The Porsche way to perfection

In the world of the motor car the economic and fuel crisis hit hardest at the manufacturers of expensive, exotic cars. Some coughed and died, others spluttered along a bank-loan tightrope, but Porsche, nurturing a product which offered a timely and hardly credible economy/performance ratio, a practical work-horse ability and exemplary reliability and longevity, merely hiccupped, minutely contracted and continued their 25 year history of producing one of the world’s best engineered cars. On our way through Germany in that superb, water-cooled XJ-S express described last month, we called at the home of its compact, lissom, air-cooled competitor to see at first hand how Porsche had survived the crisis and how such high standards of engineering were attained in a global environment where quality generally gives way to quantity.

The legend that is Porsche lives in a sprawling collection of factory buildings in Zuffenhausen, a northern suburb of Stuttgart, the city whose rates burden is shared by the city whose rates burden is shared by Mercedes-Benz. Like all car factories, it’s a dull, grey place which greets you as the pole-barrier lifts to permit entry to this hallowed ground. The scene could be anywhere from Birmingham to Milan, except for one thing: no tin-box people’s cars here, just colour!

Porches, Porches everywhere, flat-sixes whirring, test drivers departing on the road tests which every Porsche receives, ferry-drivers squealing flat, low-profile tyres as if the Turbos they were driving were Dagenham Dustbins, Porches awaiting transporter collection by the score or singletons waiting for wealthy Americans who’ll be flying over from the States specially to take personal delivery of what may be their twentieth Zuffenhausen product in a row. You scratch your head and realise that every one of these gleaming sports cars represents a UK minimum of £9,000 or, for the Turbos we see hurtling down the ramp from Despatch, a maximum of £16,000.

And yet Porsche turn out these droop-nosed sewing machines at a current rate of 12,000 a year. Before the economic crash, a best ever figure of 15,000 cars left the Zuffenhausen lines in 1973, an average of 75 per working day, “. . . and perhaps too many for our production capacity.” Nearly 900 employees were removed, mainly by natural wastage, the following year as the bottom dropped out of the market and only 8,500 cars were produced, 50 a day. Now the workforce stands at about 2,500, still several hundred down, but producing 57 cars a day, a high ratio of persons per car which in some factories would reflect inefficiency, but in the Porsche factory reflects the painstaking attention to quality, in turn reflected in the price. It’s a production figure which represents a happy compromise to Porsche: profitable yet still less than demand.

Porsche have the support of the faithful US market to thank for their survival through the fuel crisis. Today, while Porsche prices in the US have rocketed with the devaluation of the dollar, that market still accounts for 55 per cent of total production, the bulk headed for California. Seventy-eight percent of all Porsches are exported. The supposedly frail state of world finances is not affirmed by the remarkable success story of the 930 series Turbo. “It’s an engineer’s car, developed from a racer. We don’t want it!” was the embittered reaction of the sales department when confronted with this turbocharged super car to sell, we were told by Manfred Jantke, Porsche’s head of Public Relations. They’ve had to eat their words. Now this 155-m.p.h. machine represents 15 per cent of total production with some 1,000 of them on the road and a further production run of at least 600 planned. Only 400-off had been intended originally.

We awaited our Porsche host, Press Officer Klaus Reichert, in the comfortable luxury of the impressive reception hall surrounded by relics of Porsches past and present: 2-ltire, 4-valve Carrera cylinder heads; a scattering of 917 engine parts; remainders of World Championship victories; sports extras available for current models. An English copy of Chrisophorus, the Porsches owners, magazine, reminded us that the man who started all this, the so-brilliant Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, would have been 101 this year. His son, Dr. Ferry Porsche, now chairs the Supervisory Board.

Porsche’s factory is almost self-contained, component parts being brought in, but 911, 912 and Turbo assembly is carried out in its entirety, from the knitting together of the body panels to the reverential building of the flat-six–and flat-four, for the 912 has bene re-introduced to the US market–engines. A small press shop look after production of small body parts, brackets and so on while all the larger pressing are delivered from outside sheet-steel specialists, mostly from Karmann. Floor-pan, outer and inner wings, doors, windows, electrics instrumentation are all fitted here in a scene reminiscent of the upper trim floor at MG’s Abingdon factory. Recaro seats are delivered ready trimmed the rest of the trim is produced on-site.

Whilst all this is going on, power units are taking shape in the engine shop, each assembled by one man around Mahle con-rods and pistons. When built, they are hoisted to one of 13 Schenk dynamometers, where each engine is run for 70 minutes and stripped and rebuilt if not up to scratch. Engines meet gearboxes (Getrag- or ZF-built to Porsche design, because 50-odd cars per day don’t justify the expense of Porsche building their own) alongside the cars on the final line in the lower floor of the assembly hall. The engine/gearbox units are installed in the shells by one man in five minutes, literally. The torsion-bar front suspension units, pre-assembled on a jig, are fitted, steering rack installed, torsion-bar rear suspension added, brakes bled, wheels bolted on the car lowered from its trolley. From there it is pushed to a Super pump outside the assembly hall, the dry-sump tank is filled with oil, the driver checks instrumentation when hopefully the engine fires–and then the shiny new Porsche is christened by being driven over a series of bumps to settle the suspension before tracking and, as we were told, “to make sure that nothing drops off.”

Up to this stage every single component has been inspected on arrival at the factory, every stage of assembly inspected and re-inspected by the green-coated inspectors (one in ten of the workforce). Now comes even more arduous checking. First, an emission check is made on a rolling-road. On another rolling-road an inspector checks out the electrics and runs the engine and gearbox through their paces, ending with a high-speed run, up to over 200 k.p.h. on the Turbo we saw tested. Thence to a road test, 35 km. for ordinary models, 100 km. for the Turbo. If all this is not satisfactory, faults are rectified before the tests are repeated.

Note that we make no mention of the new 924 in this production context. These un-Porsche-like Porsches are produced at Audi’s Neckersulm plant.

While Porsche production is a nice combination of semi-mass production, handwork and rigorous inspection, this is only half the story. Behind every Porsche are the skills of the Porsche experimental design and development establishment at Weissach. Here, in a labyrinth of experimental cells, another 750 people work on projects for manufacturers and governments throughout the world and on ensuring that Porsche’s own road and racing products remain supreme in their field.–C.R.