Inside the Porsche 918 Spyder factory, where even the screwdrivers are smart

·Contributing Editor, Autos
Inside the Porsche 918 Spyder factory, where even the screwdrivers are smart

As we moved past the insertion station for the acid green-callipered carbon-ceramic brakes at the Porsche 918 assembly plant in Stuttgart, the strains of The Human League’s 1981 hit “Don’t You Want Me” played tinnily from the in-car stereo of one of the partially assembled hyper-cars. This was fitting — not just because of the of the numerological confluence of the date of the tune’s release (all 9s, 1s, and 8s), or because of the fact that we were in a car factory so quiet that the synthetic strains of new wave could be heard readily from a vehicle on the assembly line — but because the answer to the song’s titular question was a resounding Yes!

If the 918 is one of the world’s most desirable cars, it should come as no surprise that the plant in which it is produced is one of the world’s most desirable factories — a perfectly lit, technologically advanced, human intensive temple to Teutonic efficiency and monomania. We were among a select quartet of American journalists to be invited here this week, the first to visit since production began earlier this year. Likewise, every one of the 110 men and women working on the line was hand-selected by the plant’s affable but exacting Director of Production, Logistics, and Quality (and our tour guide) Michael Drolshagen. As was each of the movements they make every 111 minutes, the duration for which each $850,000 hybrid remains at their respective workstations.

A Porsche 918 undergoes final inspection and charging after assembly.
A Porsche 918 undergoes final inspection and charging after assembly.

While the 911 facility downstairs produces 200 finished cars every day, the 918 line — hidden in a former paint shop on the second floor of the Zuffenhausen complex —produces only four. The meticulous attention to detail is one of the reasons: When a single dollop of synthetic lubricant dripped on the floor, we saw two workers immediately spend at least 45 seconds spraying it with solvent, wiping it with a pristine white rag, and examining the area for shmears. Likewise for an inspector going over every millimeter of the car’s cosmetically-woven carbon-fiber monocoque with a spotlight and a jeweler’s loup.

The dearness of the parts from which the 918 is built is another factor. Everything has been optimized for light weight, tensile strength, and ultimate performance so great care must be taken not to cause damage — nothing scratched will readily buff out. The basic materials costs for a 918 are higher than the retail price of a 911 Turbo. The hand-cut stainless steel exhaust surround on the car’s deck is more expensive than the entire painted body of a Panamera.

Even the screws that connect primary components are treated with deific respect. The cordless electric screwdrivers used to insert them are Bluetooth connected to a central network. If their torque pressure does not register as proper for the coded part they’re attaching, the entire line will shut down until such a time as the problem is remedied. On the Weissach model, which costs an additional $80,000, these screws — along with some other relevant bits — are made of titanium, which weighs 60% less than the standard part, and is ten times as expensive.

Despite all of this exquisite material, we were allowed free reign to wander about. The lack of a true “assembly line” made this both safe and feasible — the cars travel about the factory on wheeled and motorized precision lifts until such time as their battery assembly is inserted and they are able to drive electrically through their final stations.

If nearly a million dollars seems a high price to pay for a vehicle, viewing up close what goes into the 918 quickly subverts that thinking. Suspension components, brake discs, exhaust manifolds, and dash assemblies are crafted with the care and materials befitting a Henry Moore sculpture, and stand on racks and pedestals as if awaiting adoration in a museum. Save for the fact that we were allowed to put our hands on everything, we could have been at a MOMA retrospective.

Only 918 of these rolling objet d’art will be built. Porsche is about a third of the way through this production allotment. But while the Vehicle Identification Numbers of the cars will be sequential, their creation will not. Some customers have requested particular VINs to match their concept of what is lucky (888 or 777), what is valuable (001 or 918), or what is iconic and beloved to the brand (911 or 917). These are constructed out of turn as the orders are received.

At the end of our visit, Herr Drolshagen tells us that the full run will be completed by July 2015. When we ask him if there are upcoming plans for this space — perhaps production of a rumored successor — he shrugs. “Maybe we return it to a paint shop for the 911?” His taciturn demeanor gives nothing away, but his sly smile says those smart screwdrivers will find something more to do once the 918 rolls into history.