When Michael Mauer, chief designer at Porsche, looks up from his desk he does not see what a designer would normally see. He sees a cloud of dust. He sees mountains. He sees an exciting, unpaved road leading up one of these mountains with a Porsche 356 on it.
What he sees is a photograph that covers the entire wall. It gives viewers the impression that they are looking directly into a bygone world in which the Porsche DNA was born.
The photo, taken in the 1950s, also captures a moment in history. Today, nearly all roads are paved, and many other things have changed, and will continue to change. Digitalisation, electrification and connectivity mean that cars are facing the greatest transformation in their history. These are exciting times of unprecedented upheaval.
Cars will have different drive systems and they will feel different to drive. Over the long term, combustion engines will become the exception.
What does that mean for Porsche, whose fame is due also and especially to its engines? How will new drive technologies change its design? The layout of electric cars will become more uniform and skeletal.
The prospects of an electric future don’t seem to be triggering panic at the Porsche Development Centre in Weissach, says Porsche.
"What does the sports car experience as we know it today actually consist of?" asks Mauer. "Does the sound account for 90% of it, or just 10%? In any case, a sports car is more than the sound it generates. There is acceleration, there are G-forces, there is the way it turns corners. Yes, Porsche is famous for its engines, but not for them alone. We have to think about how we will carry what constitutes our brand into the future.
"If I have an electric drive, that doesn’t mean that I cannot expand on its emotional qualities. The car that we are developing [Mission E] will not have a combustion engine, but it will be 1,000% Porsche in everything else. And an electric car does have acoustics!"
What can be changed, what must remain? Weissach already had to grapple with these questions before the electric revolution. How do designers maintain a balance between the challenge of tackling new situations and retaining the classical features that determine identity?
At a time when the engine of an electric Porsche can no longer be the defining feature that it was in the era of its flat-six counterparts, the design becomes the main foundation for the brand’s identity and what reassures employees and everyone who builds Porsches that they are preserving a legend. How do designers deal with the more prominent role of design? And if design is more than the art of giving an object an aesthetically pleasing exterior, what will Porsche design have to tackle in the future?
Compared to its contemporaries in the 1970s, a Porsche was impressively broad, and its bellows-like bumpers gave it a brawny appearance. The same car today looks slim and delicate when compared to the more powerful rear of a current 911. Form can undergo enormous change in its evolution. What is important, say the designers, is to preserve the essence.
Porsches have always demanded presence of mind from their drivers “who consciously desire to experience the car”, as Mauer puts it. “Many people see a contradiction between driver assistance systems on the one hand, and the desire to be not just a passenger in one’s own car but rather to intensively experience the act of driving it. But my question here would be how to put systems like the head-up display, whose original function is to enhance safety and comfort, to different uses, for example on a racing track by superimposing the racing line. Innovation often consists largely of reconceiving and recombining things that exist.”
The steering wheel will not be removed from the hands of the driver, says Mauer. “Level 5 of autonomous driving — being driven in a car without a steering wheel — is not the future for Porsche. Driver assistance systems are welcome in congested traffic, but their main purpose should be to support the activity of driving. And our drivers may decide whether or not to activate these systems, more so than they would with other brands. These are details, but they are also the building blocks of brand identity.”
Porsche has become a product family with sports cars, sports sedans, roadsters and all-terrain vehicles, and will soon have e-cars. This presents the designers with new tasks.
But might a new car end up being too futuristic? “The question is always one of how far you can go,” says Mauer. “Everything that happens here is a wager with the future.”
“When someone comes to Porsche, they’re not about to start a revolution,” remarks Matthias Kulla, Porsche’s head of sports car design project co-ordination. In the team’s day-to-day work, there are always “a few sketches that you’d say would make a great Lamborghini”. But the company says its designers practice the art of discretion and reserve.
“The proportions have to work” is Mauer’s summary of the task. “We start by looking at how the car stands on the road. Then we consider brand identity, product identity, and then finally get down to the details. And a reserved quality in the visuals is part of the identity.”
How will a 911 look next to the hypermodern Mission E? Mauer says at some point the 911 might be like a racehorse. “It could seem obsolete to some people as a means of transportation, but it’s unbeatable when it comes to evoking emotion.”
The designers’ relaxed attitude to the electrification of an object many people love for its sound might have something to do with the fact that company founder Ferdinand Porsche built electric cars an entire century before Silicon Valley even thought about doing so.
He developed the electric “Voiturette Lohner-Porsche” for the Viennese carriage maker Ludwig Lohner. Powered by two internal-pole electric motors in the front wheel hubs, it came on to the market in 1900. Lohner thought that combustion engines were too dirty to survive for long, and that electric cars were the way of the future.
Shortly after 1900, Ferdinand Porsche developed this vehicle further into a sports car — just like he would later develop the Beetle into the Porsche.
He gave it four wheel-hub motors instead of two, which meant he also put the first car with all-wheel drive on to the road, and promptly won the Semmering race with it.
A century ago, Porsche says that its name already stood for a vision of driving with electric power. Some ideas simply have to mature before they can take on form. Their time now seems to have come.