Chances are that if you're a Porsche fan, you at least know the setup to this story. Porsche was reeling in the Nineties. The 959 was a technical marvel, but hideously expensive to build, and a worldwide recession had slowed sports-car sales dramatically. The company's manufacturing processes were anything but modern and efficient. Its lineup was old and tired, and the realization that it wouldn't be able to keep building an air-cooled sports car was dawning.
Around the same time, Porsche established an advanced engineering group led by Helmut Flegl, one of the key players behind the Le Mans-winning 917. On his team was Grant Larson, a young American designer. "Everything was super technical, whether it's some suspension things or something to do with emissions," Larson recalls. "I said, 'This is advanced design, we like to do cars, why don't we do a car to show off all these innovations?'"
That car eventually became the Boxster, which marks its 25th year in production this year. We spoke with Larson earlier this year to reflect on the genesis of the car that saved Porsche, a car he described with a German word, ausganbasis, meaning “a good place to start.”
Larson wanted to build a lightweight roadster in the mould of the 550 Spyder and 718 RSK, two race cars central to the Porsche legend. He told Road & Track that he began working on this car in earnest around 1991, though he has some sketches of a mid-engine roadster dated to 1990. But really, it was a car he'd spent his whole life to that point designing. "Every designer has the same 'handwriting,' as they call it, which they carry throughout their whole life, and just update it gradually," he says. A longtime fan of Porsche, Larson says his 'handwriting' was very much influenced by the brand.
Larson says his original designs weren't made with a production car in mind. "It was just a basic idea and a couple of mid-engine roadster sketches," he says. But at the time, Porsche was in desperate need of new product. It hadn't launched an all-new car since the 928 in 1977, and it needed cars that were cheaper to build and would sell in higher volumes than its current lineup. The four-door front-engine 989 was seen as a more practical successor to the 928, but it was canceled in 1991 over fears that it wouldn't be the sales hit it was once hoped. Plus, there was a growing push for more parts sharing within the company, and the 989 was to be largely unique.
Horst Marchart, then head of R&D at Porsche, came up with the idea of building two cars out of one. "The idea was to create an additional product line from the vehicle concept and components of a new 911," Marchart told Porsche customer magazine Christophorus earlier this year. "It was to be a two-seater with a front-end close to that of the 911 to guarantee clear identification of the car as a Porsche. In addition, the new car should cost around 70,000 marks and also appeal to younger customers." Marchart's proposal was approved, then work began on what became the 996-generation 911 and the 986 Boxster production car. Production was years away, however, and Porsche decided to tease the world with what was to come.
"There was a little bit of hesitation towards that because as soon as you do a show car, basically, you show the world all your innovations, you're just giving out all your ideas," Larson says. "Whether you use them in the future or not, you're giving them out by showing them to the public."
Ultimately, though, Porsche executives felt doing a concept car was worth the risk. After all, in 1992, Porsche was really in a rut. The only cars it was selling at that point, though good, had been developed decades earlier, and there was an external fear that the company would never bring out anything truly new. Executives decided to turn Larson's sketches for a lightweight roadster into a concept car for the 1993 Geneva Motor Show. Then it was decided to move the premiere three months sooner to the Detroit Auto Show to get more media attention in the all-important American market. "That's why it doesn't have a roll bar," Larson says.
Interestingly enough, Larson was working on the concept car while other designers at Porsche were developing the 986 and 996 separately, and the 986 at the time didn't necessarily look like the show car. Larson wanted the concept car to be very much like its Fifties and Sixties racing inspirations; light, compact, with minimal nods to daily drivability. "We were using the show car to show how tight and small the production car could be, but you can only take that so far," he says. "But there was a point in time where we took parts of the styling theme of the show car and started putting them on one of the 986s."
Everything changed after the Detroit show. The Boxster was a huge hit. "It was like, 'All right, stop all the Boxster activities and get that theme on the car,'" Larson recalls.
Of course, bringing the Boxster to life had its own challenges. The production 986 may look like the show car, but it's significantly bigger. Porsche wanted an everyday usable sports car and not a pure race car, so luggage compartments and interior volume grew. The 986 and 996 were to share as many components as possible, too, which also contributed to the Boxster's size increase. From the A-pillar forward, a 986 Boxster and 996 911 Carrera are virtually identical, with only slightly different bumpers to differentiate the two. The doors are also shared between models.
Even the once-controversial "fried egg" headlights were an example of cost-cutting. Each unit contained all the necessary lighting elements for the front of the car, which meant that Porsche had to manufacture fewer pieces. "We were cutting unbelievable corners with that car," Larson rememembers. "It is put together so simply and so effectively and there's parts of the cars where you think it's like a relevance issue. It's like 'What is important for the car's performance?'"
And that's the funny thing. In a roundabout way, Larson sort of got the pared-back Porsche sports car he wanted because the company couldn't afford any extravagances. He notes that where it counted, in the powertrain and suspension, corners weren't cut; that's reflected in the car’s excellent performance. The Boxster and 911 became more complex in the intervening years, but Larson says the sort of thinking that defined the 986 and 996 is still present at Porsche. "I think that cost-effectiveness, the cost savings mentality or mindset is still there… I think that's what makes Porsche the profitable company that it is, is how they go about the cost-effectiveness. 'What's important for the car and what's important for the customer?'"
Corners may have been cut, but the Boxster was the critical and commercial success Porsche desperately needed it to be. Twenty-five years after production began, we can clearly see that the Boxster is the car that set Porsche on the path to becoming what it is today.
And that original Boxster is aging well. "[With] the show car design I was always worried that it would look too trendy and then go out of style after about three or four years," Larson says. "So, we were very careful to make certain parts of the car, give it a timelessness. Something we can look at 10 years later and not say, 'It's so Nineties,' or whatever." Credit for that goes to Porsche's design chief at the time, Harm Lagaay, and to a lesser extent, Butzi Porsche, designer of the original 911. "His input was always extremely functional," Larson remembers. "[A]nd I don't think he ever really liked the tail lamps of the Boxster."
The 25th anniversary of the Boxster has naturally led Larson to reflect on his creation. "I'd say I'm quite happy about how the production car turned out, because I know what we had to deal with," he says. "I think speaking in general, you can ask anyone—whether it's an automotive designer or anyone who created anything—if you had more time, you always go back and find things you can fix. I think that's human nature. That's the same thing with the Boxster, but I think everything that we had to deal with and the compromises that we had to make, I'm more than happy with it, definitely. I bought three of them."
"Twenty-five years ago, we had no idea that we'd be sitting here today talking about 25 years of the Boxster," he adds. "Because back then you just never know if you're doing something like a 928 or a 924, 944, or 968. A car that has its life, and then ends and gets changed… I personally am proud of the fact that the Boxster is still established in the Porsche lineup, and makes us really happy."
Larson was the designer behind the new Boxster 25, which pays homage to his original 1993 concept with gold accents, five-spoke wheels, silver paint, and a red leather interior. That car is a good representation for how the Boxster has evolved—particularly with its 394-hp 4.0-liter flat-six—and how it's stayed the same. "Four hundred horsepower back in the Nineties was unimaginable," he says.
But for all the change, the Boxster is still basically the same. Boxer engine mounted low behind the cockpit, power-folding roof above it, two trunks, and styling inspired by the 718 RSK. Larson notes that if you squint, you can see Carrera GT in the current Boxster. But park the new car next to a 986, and the resemblance is uncanny.
Clearly, in more ways than one, the original Boxster was an ausgangsbasis.
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