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DAN NEIL RUMBLE SEAT

Brand DNA and the prototypical Porsche

August 29, 2008|DAN NEIL

At every news conference for every new car or truck introduction since the days of, say, Watson and Crick, an eager and sweaty brand manager has stood up and said something to the effect of: "The Durango 95 Mark III is a reflection of who we are as a company, our brand DNA."

This assertion is generally nonsense, a dump truck of smelly marketing sardines poured at our feet and called caviar. But it's an essential lie, especially for products that are resurrections of grand old marques or nameplates. Take, for example, Bugatti.

Compared with Ettore Bugatti's gritty factory in Molsheim, France, before World War II, the new Bugatti factory -- a futuristic assembly hall in nearby Dorlisheim -- might as well be some off-world colony. The new Bugatti, a whole-cloth creation of Volkswagen Group, has zero to do with the Ettore Bugatti, Type 57SCs, Royales and the like. But what is the new Bugatti Veyron without the back story, the evocative narrative of the old company? A $1.7-million VW.

There are a few plausible exceptions. Harley-Davidson is one. Porsche is another.

This summer I've had a chance to bookend Porsche by driving the very first Porsche -- the Gmund Porsche 356-001 (so called because it was fettled in Gmund, Austria, in 1948, during the company's brief hegira from Stuttgart) -- and the latest generation of the 911 sports coupe, the 2009 Carrera and Carrera S.

The chance to drive 001 came courtesy of Klaus Bischof, the manager of Porsche's museum, whom I met at Pebble Beach this month. According to Bischof, I was only the fifth person to drive the car since it was returned to the company in the 1950s. After my drive, he said, the car was going to be put on a plane and installed in a central position in the company's new museum, opening in December in Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen.

And so, a rare chance to time-travel into automotive history. I was interested to know if some thread of the Gmund gene sequence -- some tactility, some aesthetic, some essence -- has survived the endless replications, the improvements and technical evolution of the intervening 60 years.

The company has the DNA of founder Ferdinand Porsche running through the board room -- his descendants control significant portions of Porsche and VW Group. But is there Porsche DNA in the cars?

Yes, and perhaps in a more literal sense than you might think. For one thing, the 001 car is very small, the tight quarters reflecting the height and proportions, the biometrics, of Ferry Porsche himself, who was the car's development engineer. "Ferry's car was made so that he could get into it," Bischof says sympathetically as I struggle to fold my 6-foot frame into the cockpit.

The ur-Porsche's fundamental compactness echoes in today's cars. The new 911 Carrera is a relatively small car -- far smaller than a Corvette -- and requires a slight bit of gymnastics to get into. Indeed, one of the things that affronts purists about the rhino-like Cayenne SUV is that it treads on this fundamental tenet of Porsche-ness. A big Porsche is like a small Rolls-Royce, in other words.

Often when carmakers invoke the DNA metaphor, they are talking about styling, particularly when it comes to retro-cars like the Dodge Challenger, the Ford Mustang or the upcoming Chevy Camaro. But the fact is, the skins of these cars are purely decorative and non-integral.

The 001's lean curvatures, penned by engineer/aerodynamicist Erwin Komenda, are fundamental to Porsche products. To look at the 001 -- now wearing miles-deep silver paint the boys in Gmund never dreamed of -- is to see the prototypical shape of Porsche, the solid geometry of the brand that has survived six decades. "Every designer that comes to work at Porsche comes by to look at the 001," Bischof says. "Just to be inspired."

It was a thin crew there in Gmund, only Ferry Porsche, Komenda, engineer Karl Rabe, metal-former Friedrich Weber and a handful of others. It was a shoestring operation. Today, Porsche is one of the most profitable car companies in the world and is on the threshold of taking a controlling interest in the giant VW Group. Yet a vein of those early hard times still can be seen in a new 911.

The ignition lock, on the left of the steering column, is there because, originally in the 001, it was cheaper than locating it in the conventional place to the right. "It saved a little bit of wire, a little bit of money," says Bischof, "and maybe 200 grams." This bit of thrift has become Porsche tradition.

Which brings up the other verity of Porsche through the years: light weight. With the exception of Lotus, no car company has fetishized lightness as has Porsche. The 001 car weighs a mere 1,290 pounds, matched against the 35- or 40-horsepower out of the sport-tuned flat-four VW engine.

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