NEW DIRECTION PORSCHE 911 996 DESIGN HISTORY
The New Generation is how Porsche referred to the two entirely new models that would be the hoped-for saviours of a company which had witnessed some lean years. We look at the development of one of those models, the #Porsche-996
… Words: Keith Seume. Photos: Porsche Archiv.
We hated that drip rail so much! We tried so hard to get rid of that!’ Those were the words of Pinky Lai, the Hong Kong-born stylist responsible for the smooth looks of the 996-series 911, in a reference to the old gutters (drip rails) that were a feature of earlier 911s, and of virtually every car designed in the 1950s and ’60s.
Of course, getting rid of these archaic details wasn’t the prime reason for giving the 911 such a comprehensive overhaul. The main reason was that the car was starting to look old – and the company had been in financial trouble for some while. In styling terms, the first radical redesign of the 911 had been its transformation from the plastic-panelled 964 – itself little more than a waistline down revision of the original 1963 design – to the more sensual 993. Suddenly the #Porsche-911
was beginning to look a little more up to date.
Jointly, the 964 and 993 had represented considerable mechanical updates compared to the original air-cooled, torsionbar suspended 911, the roots of which could be traced back to the late 1950s. Coil-spring suspension, with subframes to isolate the body from the running gear, along with technical delights such as power steering and four-wheel drive, meant that the last of the air-cooled 911s were a far cry from the originals, arguably better in dynamic terms, if not to everyone’s taste with regard to styling.
Porsche had made a loss – no, make that ‘considerable losses’ – back in the early 1990s, and boss Wendelin Wiedeking knew there was only one option available: Porsche had to spend its way out of the financial hole if it was to survive.
Referred to as ‘The New Generation’, two new models were proposed, one being the mid-engined Boxster, the other a new 911 – the 996. The ‘New’ of ‘New Generation’ was as much a reference to the way the cars were to be manufactured as to any aspects of their design.
They were the first cars built by Porsche to share major components – and the first ‘world’ cars, where there would be relatively few variations in specification between models offered for sale in different export markets. The first modern Porsches, in fact. Wiedeking persuaded the board to set aside the sum of DM1.5million for the development of the new models, with half – DM750,000 – allocated to each project. In 1994, when the decision was made to proceed, this called for a massive injection of cash into the company’s ailing finances.
Porsche’s management had already recognised the need for investment, following the lacklustre sales of the 964. But then the 993, which had been produced on something of a tight budget – it was, arguably, little more than a new body over old mechanicals – had turned out to be a big seller. This came as a surprise to the board, some members of which had been expecting the worst.
The success of the 993 was almost the undoing of plans for the New Generation. Nobody expected it to sell well, so every effort was put behind creating a new car to drag the 911 into the rapidly-approaching 21st Century. Had the board had an inkling that the 993 would sell as well as it did, they might not have been so keen to invest so much money into coming up with a suitable replacement!
Wendelin Wiedeking and Porsche’s chief financial officer, Walter Gnauert, had successfully argued the need to release funds, pointing out that, despite falling sales, the company was still asset-rich, and had plenty of money tucked away for a rainy day. Plans were drawn up to slim down the workforce and, ultimately, to reduce the product range to just two cars, which shared 36 per cent of their components. But in the meantime, the 968 and 928 would continue in production until declining sales suggested it was time to pull the plug.
We can thank the research and development department’s Horst Marchart for pushing forward the idea of the two-car line-up. While others favoured the idea of concentrating on one new model – the Boxster – Marchart was a keen backer of the two-car New Generation. But it had to be cost-effective in every way. That meant looking at sharing as many components as possible, including the front bodywork and underside, doors and other components. The challenge would be to give the two cars their own separate identity.
Ulrich Bez, as head of research and development, turned to senior designer Harm Lagaay to work on the new projects, Lagaay having returned to Porsche and being largely responsible for the 968 and 993. Hong Kong-born Pinky Lai had also been invited by Bez to join the design team (known as ‘Porsche Styling’) as studio chief under Lagaay, having previously worked at BMW (as had his boss). The two had joined Porsche in January 1989 at the start of what was to be a critical era in the company’s history.
