The mid-week Long Read: Auf Wiedersehen, Mr. 911
The hardworking engineer behind the world’s most successful sports car is finally taking his foot off the gas.
If ever there were a nickname to covet, it has to be ‘Mr 911’. This has been August Achleitner’s soubriquet since the start of the new millennium and only now, after almost two decades at the helm, is the great man finally hanging up his gloves.
Achleitner’s initiation into the world of high-quality cars began in childhood. His father was a department head at BMW and frequently came home with new cars from rival companies. These up-close experiences made quite an impression on the young Achleitner, especially when the car on the drive happened to be a 911. “Of the three Porsche types at the time, it was actually the least technologically advanced,” Achleitner remembers. In his eyes it was almost a touch old-fashioned, a car for traditionalists and the old guard. Achleitner wanted to know why the 911 lacked certain features that were already standard on other models. He intuited that an anti-lock brake system, for example, “didn’t meet the standards of the 911.” But he was nonetheless fascinated by what he refers to as the “radiance” of the sports car, “its unique form and the concept. A rear engine was regarded as exotic at the time.”
Having trained as a mechanical engineer, Achleitner started his career at Porsche back in 1983, initially working on chassis development. Even then he saw this as an opportunity to “make things better while retaining the concept. The 911, after all, is irreplaceable.”
In those early years, the problems were significantly more basic: the new generation of the 911 needed to take corners more efficiently, based on new insights and new methods of calculation. Achleitner and his colleagues got straight to work and the team of engineers in Weissach continually optimised the 911 from the G model to the 964 and the last air-cooled 911, the 993.
But when Achleitner is asked today which years at Porsche were the most exciting, he gives a surprising answer: 1991 and 1992. Porsche was in a state of crisis at that time and the mood was borderline apocalyptic. “Then the team experienced a jolt,” he says. A radical change in product policy was ushered in with the mid-engine, water-cooled, entry-level Boxster. And with it a marked change in the company mindset.
Having led the Technical Product Development, Vehicle Concepts and Package department from 1989 to 2000, Achleitner grasped the Holy Grail the following year by assuming overall responsibility for the 911. This put him in the hot seat during the trickiest of all transitions, to the water-cooled engines of the 996.
Stretched to their maximum, Achleitner and his team frequently worked outside of business hours: “We settled on the wheelbase of the 996 over coffee on a Sunday afternoon,” he remembers. “Eight centimetres more.” Months of such minute but critical decision making, all under wraps and without external consultation, heaped on the pressure.
“You’re working underground, in secrecy, confidentially, for more or less four years. And then you go to the public and you get feedback for almost half a decade’s worth of work in one fell swoop.” He admits to feeling “enormous tension” because “some decisions are made from the gut.” He’s all the more pleased, then, by delighted customers and good press.
Achleitner is seldom off duty, and even during a relaxing drive through Europe for example, the developer in him is always on watch: “The engineer in me pops out of nowhere when the car doesn’t do what I want,” he says with a sheepish smile. Then the crew in Weissach goes hard at it again until Achleitner can say with confidence, “Now it’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
He still insists on driving without distractions. Music would only be a nuisance as he listens so intently to the other sounds around him: “To understand a car, you have to hear it,” he says. Over the years the officially titled “Head of the 718 and 911 model lines” has become something of a cult figure in Porsche circles, known for his integrity, clarity of vision and firm grasp of the Porsche philosophy. In the end, for Achleitner, the decisive factor “is that the 911 generates a driving feeling that no other car can offer.”
Porsche’s CEO Oliver Blume summed up Achleitner’s contribution to the marque thus: “Over the course of 18 years, he shaped the Porsche 911 more than anyone else. He understood just how to continually refine it, while always retaining its character.” The eighth generation 992 is the third all-new 911 car to be built under Achleitner’s stewardship, and looks certain to be a fitting swansong for the man who will always be ‘Mr 911’.
911 Carrera S: Fuel consumption combined 8.9 l/100 km; CO2 emissions combined 205 g/km. 911 Carrera 4S: Fuel consumption combined 9.0 l/100 km; CO2 emissions combined 206 g/km