A recent opportunity to visit Lotus, Jaguar and Porsche within a ten-day span provided some fascinating, sometimes irrevocably opposed, viewpoints on the business of selling prestigious speed in the Nineties.
Porsche’s Stuttgart-area sites allowed a restricted opportunity to view the engineering and racing work at Weissach. There was an unfortunately abortive attempt to provide a Porsche-powered flight, but the “meat” of the trip offered so much material that selecting from the harvest of note-pad sheafs was the hardest journalism task I have faced.
We viewed the intricacies of producing the world’s supreme “Hi Tech” speedster (small “s”, I mean the 450 bhp 959 rather than the Frankfurt Show preview of the 1989 Speedster). A brief, but 250 kph, ride with Gunther Stekkonig in the 959 was followed by a chance to interview Peter W Schutz, Porsche’s Chief Executive.
Peter Schutz provided tantalising confirmation of 911’s enduring future within an updated body which is “about a year away” — one which will be much easier to build, and will accommodate 4WD and ABS anti-lock braking geometry for the front suspension. But it should be emphasised that this more expensive and sophisticated 911 development will not replace the existing 911 range immediately.
Porsche GB Managing Director Peter Bulbeck subsequently clarified the point that the 911’s new features will be gradually phased in over a three-year period. It seems likely that the twin-turbo, 4WD production descendant of 959 will not arrive until the latter end of that improvement schedule, so the first steps will be a normally-aspirated 4WD 911 of “considerable extra weight and cost” in the words of one Porsche commentator.
Peter Schutz also freely discussed the styling search for a convincing four-door Porsche, one which seems certain to be based upon 928. The Porsche chief is convinced of what he does not want: “Not a Mercedes sedan, any kind of stretched coupe like the Nissan 240Z, cars, or the 412 Ferrari V12. It’s a tremendous styling challenge,” he says with relish.
A more immediate import has been the reduction in four-cylinder Porsche production from over 140 to just 100 per day in the wake of prices such as the £21,000-plus UK starting point. The 924/944 range of proliferating models will be cut back, and it seems inevitable the basic 924/944 purchase dilemma of sharing the same 160 bhp power-unit will be eliminated.
The sporting highlight was a brief glimpse of the Quaker State Indianapolis 2708 and an illuminating conversation with racing engines chief Hans Mezger.
Porsche is certainly prepared to carry on in Formula One, “but it has to be on a commercial basis, like with TAG,” say Porsche personnel. Meanwhile testing continues of the 1.5-litre TAG turbo at 2.5-bar boost. Meager comments: “I think this is enough for 650-700 racing bhp in 1988. We did not race our 1987 unit at the full 4-bar. Usually it was 3.6-3.7 and that was enough to provide 900 race horsepower.
“No question the engine could give over 1000 bhp, even 1500 on the test bed, but it needs new pistons and many more parts to build such a qualifying engine, and this we would not do.”
Hans Mezger also predicted that the best of the 1988 GP 12-cylinder units will yield “620-630 bhp at the beginning of the year, and perhaps 650 at the end of the season.” Thus we ought to get closer racing between turbo and normally-aspirated units than was orginally forecast, for weight and fuel tankage favour those without turbocharging.
Finding a new Porsche partner for a normally aspirated Grand Prix engine is “still under discussion” according to Porsche thief Peter Schutz. The boss welcomes Honda’s apparent desire to spread its wings to American CART/Indycar events. This despite the fact Porsche has yet to show competitive speed in the USA and the Germans look certain to buy a March chassis “for comparison purposes”.
Walking around the Group C sportscar preparation area, adjacent to the Indianapolis project’s Weissach workshops, underlined that the 962’s simple chassis (compared to a TWR Jaguar) and twin-turbo flat-six are scheduled for replacement by a brand new design and an Indy V8-based motor. Peter Schutz confesses he finds Group C “confusing” and his board had yet to authorise a 962 replacement, the impression being given that it could well have to queue up behind the American single-seater racing project for attention.
However, Hans Mezger did point to “possible” production use as another avenue of development for the twin-turbo V8 which powers 2708, admitting that it would enlarge happily to three litres, “perhaps a bit more”. He denied any intention of replacing the 928’s V8 with such a pedigree power source . . .
Because of the brevity (two laps) and a passengering role, the 959 in motion did not leave as strong an impression as watching it through the hand-building process. Yet its acceleration and braking are stunning.
Particularly memorable was the ability to sprint to 155 mph over Weissach’s one-way answer to a British B-road — bumps, warts and all absorbed by supple suspension and rattle-free ride.
Such qualities emphatically endorse Porche’s Weissach production/design engineering prowess in a dramatic manner. Making a stark contrast with thousands of System Porsche SEATs are the Airbus cockpit, fork-lift trucks and the increasing value of outside projects entrusted to the 2300 employees on the 151-acre site.
Porsche’s proportion of R&D employees to total manpower (8500) is a legend based upon fact, but that purist engineering bias would not be possible without the financial support of the outside clients that were, and continue as, the foundation of Porsche business.
