 356—extremely well made.

1. There is a subtle reflexive upward curve in the decklid below the slightly raised surround for the grille behind the backlight. The visual effect is to increase the apparent length of the 911.

2. In this view the subtly modeled strike face side extension also adds visual length.

3. As do these hard surface change lines derived from the sill extension between front and rear wheel openings, which are blessedly free of the flat perimeter bands that have become nearly universal on all sorts of vehicles.

1. Full-width wraparound taillights are essentially a Detroit idea, but no American car ever had as simple, straightforward, and pleasing a design solution as this.

2. The added panel for the center high-mounted stop light is neat and unobjectionable.

3. Notice how the rear fender surface flows smoothly back from the maximum width established by the bulge over the rear wheels, making a broad shoulder above and a clean highlight on the flank.

4. The steel door remains as original, but the sill projects outward a bit, with a small, tight radius at its top, which is extended into the fender bulges as a character line, elongating the body length visually.

5. The hard horizontal line established with the paint break on the sill between body color and black below wraps around the rear of the car, interrupted by the exhaust cutouts.

6. The rubber bumper buttresses are effective without being overly awkward.

In its first 50 years, Porsche AG was simply a sports car company, augmenting its income with engineering consultancy, patent royalties, and the occasional design of entire vehicles for other manufacturers. Today Porsche earns its revenue by making crossovers, luxurious four-door GTs, and a relatively small number of true sports cars—the mid-engine 718 lineup’s descendants of the original 356/1. The reputation upon which this range of disparate vehicles was built is due to Porsche’s motorsports activities (which were surely never a profit center) and above all the evergreen 911.

There are literally dozens of 911 variants available right now, and there have been hundreds of models among the more than one million 911s made since 1964. For most people, the 911 is Porsche. From its very first race, at the Targa Florio, driven by Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy and journalist/photographer Bernard Cahier, to the “pink pig” GT class winner at Le Mans last June, the 911 has burnished the aura that makes a suburbanite driving a Macan feel like a star.

Some enthusiasts consider the last air-cooled Porsche—the 993, sold in the U.S. from 1995 to 1998—to be the ultimate and best 911 sports car, as opposed to later, more luxurious (and heavier) grand touring Carreras. Indeed, my favorite 911 design is the 993 Carrera 4S, essentially a 993 Turbo without its whale tail and turbocharged engine. The car is of course bigger and enormously more powerful than the 2.0-liter original with its mere 130 horsepower and skinny little tires, but there is a consistency of form and easily apprehended aerodynamic quality that goes back to Erwin Komenda’s VW 60K10 race cars and continued through all 356s and 911s up until today. It’s hard for us to believe now, but the 911 was intended to disappear like the 356, to be replaced by the 928—a car many Porsche lovers refuse to acknowledge as legitimate.

The 928, though, is my choice for Porsche’s best front-engine car design. Some called it Porsche’s Corvette, and in fact that’s not so far from reality. In 1956, two young men worked together in a temporary space at the General Motors Tech Center, charged with devising the next Corvette, the C2. I was one, as stylist for the form, and Anatole Lapine was the other, responsible for its architecture. Consulting with Zora Arkus-Duntov and Ed Cole, we came up with a shorter wheelbase than the C1, with the V-8 moved rearward and the gearbox out back. Chevrolet would not use that layout for several more decades, on the C5, but Porsche introduced the conceptually identical 928 at the 1977 Geneva Motor Show and produced it until 1995. Lapine took a lot of ribbing (not least from me) for getting Porsche to make “his” Corvette, but Porsche really did it because it feared the U.S. would ban rear-engine cars like the 911. The 928 is much better looking than any ’50s GM design in the Harley Earl era could have been, and of course Porsche’s engineering then was far more refined than Chevrolet’s. To me, the 928 S4 model remains the best high-performance daily driver GT of all time, easy to enter, easy to drive, comfortable, and dead dependable. Notably, if the 928 was influenced heavily by American ideas, it was also an American, Peter Schutz—Berlin-born but Chicago-raised—who reversed the decision to cancel the 911 just three weeks after taking over as Porsche CEO, something for which all Porsche people should be eternally grateful.

