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Porsche Panache

For 50 Years, Germany's Preeminent Sports-Car has Created Noble Speedsters Built for Style, Mystique and Performance
Jonathan Kandell
From the Print Edition:
John F. Kennedy, Nov/Dec 98

As I sit in a car speeding at 150 mph for the first time in my life, I flash back several decades to early childhood. Riding next to my father on a highway, I would press the "magic speed button" on the glove compartment, and he would step on the accelerator, imploring me to release the button and let the car slow down.

I'm in the passenger seat again. Only this time, I'm next to Heinz Bernhard, chief test driver for Porsche, as he puts a 911 Carrera through its paces on the company's test course in southern Germany. And this model has no magic speed-control button on the glove compartment. Bernhard has already driven me in a Boxster, the Carrera's younger sibling, over an obstacle course of cobblestones and potholes, hills and curves. That was fun, like a rollercoaster ride.

But a Carrera--this is more serious. It explodes with a violence unimaginable in a more conventional vehicle, hitting 60 mph from a standing start in 5.2 seconds. "You can tell the difference, yah?" asks Bernhard, needlessly. "Oooh, yah!" I mutter back, amazed I can sit and speak at the same time, as the speedometer jumps to triple digits. We approach a hairpin bend and Bernhard decelerates sharply. The Carrera takes the curve as if it were on rails.

All the time, Bernhard is jawing. "I started out as an engineer...kind of dull," he says, downshifting through several gears. For chrissakes, please no more talking. Just concentrate on those curves. Returning to the course's starting point, we come to a sudden, full stop. The brakes are amazing--no screech or slide, just the powerful tug of the seat belt against my shoulders and chest. Maybe it's what an F-16 pilot feels like pulling out of a dive.

"Bet you don't have a single boring day anymore," I say to Bernhard, as I emerge from the car trying to suavely disguise my relief at becoming landborne again. But the beads of sweat on my face and the wobble in my legs give me away. Bernhard and my guide from Porsche headquarters chuckle knowingly at each other.

I am in Germany because Porsche A.G. is commemorating its 50th anniversary as a sports car manufacturer. The occasion is somewhat marred by the death in March of Ferdinand "Ferry" Porsche at 88, who designed the company's first sports car. But Porsche A.G. has a lot to celebrate.

Just five years ago, the last time I visited Porsche headquarters in Zuffenhausen, a northern suburb of Stuttgart, the company was racking up record losses. The betting among industry analysts was that Porsche--like Jaguar, Ferrari and Lotus--would be bought out by a larger automaker looking to fill a luxury sports-car niche in its model line. The German newspapers abounded with articles on deep dissension, even scandalous quarrels, among Porsche family members, who own all of the company's voting shares. There was speculation about how long Wendelin Wiedeking, the bright young engineer brought in to run Porsche, would last: the company had spat out four chief executive officers in the previous dozen years.

But in the financial year that ended in July 1998, Porsche recorded net income of 139.4 million deutsche marks($80.6 million), compared to 48. 1 million DM in fiscal 1996. Although figures for 1998 will not be available until the end of the year, net income is expected to show another sharp rise, the fourth straight year that the company has been in the black. During the five years that Wiedeking has been at the helm, price per share has risen from 370 DM to 5,300 DM, a run-up unmatched in recent automotive history. The company is now worth more than $5.5 billion--the kind of fortune that can soften rancor even among the most dysfunctional relatives. "Today, you won't read in any newspaper about family frictions," says Wiedeking, a tall, blond 46-year-old who looks fitter and more relaxed than he did when he took over the company in 1993.

Most of what you do read in the media lately sounds as if it could have been written by the Porsche press department. The Boxster, the cheaper sports car model (cheaper by Porsche standards, that is, at a base price of $41,000), was introduced two years ago and is generally ranked by automotive journalists well ahead of its competition--the BMW Z3 roadster and the Mercedes-Benz SLK230 sports car. "The 'wow' factor was evident as soon as I took possession of the tested Boxster," gushed Michelle Krebs of The New York Times. The 911 Carrera (base price $65,030), draws the unabashed admiration of executives from other auto companies. "A pure, sculptured form," John E. Herlitz, Chrysler's vice president for product design, commented to The Times after looking over the 911 Carrera at the New York Auto Show this year. "There aren't any bad views of this car."

The reverence of experts is matched by the fervor of Porscheophiles--those rich enough to afford the cars and the many others who can only dream of buying one. Like pilgrims, they arrive in Zuffenhausen by the hundreds every day to visit the Porsche Museum. They include blue-collar apprentices from nearby towns in southern Germany who fantasize about jobs on Porsche assembly lines, junior executives and bank clerks with annual salaries smaller than the price tag on a Boxster, and retirees who think the sleek silhouette of the new Carrera has as much aesthetic appeal as any masterpiece in Stuttgart's modern art museum. They sit through videos of Porsche history, related by company executives and champion drivers to the accompaniment of Beethoven. And they purchase CD soundtracks of the whines and roars of winning Porsches on the straightways and curves of Le Mans, Monte Carlo, Monza and other grand prix courses.

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