After 53 years, a million examples and numerous iterations, the Porsche 911 remains one of the world’s most acclaimed, recognisable and highly desirable sports cars. So what can we learn about design and branding from this genuine automotive icon?
When Ferdinand Porsche died in 1951, Forbes magazine marked the occasion with an article that asked ‘what’s the best piece of modern industrial design?’ It went on to answer its own question by saying: ‘You could make a very strong case for the Porsche 911’.
As designers (and in several cases, ardent petrolheads, too) we have a special reverence for Herr Porsche’s most famous creation. This, after all, is a design that’s remained basically unaltered since the first 911 rolled off the production line in 1964. Indeed, the car’s detractors (and it does polarise enthusiasts) mock the fact that every new 911 looks pretty much exactly like the previous one. But as Ferdinand himself said: ‘A coherently designed product needs no adornment; it should be enhanced by its form alone. Good design should be honest.’
His faith in his original concept has proved more than justified. In May 2017, the Stuttgart factory produced its one millionth 911: as a testament to the car’s engineering, the company claims more than 700,000 are ‘still ready to drive today’. Current celebrity owners include Ellen DeGeneres, Tom Cruise, David Beckham, Lindsay Lohan, Matthew Perry, Jerry Seinfeld and Arnold Schwarzenegger, while the late, great Steve McQueen was also a big fan. Though he’ll be forever associated with the Ford Mustang thanks to Bullitt, the 911 he drove in Le Mans was actually his own.
People love the 911 for many reasons, but the two most often cited are, perhaps unsurprisingly, style and performance. Despite the naysayers’ claims, the 911’s distinctive outline has changed subtly over the years, including bigger bumpers (to meet changing safety requirements), wider wheel-arches, and reworked headlights, taillights and wing mirrors. Overall, though, the basic design has remained remarkably pure for more than five decades. Even the badge on the bonnet – a gold shield with the city of Stuttgart’s black horse emblem in the centre and the ‘Porsche’ name over the top – is almost identical to the original design sketched on a napkin by Ferdinand’s father Ferry in 1952. ‘Design must be functional and functionality must be translated into visual aesthetics, without any reliance on gimmicks that have to be explained,’ Ferdinand declared. ‘If there are technical developments, then you have to incorporate the shape to the new technology; but a Porsche will always look like a Porsche.’
That integrity and consistency is a huge part of the brand’s success. And from a branding perspective, it’s telling that even after 53 years, there’s still no truly defining ‘Porsche’ colour. After all, for most brands, including leading automotive marques, colour is a fundamental identifier. For example, Ferrari is indelibly red, the Model T Ford was famously ‘any colour you like as long as it’s black’, and a Lamborghini can be ‘any colour as long as it’s garish to the point of vulgarity’; but a 911? Our best guess would be a balance of red, black or silver, but Guards Red, Irish Green and Riviera Blue are all classic 911 colours, too. In our view this is a good thing: the 911 shape is so iconic and immutable, it’s instantly recognisable and meaningful even to those who would never be customers, which is the holy grail of all brands. Interestingly the very first 911 was Irish Green and so in 2017 to celebrate the one millionth 911 Porsche produced another in Irish Green!
And if the look is distinctive, then so is the drive. With its rear-mounted, air-cooled, six-cylinder engine, the 911 caused a sensation when it was launched, and the unique layout has continued to thrill, bemuse, test and occasionally terrify drivers ever since. But here at least, the evolution is more pronounced and obvious. The original 2.0-litre flat-six developed 130bhp, with a top speed of 131mph. To satisfy today’s expectations, the current 3.0-litre twin-turbo unit produces over 400bhp: good for 0-62 in 4.3 seconds and on to somewhere around 190mph. As Ferry Porsche put it: ‘You may always modify a Porsche, but its character and inimitable quality must be maintained.’
A Porsche has always been an aspirational product; but in today’s market, does it still constitute a true luxury brand? With prices starting from £76,000, a new 911 isn’t cheap by any means; but compared to, say, a Ferrari 488 GTB (£184,000) it’s a positive bargain. And while it’s beautifully made using top-notch materials, it doesn’t particularly threaten the likes of Bentley and Rolls-Royce. Plus, with a million built so far it’s hardly a rarity: McLaren made a mere 106 F1s, while Ferrari produced just a single convertible 250 GT Spyder. That said, total European sales in 2016 were only around 15,000, so you’re still fairly unlikely to park your 911 next to another one.
The clincher, if course, is that no one really needs a Porsche 911. There are plenty of cars out there that are more spacious, powerful, beautiful, expensive, handmade, head-turning and capable of losing your licence for you. But that’s not the point. Anything else wouldn’t be a 911. And for those that love it, nothing else comes close. Ferry Porsche summed it up when he said: ‘I wanted to build cars that were not something to everyone but meant everything to some.’ And there is a million reasons for believing that, with the 911, he and Ferdinand did exactly that.