Mid-week long read: Gene genie

3w ago

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Spanning 56 years and eight generations, at face value the first and latest 911s are worlds apart. But scratch the surface, not literally if you please, and you find they share vital common DNA. Who better then to explore the design evolution of history’s best-loved sports car than Porsche’s chief designer Michael Mauer?

Mauer was born in 1962, just a year before the original 911 was unveiled to the world. Now, aged 57 and with two 911s on his own resumé, he is face-to-face with the complete back catalogue for the very first time.

“To see all eight generations of the 911 in one place is first of all a very uplifting feeling,” he says from the centre of a disused aircraft hangar in Siegerland airport, 290 km north of Stuttgart. “Because it confirms what I always say: maybe the 911 is the only car that really has such a complete CV. I can think of two or three cars that also have an interesting story. But none have quite such a complete history.”

That history begins in 1963 with the world premiere at the International Motor Show (IAA) in Frankfurt. Like the 356 it replaced, the 901 as it was then called featured a rear-mounted gearbox, boxer engine and 2+2 seating — the configuration that has defined the 911 ever since. “The layout is so characteristic,” says Mauer . “The shape of the car is closely related to this. If I had to fundamentally change the layout, it wouldn’t be a 911 anymore."

The car the Museum has chosen to represent the car’s early days is a Gemini Blue 911 S Targa from 1970, with a 2.2-litre engine making 134 kW (180 PS). Next up is a 1975 Carrera 2.7, an impact bumper G-Series model flying the flag for the second-generation. Doing the honours for the third is a 1991 964 RS, the race-derived lightweight. The 993 on duty today is a standard Carrera coupe, the last of the air-cooled cars and the model that really bridged the gap between the original 911 and the water-cooled era.

Gen five is the 996, a later 2003 model and the rare 40th anniversary edition. Its sixth-generation successor, the 997, is a Carrera 4S, finished here in rare Geyser Grey. Then we arrive at the 991, the seventh generation and a car that Mauer knows intimately. The immaculate 299 kW (400 PS) Carrera S is another anniversary special, a model marking '50 years of the 911'. And bringing us up to date is Mauer’s latest masterpiece, the 992, here a Carrera 4S whose turbocharged 3.0-litre boxer makes a punchy 336 kW (450 PS) in standard trim.

The early Targa has that unmistakable smell of an air-cooled classic. The door clasp releases with a mechanical click, the simple seats are narrow and thin, but perfectly supportive. Because this car is an S, it has a dog-leg five-speed transmission, the gear knob lying easily, tantalisingly in the hand.

As for the G-Series, it is those impact bumpers that set it apart. Designed by Wolfgan Mobius to bring the 911 up to the latest US safety standards, they were a triumph of form led by function that would dictate the 911 silhouette for the next 15 years. But the G-Series still looks every inch a classic, tied far more closely to its predecessor than the dramatically restyled 964 that would ultimately replace it. This is due, Mauer suggests to the fact that the driver’s view over the front wings is unchanged: “The design of the 911 is characterised by a handful of design features. It starts at the front — a special topography where the wings are higher than the bonnet. And that's because the engine is in the rear. These are design features that have changed and developed over the generations time and again, but whose basic characteristics can be found in all vehicles.”

Some 26 years on from the 901’s debut, the 964 was the first significant departure from the original outline, with deeper, more streamlined bumpers and a lower, more aggressive stance. Although still recognisably a 911, even to the uninitiated, the 964 was altogether a new breed of car, with optional airbags, better crash protection, more ergonomic seats, power steering and all-wheel drive, a technology that had been cultivated on the Paris-Dakar rally.

The leap from the 964 to the 993 was larger still. The head of design Harm Lagaay was tasked with aligning 911, 928 and 944 (which then became the 968), giving all three cars in the Porsche range a common visual identity.

With the exception of the doors, practically every sheet metal part on the 993 was new. The same applied to the wings and the new, angled headlights. Inside, the 993 still resembled the 964, but many components had a more high-quality feel. Lagaay manged to bring the 911 into the present, aligning it with its more modern contemporaries to create a design language from which Porsche could grow. Mauer, who succeeded Lagaay in 2004 recognises the achievement of his predecessor: “Creating a new 911 is a special challenge. The task is to develop the design of the 911 further while still always clearly visualising that it's a 911.”

When the 996 arrived it was the biggest departure yet. A sophisticated new monocoque, aerodynamically optimised body and, of course, water-cooling. “I think the 996 is a very significant model for Porsche in many respects,” Mauer says, “and in the history of the 911, as this change from an air-cooled to a water-cooled engine really represents a turning point. I think you’ll see that the 996 — the older it gets — will find its fans and has already found them.”

The 996 and 997 shared much in terms of technology and exterior design. Both cars had the same 2350 mm wheelbase, providing exceptional handling and interior space. These cars carried the burden of making the initial leap to a completely new 911, leaving the ghost of the original air-cooled cars to rest. No easy task when the design of the past is as important as that of the future. “I have to be able to see that it's a 911,” explains Mauer, “and I have to be able to see that it's the new 911.”

And so it was with his own first effort, the 991. An almost completely new car with a 100 mm longer wheelbase and shorter body overhangs. Vastly more technologically advanced, more refined, more powerful and more capable. Yet still the 911 of old.

It’s at once a simple yet fiendish task, evoking the past to better interpret the present. Mauer tackled it head on with the 992, looking through the back catalogue for the original 911’s design zenith, then applying this to the new car’s muscular haunches: “We took a look at the history to see which car actually internalised that the best. And that was the 930 at the time — the first Turbo.” With its sculptural arches and performance promise, Mauer says that the 930 was a kindred spirit for the 992.

And so the legacy continues, every generation borrowing from the last, plotting a new course for the future. Eight generations, 56 years, and plenty still to come.

911 Carrera S: Fuel consumption combined 8.9 l/100 km, CO2 emissions combined 205 g/km

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Comments (1)
  • "Porsche made a 911, then they made another 911, then another 911, then something else that looked like another 911"

    21 days ago
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