Along with most prestige manufacturers, Porsche has found the going tough of late. Here Arno Bohn, president since March 1990, expresses optimism for the future, in the face of scepticism on the part of his interrogator
Porsche is not alone in finding the business of selling expensive motor cars increasingly tough. Jaguar at Coventry could not independently have survived its current commercial woes, and so it is natural to question the independent future of Porsche and the nature of products it intends to provide, to secure a life without the sort of safety net provided by a proud potential parents such as Mercedes-Benz or Volkswagen-Audi.
To answer such queries, the current president and chief executive officer of Porsche AG, 44 year-old Arno Bohn, has been flying a number of missions to the sales markets with the largest problems to reassure media (and, through them, the bewildered dealers) that Porsche intends to remain robustly independent in the business of making high performance sports cars.
Porsche’s basic pitch is that it is in a unique aspect of the motor business and its ownership is also unique amongst majors in that it retains family control. Leaving aside mass production dynasties such as the Ford family and Agnelli at Fiat, we can report that 8666 workers made 26,486 Porsches in the 1990/91 financial year. Despite significant volume losses (15.2 per cent in production, nearly 30 per cent export loss), Bohn is confident of the future because turnover, and profitability, remain high.
Partially, this was because expensive 911 derivatives such as the Turbo and RS types began to sell in this period, but that is far from the sole reason why Porsche was able to survive the potentially disastrous switch from 944 to 968, along with the switch from Audi’s Neckarsulm line to in-house production at Zuffenhausen.
What is not apparent, and was not clearly defined by Bohn (save to confirm that it is enormously profitable, compared to conventional car building activities), is the immense strength of the independent research and development facility at Weissach. Naturally, no client list was forthcoming, but we have seen for ourselves that everyone from SEAT to Rolls-Royce does take advantage of Weissach to the point at which one Scandinavian manufacturer appeared totally dependent upon Porsche for a future engine programme.
The first question centred on the number of dealerships the company could support in Britain, the case of Roger Clark Porsche (deceased) in Leicestershire being cited to spark discussion. It now appears that Britain will be served by slightly fewer dealers than before, but any replacements will probably operate in different sales areas to their fallen predecessors; currently there are 30 such outlets in the UK, where there were 38.
The bespectacled Mr Bohn, at ease in the standard issue German business suit, commented on the slow sales patterns, pointing out that some markets were now more successful than before. Porsche sold an extra 19.7 per cent to the home market and Japan is threatening the USA in terms of export sales.
Porsche traded on 60.6 per cent export sales in 1990/91, a drop of 28.7 per cent over the previous financial year. But Bohn is undaunted, declaring that Porsche could now be profitable on smaller volumes, certainly as low as 25,000 units per annum. Besides, the 968 is coming on production stream in Germany (on sale in the UK this spring) to boost the volume of Porsche’s output.
A German market price for the 911 is quoted as 120,000 deutschmarks (approximately £41,811 at the time of the interview), whilst the 968 is sold at home for DM89,000 (an extra DM10,000 for the cabrio), equivalent to £31,010 in the first case.
At this point the predicted British price of £40,000 for the 968 was brought up for discussion and Porsche GB’s managing director Peter Bulbeck heatedly denied that this figure was to be regarded as definitive (although it was widely quoted on the international 968 press launch by a PR representative who has since been victim of a round of corporate redundancies), leading to hopes that the 1992 figure will indeed be under 40 grand.
Whatever the price of a British market 968, it will still be a substantial step away from the days when the company offered the 924 and cheaper 944s. Bohn was questioned vigorously on the rumoured company project to “sell a more accessible Porsche” and he responded in kind, stamping firmly on any ideas of a baby brother to 911 along the old 356 lines. “That car was too expensive to make then, never mind now,” was the consensus of insider opinion. However, “a simplified 968” does seem to interest Weissach, as does a full four-seater.
President Bohn denied that they would build anything along the lines of a four-door 928, but did discuss the inspiration they had drawn from the deal with Mercedes-Benz to develop and build shorter runs of “very high quality” cars for others. This was defined as under 10,000 units, and the practical result had been the awesome 500E saloon (five-litre V8, 326 bhp).
The impression left is still that Porsche intends to replace the slow-selling 928 with a four-seater coupé. As to how that will look, Bohn’s insistence is that all future Porsches are developed along a corporate ’round eye’ headlamp appearance with an air of 911 styling. This will contrast with Japan’s present preference for narrower ‘eyes’ and aerodynamic wedge profiles, which Bohn rightly feels are indistinguishable from each other. The vehicle nominated for most ‘clone’ concern was the 1985-91 Mazda RX-7 rotary, which has just been changed into a serious 911 competitor at 255 bhp.
Other hostile questions to be dealt with by Bohn concerned the public failure in CART of the Porsche V8 and in Formula 1 of the V12-engined Footwork, as discussed in November’s MOTOR SPORT by David Tremayne.
Did these competition failures affect the company commercially? Bohn responded: “We find only 15 per cent of our customers watch sport on TV, and many of those do not know the difference between American and European single-seaters. In the case of CART, we were the victims of rule changes from the organisers that made our chassis less competitive overnight. “In Formula 1, we thought it would take three years to win anyway. Obviously both these programmes did not help us, but we remain committed to motorsports and will have a completely new strategy ready by next spring. At this moment I cannot say if this will concentrate on Formula 1 or sports cars, or what it will be.”
As an aside it was confirmed that promotions such as the Porsche Carrera Cup will continue, the company quandary in motorsports being restricted to the major international programme it should adopt. Bohn also stressed that they would not be building any roadgoing supercar derivative of the legendary 962. “It would cost 50 million deutschmarks to do all the crash-testing and environmental things we must do as a manufacturer.” It was also evident that Herr Bohn thought that such 962 development would compromise the racer so much in road guise “that it would be unrecognisable.”
At this crucial moment in Porsche company history the opportunity to discuss, sometimes heatedly, the company’s current problems and future plans was much valued. Yet the writer left the table wondering why Porsche, perhaps the synonym for pedigree sports motoring, was not guided by a man with a similar performance pedigree (his previous career was with Nixdorf, in the computer world)? In this business Porsche rather arrogantly recognises no European contemporaries not Ferrari, nor Lotus, nor Renault-Alpine, just Porsche alone to pit its wealthy wits against the wicked Japanese.
What we were told seemed to have more to do with anti-Japanese sentiment than providing superior products – specialist cars to fit the needs of a clientele which is in any case different to the bulk of those attracted by the multi-level, high output assault from the Far East. — J W