The Porsche 911
John Macfarlane has a bit of a love affair with the Porsche 911. He got his first in ’72. He’s since owned another seven.
“For years I wanted one but couldn’t afford it,” Macfarlane says. “Now, I’ll always have a 911 in my garage.”
Like thousands of other Canadian Porsche enthusiasts – there are 691 in the Porsche Club of America’s Canada West chapter, of which Macfarlane’s the founding member – he likes the sports car for its handling and power, but also for how it looks.
“It’s just a timeless shape,” Macfarlane says. “It’s iconic.”
And “timeless” is a good word for it. The Porsche 911 has been in continuous production since 1963, but its design, particularly the car’s silhouette profile, has changed little over the years. Comparing the original with the 2012 model – known as the “991,” to fans and insiders – is like a game of “spot the differences.”
The silhouette: then
In 1956, Ferry Porsche set about developing a replacement to the company’s Volkswagen Beetle-based 356 roadster. He began work on a chassis, and in 1959 asked designer Erwin Komenda to work with Porsche’s son Ferdinand Alexander, or “Butzi,” on coming up with a design.
The shape of the 911 was dictated in large part by the parameters Ferry had assigned them: it had to sit on a 221-centimetre (87-inch) wheelbase; fit around a rear-engine chassis assembly; and have room for a set of golf clubs.
“The silhouette is based on a very unique technical layout—at least, unique for sports cars,” says Michael Mauer, head of Porsche’s design department. “So [Ferdinand’s] design was very much based on the idea form follows function.”
Ferry first had a four-seater in mind, but Ferdinand convinced him a two-plus-two meant they could swap out the prototype’s flat roof for a much smoother flyline. They didn’t know then what that decision really meant.
The silhouette of the original 911 remained basically unaltered until 1989, save for the introduction of a “slantnose” option with flip-up headlamps (“It didn’t work from a sale perspective, probably because it didn’t maintain the shape,” says Macfarlane).
In 1990, a slightly revised successor, the “964,” was introduced, followed in 1995 by a more radically re-shaped third-generation 911, nicknamed “the 993.” Though the car retained almost all of its original character, some Porsche enthusiasts were wary of the changes.
“Half the people I knew liked it, half hated it,” says Macfarlane. “After a couple of years, though, it became the new favourite. That happens every time there’s a change.”
But if the 993 caused an upset, the 911 of the 1999 model year – the “996” – inspired a war.
“With the 996, the proportions for the first time changed significantly,” says Mauer. “You can have an opinion about the styling, but it was a very important point in the history of the 911.”
The 996, drafted by Hong Kong-born designer Pinky Lai, borrowed its headlights from its new little brother, the Boxster, something many Porsche fans protested. So when the 911 was refreshed in 2005, elements of the 993 were re-introduced.
The silhouette: now
Michael Mauer, who led the latest redesign of the 911, admits enthusiast input played a role in how the new car was shaped.
Mauer’s worked in car design since 1986, first with Mercedes-Benz, and then Saab in 2000, but he says he’s never seen such a strong connection between a brand and their customers since he started with Porsche in 2004.
“The customers really involve themselves in the product. They’re very interested in what happens to the brand,” Mauer says. “As a designer, you have a responsibility to develop the brand and bring it into the future, but when you’re working with Porsche you know your actions will be more intensive.”
Of course, the car’s heritage played an even larger role in the 991’s design.
“With the new car, you have the roofline and all the major design cues already invented for you, because we’re still working with the same unique [chassis] layout as the first 911,” he explains. “It was clear from the beginning that the design elements characteristic of the 911 – the silhouette, the roofline – we couldn’t change the character of those lines.”
What was important to Mauer and his team was that the new 991 set itself apart with its design without deviating too far from the shapes that define it as a 911.
“We’ll always make sure the new one is recognizable as ‘the new one,’” Mauer says of the model’s future. “But this is our icon in the brand, and so we’ll forever develop it in an evolutionary sense. That’s our philosophy.”