“Engineering sales have doubled in the past three years,” reports Peter Schutz. Despite the 1986-1987 drop of 5% in worldwide sales (11% on American four-cylinder sales) management expects Porsche to remain primarily a performance-car manufacturer, likely to climb further up the price scales.
There is strong repudiation of any intention to either abandon Audi’s Neckarsulm 924/944 production facility, or the “entry level” sector, served by 924/944 before the Deutschmark escalated so majestically against the dollar in America, where a worrying 61% of all Porsche sales are made.
Equally evident is that Porsche is investigating every avenue to cut production costs and boost technical merit, but Schutz feels it must not become obesssed by purchase cost.
The 928 and 911 remain in healthy demand in Britain and the USA, whilst the “cheaper” Porsches take a mauling at the hands of the Japanese clones, whom Schutz describes as “making a career of copying our style” in the four-cylinder category.
Technical features such as four-wheel steering from the Japanese have yet to be experienced by such men as Weissach head of research Dr Helmut Flegl, but he did tell us a wonderful story about the 1972 skid-pan attempts to analyse the practical effects of 4WS. “We put Herr Mier from our Group C team today in the back seat of an (Opel) Admiral and found out what was the effect of steering the back wheels on command.”
More seriously, Dr Flegl, who spent “eight or nine years with the racing team” pointed out the 928’s rear-wheel compliance system had offered some elements of what the Japanese have been claiming for 4WS since the seventies.
He also gave us a concise guide to the development of Weissach, from the Fifties cheap acquisition of land (“2-3DM per square metre…nothing”) to the 1961 establishment of a skid-pan and today’s annual 300-million Deutschmarks (£101 million) R&D budget.
Despite the recent setbacks, Peter Schutz does not foresee the majority of Porsche’s income being made in anything but new car sales. Other activities, including Weissach engineering profits, spare parts sales and the 1988 production of the 3200 PFM aero version of the flat-six are not expected to account for more than a third of Porsche’s income.
Porsche’s aero engine deserves an article to itself; but suffice it to say it seems likely that it will have a smoothness and economy advantage over traditional aero-units of similar power, plus an ability to run on a variety of fuels, including unleaded, which may be relevant under future legislation.
We had the traditional Zuffenhausen factory tour and especially noted the switch to robot assembly of the four-valve-per-cylinder head on 928/944, plus the automation of the primary, paint/protection process.
These typify the changes coming under Schutz’s management for they are flexible enough to cope with many production variants and centre on the need to simplify the production of a prestige product. Mercedes went along many of the same avenues some years ago, but there the similarity to Stuttgart ends, for Mercedes’ production capacity is ten times that of Porsche.
Porsche has no apparent intention to increase output beyond the maximum of 55,000 at which Peter Schutz declares it would feel “comfortable”. In the last financial year (ended July 31, 1987) Porsche made 22,102 of the 911/928 range and Audi assembled 28,613 four-cylinder 924/944s, a total of 50,715.
Despite small daily increases in 928/911 production (now 102 per day instead of 100, all bar 24 being 911s) future totals will drop because 924/944 output has been pruned.
In Britain the 1986 model sales year peaked at 3600 Porsches, but now the expectations are centred on 3000 annually with ever more expensive derivatives in most demand, although the recent stock market falls could alter that situation.
After two previous visits to Weissach and Zuffenhausen, there are plenty of obvious changes to note amongst new buildings and equipment, the result of conscientious investment during the years of plump profits. These include an automated underground transportation system (unlit until a human enters — spooky!) and much of the parts warehousing is beneath Zuffenhausen too.
Realisation of the depth of Porsche capability came in the 959 assembly area, a dozen or so side-bays, occupying little more space than a large retail garage workshop and filled with the 425,000DM (£143,098) technological triumphs.
I am told about 50 have been delivered to German owners, and there were about the same number completed and ready for transportation. Peter Schutz admits Porsche might make “a few more than” the original 200, but production will end this summer and “no direct replacement” is planned.
It was felt that the chief benefits of the 959 had been the development of new technical features that will be adapted elsewhere in the range. A 959 differential and massive disc brakes are nominated as good early example which have been applied to 928. Former competitions chief Manfred Jantke pinpointed two-stage turbocharging as a likely development for the four-cylinder range.
Porsche also gained two years of magazine and motor show publicity but I liked two typical Schutz asides on 959: “I would have bought one myself, it had to be better than stocks and shares,” and, “You know, just one microprocessor for this car could cost as much as a Volkswagen!”
Porsche intends to meet the challenge of competition from the Japanese with all its technological guns blazing, but there is no doubt that the slowdown in 924/944 demand caught it on the hop. I find that surprising as it was obvious that the ageing 924 was in no fit state to compete against newcomers whilst the 944 found itself the victim of a marketing assault which did not develop overnight.
This is still a company where engineering triumphs to an investment extent not seen in other mass manufacturers. I wonder if the proliferation of model alternatives is not bewildering potential customers as much as the harsh prices, both sending them reeling to Japan Ltd or the European sporting specialists. I will be writing about one such British alternative next month — Lotus Cars. JW
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