- Words by Mr Paul Henderson, health & sport editor at British GQ
"I couldn't find the car of my dreams," Mr Ferdinand "Ferry" Porsche
once said. "So I built it." Fifty years and more than 820,000 cars later, and the German car giant is still building, improving and perfecting what has been described as the quintessential sports car. Despite all the success of the Porsche 911, however, it was a difficult birth.
Long before it was given its simple three-digit nomenclature, the 911 was merely a follow-up project to the company's first production car, the 356. Unveiled for the first time in 1948, the 356 was a lightweight rear-engined sports car borne from the platform of the Porsche-designed "people's car", the VW Beetle. It would stay in production for 17 years, but by 1956 Porsche was looking for a successor.
"The plan for the new model was that it should be a comfortable touring car," recalled Mr Ferry Porsche, son of Mr Ferdinand Porsche Senior, the company's founder. "Various models were designed with the aim of creating a true four-seater, but we didn't want the Porsche shape, which had become world-famous, to disappear."
Originally called the 901, Porsche
swapped the '0' for a '1' because
Peugeot claimed a patent on
three-digit numbers with
a zero in the middle
After rejecting countless concepts from external design houses for the "Type 7" car, Porsche decided it would design the car itself. The man charged with creating it was Mr Ferry Porsche's son, Mr Ferdinand Alexander Porsche, AKA "Butzi", who was still only in his twenties. The brief given to him by his father was that the new car must retain the Porsche shape, but be reimagined for the 1960s with more space inside, and that it should include "luggage space that could take an owner's golf clubs".
The result, designed with Porsche's body engineer Mr Erwin Komenda, was a model that encompassed a long bonnet, a sloping roofline and a powerful six-cylinder engine. It was simple and beautiful. "Design must be functional, and functionality must be translated into visual aesthetics without any reliance on gimmicks that have to be explained," its creator explained.
At the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1963, Porsche unveiled the 901. And if it wasn't for the fact that Peugeot complained about the name - the French manufacturer claimed a patent on three-digit numbers with a zero in the middle - we would probably still be talking about the 50-year longevity of the 901. As it was, Porsche simply swapped the "0" for a "1".
A Porsche 911 advertising poster from 1989
According to a report by the Associated Press at the time: "The new car was mobbed and groped when it was unveiled... show-goers left the doors and roof smeared with fingerprints as they scrambled for a chance to sit behind the wheel." The original price tag for the 911 when it went on sale the following year was $6,500, and the rest is automotive history, with seven generations of the car coming and going over the past half century.
In that time the car evolved - most noticeably in 1998 when it switched from an air-cooled engine to a water-cooled engine - and yet resolutely remained the same, keeping its distinctive shape. It is a dichotomy that appeals to the current head of Porsche design and the man behind the latest 911 incarnation, Mr Michael Mauer.
"There are two things we can play around with," says Mr Mauer. "Firstly, our brand identity. Every car we do is recognisable as a Porsche. We have some very well-identified elements that have helped us establish that. On top of that, each Porsche then has its own product identity, which gives us an additional opportunity to play with design cues... For me, the 911 still stands as the embodiment of car design."
Mr Steve McQueen had a switch
fitted on his 911 Carrera Turbo
that cut the rear lights, just in
case any highway patrolmen
were following him
Not only is the 911 an iconic car, it has always been beloved by legends. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Mr Steve McQueen owned three slate-grey 911s, deliberately making them inconspicuous so that he could race around the LA Canyon without attracting too much attention. Mr McQueen even had a switch fitted on his last Porsche (the 911 Carrera Turbo) that cut the rear lights just in case any highway patrolmen were following him. (The 1970 911S Porsche that Mr McQueen drove at the start of the film Le Mans was sold for more than £830,000 in 2011.)
Comedian Mr Jerry Seinfeld is another fan, happily describing himself as a "Porschephile". With a collection of more than 40 classic cars, Mr Seinfeld is well placed to explain the success of the German automotive giant: "'Cool' is what sells sports cars. I mean, can you name another company in the history of companies that could get a positive PR spin off [James Dean's death]?"
For Mr Seinfeld, the 911 stands out as the definitive driver's car. "If you ask me, the front of the 911 reminds me of a human face," he said recently. "Yet, I find the location of the speedometer much more significant. This was what impressed me the most when I sat in a Porsche for the first time. This car's priority is speed. Period."
For Mr Ferry Porsche, however, speaking shortly before his death in 1998, he saw the appeal of one of the most recognisable cars on the planet like this: "The 911 is the only car you could drive on an African safari or at Le Mans, to the theatre or through New York City traffic."