In the racing realm, aside from 911-based machines, Porsche has been faithful to the mid-engine layout of the very first 356/1 for many of its competition cars, starting with the 550 Spyder first seen at the 1953 Paris auto show. It made Porsche’s giant-killer reputation in the 1954 Carrera Panamericana, when Hans Herrmann finished third overall behind two 4.5-liter Ferraris. (Another 550 was fourth.) That was reinforced by an overall win at the 1956 Targa Florio, the toughest event on the international calendar.

1. Rear visibility was really good on the 928s despite the strutlike C-pillars. It was certainly better than most comparable Italian cars—or Corvettes.

2. The corner lamp cluster is neat and clean, and the lamps are set far enough back for the elastomeric bumper surface to protect them. The whole front end is immediately identifiable as Porsche, a neat trick at the time.

3. Porsche learned with the 914 VW-Porsche that cars without identifiable headlamps on the front were dangerous, and all Porsches since have had the glass visible even if it has to pop up to be useful, as here.

4. It’s a bit astonishing that this very small inlet—you can’t call it a grille—was adequate to cool the big engine while handling the air conditioning and even the cabin ventilation. But it was.

5. This little elastic bumper strip was probably necessary at the widest part of the body, but cars without it looked better.

1. The air scoop just behind the door was prescient for mid-engine coupes, but the Olde British hood strap seems a bit much, even as far back as this car goes.

2. Long headlight fairings were not the sleek ovals used by Italian coachbuilders but had a hard, straight inner line intersecting the hood (which has no strap).

3. The car’s long nose looks extremely sleek, but I suspect its profile, nearly symmetrical, would have generated a lot of front-end lift. But no one knew much about that when these cars were conceived.

4. This undercut, running all around the car and providing a hard horizontal datum for the body, is a handsome visual accent but seems to have no relationship to the actual tubular chassis structure, unlike later Can-Am race cars.

5. Stamped wheels, as used on 356s, were probably steel, although alloy stampings might have existed.

Some 550s were used as fast road transport, notably by conductor Herbert van Karajan, who went from concert to concert very quickly back when there were no European open-road speed limits. But of all the special-series racing sports cars, the most interesting to me is the 904, a coupe that really was designed by the third-generation Ferdinand Porsche, known to the family as “Butzi.” Porsche AG would like you to think that he also did the 911 all by himself, even going so far as to cut Erwin Komenda out of period photos, rather as the Politburo did with out-of-favor politicians in the Soviet era.

The 904 got to keep its type designation because Peugeot hadn’t yet exercised its naming rights, which previously turned Porsche’s then-new project 901 into the beloved 911. The 904 was the first Porsche racer to eschew the suspension layout of the Auto Union grand prix cars created by Professor Porsche in the mid-’30s (and used, of course, for the VW, and thus all 356 Porsches). Its body was fiberglass, a first for the company, rather heavy, and highly unsuitable because it used crack-prone sprayed chopped-fiber technology—reasonable for small pleasure boats where weight doesn’t much matter but not good for a race car. But it is a handsome beast, quite clearly a Porsche from the front, and it was a very good design for its intended purpose. The fact one took first overall at the Targa Florio in 1964 is ample proof that it was well conceived.

Designer Jerry Cumbus was at GM Styling at the same time as Lapine and I. Creator of the knee-saving curved A-pillar on 1961-62 full-size cars, he has owned six Porsches, including a 904 bought used in 1962 not for racing but as a road car. He was then living in San Francisco, not the most hospitable city for exotic cars; he reports that a coupe only 38 inches high was “simply not a practical car to drive in traffic,” and “with no bumpers the car was a risk in any parking situation.” His car was initially part of a Dutch race team, driven by Ben Pons, and “had the most international race victories of any 904.” He sold it because of logistical problems but said, “If I had it to do over again, I would still buy the 904.” Who wouldn’t?

Porsche 928 S4 courtesy of LuxSport Motor Group

Porsche 904 GTS courtesy of Peter Harholdt

Special thanks to Automobile reader and Porsche fan Benjamin Shahrabani for providing his 1997 Carrera 4S for this photo shoot.

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