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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

(continued from page 3)

Wiedeking stresses that white-collar employees haven't had an easy time of it either during his tenure. "We cut management by 38 percent and have kept it that way," he says. "I fired 95 percent of our marketing and sales department."

Hans Riedel heads the reorganized marketing and sales department. He speaks English with a New Jersey vernacular picked up from several years handling BMW sales in that part of the world. "Our market studies in the early '90s showed that our public image was so poor that seeing someone drive around in a Porsche created what we call 'the asshole effect,'" says Riedel. Porsche owners were viewed as arrogant by other drivers, he explains. It had to do with gold chains hanging from their exposed chests, or a tendency to peel rubber as soon as the traffic light turned green.

"So, the major change we have been seeking is to create more social acceptance--to make sure our cars don't talk down to other people or make Porsche owners look superior," says Riedel. An ad campaign in magazines and on television got under way to gently poke fun at Porsches without damaging the cars' high-tech reputation. Porsche engineers, for example, are shown having the sports cars painted with colors that match their socks.

Riedel pulls out some graphs to show just how much Porsche's image has improved. In an early 1990s poll of 150,000 Europeans, two-thirds said they disliked Porsches. A similar poll last year found that more than half felt that Porsche had a good image.

To raise that percentage even higher, a new television commercial now being aired shows a Porsche being overtaken on a highway by a lesser vehicle. "The Porsche driver knows he has the engine power, but rather than use it, he just smiles and lets the other car speed by," explains Riedel. "The message: Don't make other people--those who can't afford a Porsche--feel badly."

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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