Although it was clear the #Porsche #911
needed to be updated – and not only by the loss of the drip rails and the sharing of components with the Boxster – it was vital that the ‘DNA’ should be clear for all to see.
Lagaay is quoted by Karl Ludvigsen in his masterwork Excellence was expected as saying of some designers that ‘(they) just cannot do a Porsche. Simplicity has always been a Porsche trait. Proportions and graphics are important, but above all it’s the Formsprache (‘form language’). It’s the sheetmetal being shaped in such a way that you cannot compare it with anything else.’ In other words, it was imperative that a new Porsche had to look like a Porsche.
There was much discussion about how to achieve a coherent family style with the two new models. In theory, if they could be made to share the same front-end sheetmetal, they would at least look like members of the same family in the rear view mirror. Whether they would be recognised as a member of the Porsche family was another challenge…
One of the most significant features of the new look also proved to be by far the most contoversial: the so-called ‘fried egg’ headlights. Loved or hated – there was no middle ground – the new light units chosen for the Boxster and 996 were likened to a frying egg, the yoke of which had run to the edge of the pan. It wasn’t a particularly flattering comparison…
From Lai’s point of view, the project was a designer’s dream challenge come true. The new 911 had to look like a 911 – had to look like a Porsche! – had to look good, and had to be fresh and different.
The 993 had a distinctive slotted nose, a feature carried over to the #996
and used to accommodate two radiators at the front of the car – the new models being watercooled. Lagaay felt that the design, with two intakes either side of a central number plate, was now recognised as being a ‘symbol for Porsche’. Both the Boxster and the 996 displayed an overall ‘corporate’ look, but detailed differences helped identify them as two separate models.
The design process was not simply a case of a couple of stylists being given a sheet of paper and a pen, and then told to go away and design a new 911. There was an element of competition about it, with four teams within the design department given the opportunity to prove their worth.
Each team was asked to lay out their designs as full-sized tape ‘drawings’ on a blank wall, as well as showing a range of sketches to demonstrate how they had reached their decision. Pinky Lai recalls being stressed as each team tried to outdo the other, but there was a happy twist to his tale, as Ludvigsen once again recounts.
In addition to the drawings, the teams were tasked with creating a full-sized clay model of their proposed design. This called to the services of the highly-skilled in house modellers, among who was an Eberhard Brose. Brose was legendary among the designers, having been part of the team responsible for finalising the shape of the original 901 (911) prototypes.
After looking at the various design ideas on show, Brose turned to Pinky Lai and casually said, ‘Pinky, I’m going to do yours’. Lai recalls that ‘When he picked mine, I knew I had a winner.’
Lai’s design was chosen as the best of all the submissions, having succeeded in retaining the original 911’s character yet bringing it firmly up to date. Gone was the need for widened rear wings – the new, more subtly-curved bodywork could accommodate wider rims than before – but the 911’s trademark ‘boomerang’ rear quarter window profile remained, albeit tweaked to give a more modern feel.
The windscreen was raked back to an angle of 60 degrees, compared to the original’s 55 degrees, while the higher tail and sleeker roofline helped make the car more aerodynamically efficient. Door mirrors were relocated, too, now being mounted in the front corner of the door windows as opposed to the door top itself. The raised tail helped in three ways.
First it added a ‘power bustle’ to the profile, emphasising the rear engine location and hinting at the car’s performance potential. It also helped airflow over the rear of the car, and finally it provided more space for the bulkier new engines.
As a carry over from the days of the 964, the engine lid featured a combined intake grille and spoiler that would raise automatically at speed.
Harm Lagaay is quoted as saying the 996 looked more ‘relaxed’ than the rather more aggressively-styled earlier cars. ‘With the 993,’ he said, ‘we had exhausted the visual possibilities. I wanted the new car (the 996) to look more relaxed, and I think we achieved that.’
Amusingly in hindsight, he likened the two cars to the two famous American sprinters of the time: ‘The old 911 is like the athlete Ben Johnson, packed with muscle and aggression. The new 911 is like Carl Lewis, still powerful but with a slimmer figure, more elegant and much more perfectly proportioned.’
