The mid-week long read: idols at idle
Meet the middle-aged men worshipping at the altar of the air-cooled engine
In sheds and basements, backrooms and attics, on desks and dining tables designed for all together more humdrum happenings, all over the world a precise and powerful ritual is being observed. Is it a religion? Of sorts. Is it a cult? More probably that. Is there a man in long white robes and a massive hat? Not this time.
The air-cooled boxer is an engine with a following. Unlike any other, past or present, these icons of design and engineering have found their way into motoring folklore, into hearts and minds.
For decades they were the soul of every Porsche sold, the defining characteristic of the 356 and original 911, and the main reason an awful lot of people got up in the morning.
Today, the appreciation of this remarkable powerplant has transcended normal levels of observance. In a bid to fully understand, to appreciate and to connect with their beloved flat-six, men and women (who should arguably know better) are devoting days and even weeks of their lives to building exacting, working scale models of this unique and enduring engine.
The original model kit was designed by John Anson for the publisher Franzis Verlag and continues to sell like hotcakes in the Porsche Museum gift shop in Zuffenhausen. Assembled from 290 separate components and activated by a hidden electric motor, it even boasts the correct firing sequence, revealed by tiny red LEDs, and that familiar air-cooled engine note from a small concealed speaker. No glue is required. Instead everything is push fit and screwed together in homage to Porsche’s engine designer Hans Mezger’s 1966 original.
Porsche helped the publisher create the original replica of the iconic 911 engine exactly as Mezger had developed it. They did so by offering early design drawings from the archive and encouraging numerous visits to Porsche Classic. The results were a delicate and brilliant dance between authenticity and functionality.
“They have to be durable and you have to be able to assemble them without glue,” explains Anson. By way of example he points out that the cylinders cannot be inserted individually; instead, they’re combined in a single piece per bank. The engine case is split horizontally rather than vertically to simplify the assembly. Why didn’t Porsche engine designer Hans Mezger think of that? Anson brushes off the suggestion with a wry smile. “No, no. The original has the best solution. But we model makers have to strike the right balance: as true to the original as possible—but also as practical as possible.”
But it doesn’t end there. The hardcore are going rogue, customising their kits for greater authenticity. Someone has recently reengineered his engine so that it will spin to 3,000rpm, requiring fastidiously milled miniature bespoke bearings.
One enthusiast for whom this comes as no surprise is Frank Wessels, a 52-year-old from Havixbeck, near Münster, Germany. He managed to build his first boxer motor in around two hours, but in doing so immediately noticed various elements he would like to refine and customise.
His engine is now a slave to detail, with a metal tension band around the blower housing and matching, minute decal. Gasket paper, chrome foil, brass screws, and the painstaking application of spray paint – there are weeks of expert labour invested in this, his miniature masterpiece.
Frank Wessels – who describes himself as a 'crazy fanatic – tinkers with full-sized cars but saves his main passion for model building. It took him just two hours to assemble his first boxer motor
In the town of Nördlingen in Bavaria, local residents Thomas Müller and Joachim Nießlein have garnered something of a reputation for their model engines. Nießlein has custom built no fewer than five to date and none other than Walter Röhrl has one of them, a present for his 70th birthday.
“He was absolutely thrilled,” says Müller. Nießlein’s particular calling is patina, carefully crafting an impression of age and wear on the assembled parts in a process that invariably takes hours. With the exhaust, for example, Nießlein first applies a suitable basecoat before rubbing it with oil paint and wiping the whole thing down with turpentine. The dark oil paint remains in the small grooves in the plastic, and a simple molded part begins to come alive. The finishing touch is to add tension bands made of super-thin sheet aluminium, just 0.4mm thick.
“More of a foil,” concedes Nießlein. So large and passionate has the following for these models become that Franzis Verlag has now begun a second phase of collaboration with Porsche.
Thomas Müller and Joachim Nießlein, who has custom built five model engines and gave one of them to Walter Röhrl as a birthday present
This time next year a new engine will hit the shelves, another ground-breaking design that swept Porsche’s motorsport arm to international acclaim. The Type 547 was a 1498cc quad-cam flat four designed by Hans Furhman in the early 1950s to power the 550A Coupe and Spyder. Its compact dimensions, low weight, high output and astonishing reliability saw it conquer the likes of Le Mans and the Carrera Panamericana, carving out a name for Porsche in the highest echelons of racing.
The legendary complexities of Fuhrman’s ingenious design might make this engine seem like an unusual choice for Verlag. But then that would be to underestimate the likes of Wessels, Müller and Nießlein, devout followers of the luftgekühlt faith.