In the aftermath of World War II, Porsche — which, at the time, was only involved in consulting and vehicle development — began work on its first ever production car. On June 8, 1948, the 356 was approved for road use, marking the beginning of a design legacy that has redefined the modern sports car.
With today marking the 70th anniversary of Porsche’s first car, we asked some of the brand’s past and present designers, including current chief designer Michael Mauer, to recount in their words, the design stories behind three iconic models.
‘Sleep among your cars’ at luxury Porsche Tower
Pinky Lai on the Porsche 996
Like most car projects, the 996 started as a scheduled replacement — business as usual for a design studio. But this time, financially, we had our backs against the wall. The car’s predecessor, the 993, did well in its first year, then sales started going south because its power hadn’t increased much from the 964, and competition started to grow from BMW and Audi. So we had to get it right.
The first message had to be visual — customers had to see that everything was new. With previous replacements, you could hardly tell what changed from the last model. But we had to do something dramatic, revolutionary even.
The 996 in development. Credit: Courtesy of Porsche
One of the biggest differences from the 993 were the headlamps which, until today, some people still have difficulty accepting. Unlike previous 911s — which always had had circular headlamps — we took a more sculptural approach, making them more closely aligned with the lines of the hood.
Similarly, for the body, we made the contours of the front and rear bumpers very smooth. These flowing lines were integrated into the overall design, making the car look as if it was a single carving. The interior was also a totally new product, moving from something purely geometrical to having instruments and switches whose shape was, again, more sculptural.
The proportions of the car are slightly bigger, as we wanted it to be more spacious and comfortable. The generous size suited us technically, because we had switched from an air-cooled engine to a water-cooled one, and we needed space for more piping.
The 996 was one of Porsche’s most commercially successful cars.
I faced massive resistance. At one point, the project was close to being scrapped. We couldn’t get the lap times down because the aerodynamics weren’t right. We needed more downward thrust to keep the car stable, so I spent hours in the wind tunnel trying to come up with a solution.
A lot of colleagues thought the project was going down the drain. Then I realized that the answer was a moveable rear spoiler (the adjustable fins can vary the amount of downward thrust). That idea got us the extra budget we needed.
I think the 996 is one of the most iconic and influential models in Porsche’s history. It was the beginning of the moving spoilers and water-cooled engines still seen today, and the car won numerous design awards.
During the press launch in Saint-Tropez, Michael Jordan snuck into the hotel parking lot to check out the car. He said that, when he got home, he’d buy two — one for him and one for his wife. There’s no better compliment on the design than that.
Michael Mauer on the Porsche 918 Spyder
Our design brief was to show the world that environmental responsibility and the performance of a super sports car do not have to be contradictory. At the time (the late 2000s), there was a very intensive discussion regarding the future of sports car brands in respect to the environment, and at the same time a big question mark over the future of Porsche, due to the Volkswagen takeover battle.
The car had to be recognizable as a Porsche at first glance, while carrying on the brand’s design language into the future. This means the 918 introduced modern design elements, but at the same time you will find elements that have their roots in historic Porsche race cars.
For me, the most interesting or unique aspect of the car is its back, which is beautifully reminiscent of old Porsche racing cars, yet very modern. The idea of putting the exhaust somewhere different from everybody else (the 918 Spyder’s exhaust pipe protrudes from the top of the car’s rear) came from the design side, and the engineers came at it from a technical standpoint. They were able to reduce the weight and improve the performance — interdisciplinary collaboration at it’s best.
The 918 Spyder went on to break the seven-minute mark at the Nürburgring race course Credit: Courtesy of Porsche
The 918 Spyder started as a concept car. But at Porsche, we always demand that a concept has a very high level of feasibility. Concept cars sometimes have their own character though, and, for some reason, the vehicle decided to shut down before the curtain call (at 2010’s Geneva Motor Show). But everybody knew what to do, and, thanks to the combination of a racer mentality and the responsible mechanics, we solved the problem.
The car went on to break the seven-minute mark at the Nürburgring race course (then a record for a street-legal automobile). The “Nürburgring mark” is always part of our development process, and it’s very important, since it shows how Porsche works. Our cars may look less aggressive than the competitors, but they are extremely capable.
Harm Lagaaij on the Porsche 997
If you have the opportunity to do a new 911, it’s something you approach in a very professional way. But it also is something you approach in an emotional way. It becomes a state of mind. If you’ve gone through the spirit and the culture of Porsche, it’s under your skin.
The Porsche 997. Credit: Courtesy of Porsche
After the 997’s predecessor, the 996, experienced successful sales, the design budget changed radically. There were a multitude of new things that we were able to do, compared to the early 1990s. As a designer, you know you have to take a big step — but not the wrong step or a step too far. The roof line had to stay the same, but for the fenders, doors, details and what we call the “design precision,” there was more freedom.
The whole headlamp arrangement was different: We were able to go back to the original oval shape, so we had a completely new front-end design. We also saw a much greater development of the shape, width and power of the rear end.
The wheels were bigger, in both width and diameter. The outer diameter had to stay the same, otherwise you’d have various technical problems, but increasing the diameter of the rims opened up the possibility of more exciting styling.
The width and diameter of the wheels were bigger in the 997. Credit: Courtesy of Porsche
The interior doesn’t get as much interest or attention, but it’s just as important. The interiors of the old 911s were very iconic though not very ergonomic, with a confusing array of controls. The design — with its five instruments and the ignition key on the left-hand side — became such a cult among 911 lovers that it started to be loved.
Obviously you have to stick to the iconic parts of that 911 interior. But the budget grew so radically and design is all about opportunities. We were able to greatly differentiate the interiors, introducing new concepts, ergonomics and styling elements. We could spend more money on the details and more quality materials.
The 997 is considered to be one of the most important 911s of all time, because it’s the most compact interpretation of the design philosophy. We worked so hard to turn around the company at the beginning of the 1990s, so it wasn’t a surprise that it became so commercially successful.
As told to CNN’s Oscar Holland. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.