Clearly Lagaay was impressed with Lai’s design, going on to say ‘If it doesn’t stir anything inside you, inspire you, then it isn’t a Porsche…’
Lai’s design wasn’t all about sleek looks, though – it was also very efficient, with a drag coefficient of just 0.30. Whereas in its early days the original 911 had been plagued with problems of rear lift at speed, the new design had a lift factor of seven per cent at the front and just three per cent at the rear. Testing showed that, at 170mph, the overall lift was just six per cent, an extremely low figure.
Such efficiency was achieved by a number of small but significant details. Early wind tunnel tests showed that drag over the rear bodywork was high, calling for changes to be made that wouldn’t adversely affect rear lift. Underbody cladding helped greatly here, as did a small lip that reduced air pressure in the engine bay, also aiding airflow through fans which helped cool the engine compartment.
Porsche examined the possibility of using aluminium to build the 996’s basic body structure, with plastic panels used for the front and rear ‘bumpers’. This technque had been used by Honda on the NSX, but Porsche was unimpressed with the way the Japanese company had used the material. Whereas in more recent times cars with an aluminium substructure, such as Audi’s A2 and A8, treated the lightweight material in a different way to steel (smaller complex pressings welded together to make a light but rigid structure), Honda preferred more traditional techniques, similar to those used to press steel body panels.
This technique left Porsche’s engineers unimpressed, but it was also clear that the process used by Audi was simply not cost effective – indeed, it is still claimed that Audi lost money on every A8 sold, while repair costs were (and still are) so high that many cars would be written off after suffering relatively little damage. Neither problem appealed to the bean counters. In the end, zinc-plated steel body panels were decided upon, these being stamped out by BMW – this was truly a time of cooperation between rival companies, all of whom had been through lean times in the early 1990s.
Modern manufacturing techniques, such as using laser welding equipment, led to a reduction in the time necessary to complete a body ready for paint. In fact, according to Ludvigsen, the 996 body took 20 per cent less time to make than that of its predecessor, the 993.
This wasn’t the only major improvement over the old model. The 996’s bodyshell was some 30 per cent more torsionally rigid than that of the 993, with bonded-in glazing, front and rear, accounting for 21 per cent of that increase.
The torsional rigidity helped the 996 to be one of the safest cars in its day. ‘Our goal was to build the world’s safest highperformance car,’ said Horst Marchart, ‘and all our tests show we’ve done that.’ Whereas the old 911, with body engineering dating back to the early 1960s, was never a car in which you’d expect to have a major accident and walk away unhurt, the 996 was a very different proposition. Increased public awareness of vehicle safety meant that Porsche, like all other manufacturers, was keen to promote this aspect of its product design.
The latest computer modelling – FEM, or Finite-Element Modelling – was used to demonstrate on-screen how strong the 996 was. This system, which referenced no fewer than 180,000 separate analysis points, allowed engineers to look at the bodyshell in a way that their predecessors could only have dreamed.
FEM allowed them to simulate crashes from all angles, reducing the amount of time and expense associated with the destruction of prototypes at a preproduction stage. Project leader Bernd Kahnau is quoted as saying that his team ‘put a lot of effort into designing a new car that would meet all anticipated crash safety requirements. It was a fantastic effort!’ Porsche’s engineers would spend literally hours – as many as 40 or more per computer session – assessing the damage inflicted on a 996 bodyshell, primarily in frontal impacts. Only when they were happy would a ‘real’ crash test be performed on a prototype.
It was the responsibility of Bernd Kahnau, as project leader for the 996, to see that the new car had sufficient customer appeal to be a success. After all, the 911 family had been the flag wavers for Porsche since 1964. With two new cars being marketed alongside each other, it was important that customers be able to differentiate between them.
To this end, the decision was made to market the Boxster as a more youthful product, the emphasis being on ‘hedonism’ rather than the ‘success’ and ‘evolution’ of the 996 – references to the 911’s long bloodline and competition history. However, the sharing of components and, to a certain degree, styling inevitably meant there was a cross-over between the two models. It was potentially a challenging situation, the task of the sales and advertising people being to separate the products and sell them into two different markets.
As has been mentioned previously, there was more component sharing here than at any other point in Porsche’s past, unless you compare the six-cylinder 911 and its four-cylinder sibling, the 912, in the 1960s. This was different, though, as the Boxster was an entirely new concept, rather than a ‘less expensive’ 911, its mid-engine layout clearly defining it as a stand-alone model. The front suspension was shared between the 996 and the 986 Boxster, consisting of a MacPherson strut design with aluminium lower links, on an aluminium subframe.
