Porsche Panache

For 50 Years, Germany's Preeminent Sports-Car has Created Noble Speedsters Built for Style, Mystique and Performance

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Across the avenue from company headquarters, a dozen people who can afford Porsches are clustered in twos and threes, nervously sipping coffee in a reception room furnished with soft leather chairs and lush potted plants. Hailing from Germany and Europe, the United States and the Middle East, they have purchased 1998 models and are here to personally pick them up. They will spend a few days bonding with their new love objects on the nearby autobahn and alpine roads before shipping them back home. They have the look of anxious fathers outside a hospital delivery room. Some of them, though, have waited longer to have a Porsche than a baby. To foster feelings of paternity (or maternity), Porsche encourages prospective owners to choose from a bewildering array of accessories and options. "We gave one client a car with a gold-plated manual shift stick," says Jörg Austen, a retired development engineer who now leads factory tours. "Another wanted his car painted the exact color of his girlfriend's lipstick." Touches like these explain why the price of a customized 911 can soar above $100,000.

That's a bit beyond my budget. But I can still treat myself to a one-day rental of a Boxster. I weave through Stuttgart's traffic-clogged streets and ease the car onto the autobahn, which still has virtually no speed limits. It's a brilliant Saturday morning, and I head east towards Bavaria, through a landscape of cornfields and pine forests glimpsed at 90 mph. Suddenly something happens that brings to mind Hans Riedel and his image-improving television commercials for Porsche.

The bright lights of an Audi flash in my rearview mirror. I move to the middle lane and let the obviously inferior car by. As it passes, the driver and his girlfriend turn their heads fleetingly my way, and I feel quite sure I detect a smirk on their faces. I smile knowingly, think about it some more, then make my silent apology to Hans and step on the accelerator. Auf Wiedersehen. In less than a minute, the Audi is again in my rearview mirror, fast receding.

Jonathan Kandell, a freelance writer in New York, was formerly a correspondent in Latin America for The New York Times.

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