You likely have at least a passing familiarity with Porsche, the German car brand with a long history of making sports cars with the engine at the wrong end.
You might even have thought to yourself, “You know, if I win the lottery, or when I sign a Roberto Luongo-like contract that ‘sucks,’ or if that bio-tech start-up I poured money into a decade ago finally pans out, or if I invent the next Facebook – if something wonderful fills me with riches, then I’m going to get one of those fancy 911s. You know, the racy machine that’s looked almost exactly the same for 50 years. Gonna get one of those and drive away happy. Maybe I’ll even meet a girl …”
You might think you know all you need to know about Porsche and you might be dreaming of attaining unimaginable wealth, too. But on all counts you’re probably wrong, or at least misguided.
Odds are, you’re not going to mine Web surfers as skillfully as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (at 28, Forbes says he’s worth $13.3-billion U.S). And unless you regularly dig into both auto buff books and the business pages, you probably have little appreciation for what Porsche is today and what it wants to be tomorrow.
Porsche, in a word, is a growing juggernaut, a money-making machine stuffing billions and billions into the pockets of shareholders, most importantly its parent, the sprawling Volkswagen Group.
The Porsche spin-meisters themselves are busy celebrating 50 years of the Porsche 911 and that’s certainly worthy of a party. But for just a moment, consider the bigger Porsche story.
First, let’s dismiss this idea of Porsche as a humble little sports car company. Porsche is nothing of the sort. Last month, Porsche reported 2012 global sales of 143,096 vehicles. That’s not small. Moreover, Porsche SE reported after-tax profit soared to a staggering €7.829-billion (more than $10.3-billion) for the fiscal year 2012. At the end of 2012, Porsche had 17,502 employees. Porsche is big, rich and growing.
And Porsche clearly is not a pure sports car company. Last year, Porsche sold 77,822 Cayenne SUVs and another 27,331 Panamera sedans. Three-quarters of all the Porsches sold in 2012 were SUVs and luxurious touring cars with four doors and a hatchback at the rear.
And the 911? Sales were up 49 per cent year-on-year. That’s good. But Porsche sold just 26,203 911s. Sales of the Boxster roadster, which I’d argue is the truest expression of a Porsche sports car today, hit 11,740 units – and the Cayman coupe chipped in 1,614 units. You might argue that Porsche builds and sells Cayennes and Panameras so that it can also make 911s, Boxsters and Caymans. You’d be correct.
Porsche’s stated mid-term goal is to reach 200,000 in sales by 2018. That seems like a whopping big number for Porsche, but not in the eyes of chairman Matthias Müller. In a world where 70-million-plus new cars and light trucks are sold each year, 200,000 is nothing, he says. Porsche can remain exclusive even at 200,000.
What’s certainly true is that Porsche types from Müller down are fanatically protective of the brand – particularly so now that Porsche is fully a part of VW, which by the way last year sold nine million vehicles worldwide. Porschephiles may fret and pull their hair out, fearing their beloved cars will some day become badge-engineered VWs, but the Müllers of the world will have none of it. They champion the brand inside VW, he insists.
Moreover, from supervisory board chairman Ferdinand Piëch to management board chairman Martin Winterkorn, to the lowliest worker assembling Cayennes and Carrera GTs in Leipzig, everyone at Porsche understands and defends the Porsche brand. Let’s also not overlook another important fact: Piëch and Winterkorn are both engineers. VW and Porsche run a tight financial ship, but the company is led by “car guys,” not accountants, leveraged buyout artists or marketing whizzes.
At the heart of the brand – despite the sales numbers – is the 911. We can all agree on that. It’s been that way for five decades, since its auto show debut as the 901 in September 1963. During seven generations of the 911, Porsche has built more than 820,000 of them. As Porsche modestly notes, “Today, [the 911] is considered the quintessential sports car, the benchmark for all others … the most successful sports car in the world.”
We’ll forgive Porsche for that. I mean, the car is a marvel and the company itself is impressive. Even today, 70 per cent of all Porsches ever built remain on the road and running. The true genius of Porsche, though, is in its ability to engineer a 911 that is functional and easy to drive in the cut-and-thrust of everyday traffic, yet is even more at home on a race track – especially so in the hands of a skilled driver.
As Automotive News recently put it, “Porsche has made the driving process easier, without losing that man-machine connection. As for surprise-and-delight items, the 2013 edition has a cargo storage bin in its front trunk that easily held two suitcases – or two cases of wine and a small duffel. The climate control is the efficient equal of any full-sized luxury sedan. The navigation system is clinical and straightforward.” Most important of all, a 911 today, notes the industry publication, will get about the same fuel economy as a Hyundai Elantra.
The 911 runs with the Ferraris and Lamborghinis of high society, but as Automotive News adds, “a Porsche 911 somehow remains in the psyche of the middle class as a visceral, attainable objective.” The driver of a 911 is less envied than respected, getting “a faint glimmer of awe from fellow drivers.” Ferry Porsche – founder of the company and creator of the Volkswagen Beetle, too – put it this way: “The 911 is the only car you could drive on an African safari or at Le Mans, to the theatre or through New York City traffic.”
Precisely. It is a bit embarrassing to sound like a cheerleader for Porsche, but great cars are the story and they are true to the founder’s vision. Porsche may no longer be a pure sports car company, but its sports cars – admittedly pricey – are a delight to drive almost everywhere and, best of all, they have proved to be durable over the decades.
That’s the truth and is most of all the biggest and best reason to toast 50 years of the 911. And you thought you knew Porsche.