At the rear, the 996 featured a far simpler layout than the suspension assembly of the 993. The old car had required a substantial aluminium subframe to carry the suspension components, but the greater torsional rigidity of the 996 body allowed the engineers to do away with the 993’s subframe in favour of a less complex design with just one main crossmember. Mounted on four rubber bushes to the bodyshell, the new set-up was both lighter and cheaper to manufacture.
Of course, there was one other major component shared by the two ‘New Generation’ Porsches: the engine. Both models were now water-cooled, largely to satisfy noise and emission regulations, but the Boxster was equipped with a 2.5-litre six-cylinder engine, the 996 a larger 3.4- litre version. This in itself is a subject worthy of an archive feature in its own right, so we’ll leave the development history of the latterly much-maligned M96 engine to a future issue.
For Porsche, the launch of the New Generation was a very big deal. On these two models rested the fortunes of a company which had seen many highs and lows over the previous decade. So what did the media think of the new 996?
Damned as a ‘bastard son of the Boxster and the 928’ by one critic, the 996’s styling came in for a lot of comment. But the influential Auto Motor und Sport probably summed it up best of all, tipping its hat to the efforts of the stylists, Harm Lagaay and Pinky Lai: ‘That the traditionalists sulked a little was only to be expected. The bigger overall dimensions, the nose from the Boxster, with the oddly-shaped headlamps, the lack of muscular bulges on each rear flank, even the loss of the drip rails – all must evoke sadness in a fan of the old 911. But next to the new 911, the old one looks like a relic from days gone by.’
Time has been cruel to the 996, with its engine problems and criticism of its lack of character, but it was a success for Porsche in marketing terms. It also, along with the Boxster, helped the company keep its head above water…
The 993 Targa had been seen as a controversial design by many but a triumph as far as the stylists were concerned. The same sliding roof concept was considered at an early stage for the 996, too, as demonstrated here in this 1996 sketch.
Crash testing took place only after considerable time had been spent acting out various scenarios on computers. But once the design had passed with flying colours, it was time to hit the road – much of the long-distance testing was carried out in North America, while Weissach’s wind tunnel honed the final details (GT2 pictured).
It’s probably true to say that no other Porsche before had undergone such rigorous preproduction testing as the 996. On the far left a Carrera undergoes wetweather testing, while left and centre, 996 GT2 and Turbo undergo suspension and wind-tunnel evaluation.
The 996’s bodyshell was some 30 per cent more torsionally rigid than that of the 993…
At first glance you might guess this was a 993 Carrera 4S, but in fact it’s the original test mule with all the underpinnings of the soon to be released 996. Bonnet pins, roll cage and small bulge in the bonnet hint at something out of the ordinary…
Under Wendelin Wiedeking (centre) several different projects were investigated, including a stretched four-door cousin to the 911. For the first time, computer modelling played a major part in a design process that led to the creation of the new Porsche 996.
With the 993, we had exhausted the visual possibilities. I wanted the new “car to look more relaxed…
Pinky Lai lays out a full-sized tape drawing of his new design. His idea came out on top at an early stage, but he found the whole process ‘stressful’.
Narrow rear to the glasshouse on this 1994/5 drawing resembles that of the much later Cayman. Sensuous curves reflected a desire to make the 996 look more modern than its predecessors, including the 993, which had itself been regarded as a major departure from the established 911 shape.
Left front is Harm Lagaay, with back to camera, while behind him is Pinky Lai – studying the painted clay model in daylight for the first time.
Pinky Lai (in the background, with glasses) watches over the creation of the clay model of his design in. By this stage, the overall style had been established – now it was time to concentrate on the details, such as the controversial ‘friedegg’ headlights.
The go-ahead was given to the new project in 1994 and within a few months, all kinds of ideas were being kicked around by Harm Lagaay and Pinky Lai, as this range of sketches proves.
Crude 1995 design sketch (above) demonstrates the stylists’ desire to give the 911 a fresh, modern look. Pinky Lai’s solution was more sensuous than earlier models, but hopefully it was still recognisably a Porsche 911.