Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Porsche 911 at 50: no need for a mid-life crisis yet

© Simon Poulter 2013

Viewers of television's bloketastic Top Gear will be overly familiar with a gag that has run almost as long as the Porsche 911 has been in production, which is that Ferdinand Porsche's frog-eyed, rear-engined sportster has not changed at all in the 50 years since it made its debut at the Frankfurt Motor Show on this day in 1963.

Whereas other performance brands like Ferrari and Lamborghini have regularly brought through new designs and shapes, and other marques that have been around for a while - like the Golf, Fiesta or Astra - have gone through numerous design generations, it is certainly true that the two-seater has changed - to the eye, at least - relatively little over the seven generations Porsche has produced.

Its shape has evolved subtly and its handling and performance has improved dramatically, but the 911 is still the 911, an icon, not only of car design but a design classic in its own right. The lack of fundamental change is simply because it hasn't been necessary.

There aren't many examples of unchanging industrial design: the Fender Stratocaster and Gibson Les Paul, Converse All-Stars, the Swiss Army Knife, Anglepoise lamps, Levi's 501s and RayBan Wayfarers come to mind. I'm sure there are more, but not many.

The 911 owes - still - its status as an icon of modern design to Ferdinand Porsche himself. Twenty years after being commissioned by Hitler to design what became the Volkswagen Beetle, Porsche put pen to paper in 1958 and came up with a remarkably similar - and cleanly simple - sports car that would be unveiled in Frankfurt on September 12, 1963.

Initially named the 901 (until Peugeot pointed out that they had a car with same name), the 911 joined Jaguar's E-type as a motoring icon of the 1960s, a car as quick and as exciting as a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo. Stoned rock stars and film stars would famously hare about Mulholland Drive and Laurel Canyon Boulevard in the Hollywood Hills in their newly-acquired 911s, at a time when the car was regarded more for fun than as a symbol of aspirational wealth.

That would come 30 years later, when bloated bankers getting rich quick off the banking revolution in London and New York picked pick up 911s with spare change from their bonus cheques, instantly becoming a hate symbol for yuppie opulence. A shame, really. Even today, claiming ownership of a Porsche (unless you're Californication's Hank Moody, who is cool) will be met by a sneer, while ownership of a Ferrari 458 or Aston Martin Vanquish might result in a round of applause.

© Simon Poulter 2013
For my 40th birthday I got over the disappointment of not actually owning a 911 at that stage of life by being gifted the chance to drive one around the Thruxton racing circuit. It was surprising to find - for a car capable of doing 0-60 in 3.7 seconds and a top speed of almost 200 miles an hour - how solid, smooth and, dare I say it, a tad staid it was. This was despite warnings from past owners about 911s being polecats to handle, with that big, fat, arse-located engine making the car a deathtrap on corners and, woe-betide me if it rained.

In September 1963 the first Porsche 911 would have cost around $5,000 - about the same as an average sports car of the day. Today, a 'standard' 911 will set you back $122,000, $222,655 if you want the lunatic 552bhp Turbo S model. At prices like that, it is no longer a fun and sporty runabout.

The 50th anniversary Porsche 911

It is, though, still a breathtaking car, both to drive and to look at. The Top Gear boys (well, Clarkson - May and Hammond are great admirers of the 911) might joke about Porsche's somewhat unadventurous design department and their slavish obedience of the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" adage, along with a naming strategy reminiscent of Peter Gabriel calling his first four albums Peter Gabriel. But there are few cars on the road today that combine simplicity and elegance with a signature design that you could never mistake for something else. 

Happy 50th, Neunelfer.

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