Hailing from the Bad Cannstatt district of Stuttgart, Ulrich Bez, who as Porsche Technical supremo hatched the 993, had two significant stints at Porsche. During the 1970s he worked in research and was responsible for establishing Porsche’s crash test programme; in the 1980s, he followed Porsche’s head of research to BMW and set up BMW Technik, the department which designed the Z-series of sports cars. Tempted back to Porsche in 1988, Bez campaigned to save the company by rapidly updating the 911 with the interim 993 and introducing the premium 4-door 989. Disagreements with the board over this model caused him to leave Porsche; he later resurfaced at Ford where he took charge of Aston Martin, leading the company to independence in 2007. He retired at the end of 2013, but remained chairman of Aston Martin.
Ulrich Bez has been working for the British for too long: he arrived for our 10:00am rendezvous at Aston Martin’s London office fully 15 minutes late, normally unthinkable for a German. He excuses himself affably explaining that his dog was so excited by their early morning walk in Hyde Park’s unexpected spring sunshine, that it ran off and took some catching. But now Dr Bez has officially retired, maybe a less than Teutonic attitude to punctuality is forgivable. After all, we are here to talk about his 15 or so years with Porsche, a period which received barely 20 pages in his recent autobiography so perhaps not uppermost in his thoughts.
Yet as our conversation develops, it becomes clear that Ulrich Bez’s grounding in Porsche informed much of his subsequent thinking. He recalls he was at Porsche for four separate periods:
“After the Abitur, I went to Porsche as an apprentice for six months, grinding valve seats on the production line. The highlight was helping to restore the 1962 F1 car, the 804, where I was working with another apprentice, Jürgen Barth. At university, my thesis was on aeronautical engineering. I was then very fortunate that Helmuth Bott took an interest in my research on downforce so I was able to do the practical side of the thesis in Porsche’s R&D. On the strength of that trial, I was hired as an employee by the research department.” He is quick to acknowledge the scope and variety provided by life at Porsche during the next decade. He learned about bodywork and driving dynamics, managed projects on accident research and published papers which enabled him to complete his PhD. He particularly appreciated the tutelage of Hans Hermann Braess, Porsche’s then head of research: “Braess was more scientist than manager and he had an absolutely unmatched knowledge of automotive technology,” recalled Bez. In the best Porsche tradition, there was plenty of practical motorsport involvement too, and as the latest Weissach recruit he had the task of operating the valve on the fuel tank in the pits for the Nürburgring 1000km. Flow was achieved by gravity, which meant Bez was billeted on the pit roof with the tanks. “But I could see the entire race!” Pit signals at Le Mans also fell to him and this gave him the chance to admire the organisation of team manager and senior car tester, Peter Falk.
“Falk taught me a huge amount, particularly about feel for driving a car, how it should brake, how it should shift and corner.”
Braess then moved on to BMW and was replaced by Helmut Flegl. Though Bez’s contemporary, Flegl had joined Porsche some years earlier and had managed Porsche’s immensely successful Can-Am campaign. Not surprisingly he was well thought of at Weissach and Bez realised this blocked his own advancement. Being a young man in a hurry, he decided to follow his mentor Braess, to BMW.
If the Munich company welcomed Bez with open arms, Flegl was less supportive of this ‘defection’. “We’d worked together for several years,” says Bez, “and I thought I had been unfailingly loyal to him, but my departure seemed to embarrass him.” More old-school, Helmut Flegl believed, as his subsequent Porsche career would show, in staying till the job was done. After a couple of years at BMW, the company gave Ulrich Bez the break he sought, “A DM-10m budget to run a blue-sky research operation which we named BMW Technik.” Amongst the talented recruitees Bez brought to Technik was a Dutch stylist who was working at Ford in Cologne called Harm Lagaaij, and who had also begun his career at Weissach. The new operation developed a V8 engine to replace BMW’s traditional six to compete with the Mercedes S class, and it also came up with the innovative Z1, precursor of BMW’s Z series, which generated much publicity.
Meanwhile the collapse of the dollar which started in 1985 was hitting Porsche hard. The combination of a high cost base and an increasingly obsolete model range meant the company was fast losing ground. Feelers were put out to Bez as early as May 1988 to see whether he was interested in returning to Stuttgart as Technical Director, a board level appointment. In September, when long serving Helmuth Bott who had directed Porsche development for almost two decades resigned, Bez took up his new position within a month. He knew it would be a challenge and it was. He defines the problem as two-fold:
“The board consisted of people who just didn’t have the right kind of car background. Branitzki (CEO) had been the finance manager, Harbach who was head of sales was ex-Opel and a mass-market man; I had particular problems with Rudi Noppen, the production chief. I was from BMW and I knew what parts cost, but he had no feeling for the cars. You never saw him at test sessions. The board was uncertain about what to do with the 911 and some were inclined to develop a different kind of sports car. I pointed out that the 911 was Porsche and there was not enough money or time to start an entirely new car. The 924 had kept Porsche going in the 1970s – that was virtually paid for by VW, and the 944 had sustained it in the 1980s – but it wasn’t a 911 and it too would need replacing.”
Bez is highly critical of the 964, “People love them today, but in 1988 the 964 was the worst 911. It was too unrefined, too tiring on the Autobahn. The 930 Turbo was a much nicer car; the 964 C4 was not like a 911 to drive and slower in snow than Mercedes’ 4wd manumatic. I broke the gearbox of the 964 C4 I tried in Sweden!”
He pressed the board hard to allow him the funds to redevelop the 964. He had an understanding with BMW that he could take one senior employee from Munich to Porsche and he brought Harm Lagaaij, the design chief who would have such an influence on Porsche styling in the next two decades. The result, conceived in the space of only three years, was the 993. Of course, it was an interim model – still air cooled and still on the original chassis, yet its styling advances, although crimped by budget restraints, moved the 911 on as no previous model had, the fared headlamps in particular preparing enthusiasts for the next iteration. Bez had to fight hard though as the multi-link rear axle, so crucial to the 993’s better ride and handling, was granted at the expense of a new interior, rain-gutter free roof and wipers which parked below the hood line.
“I developed the 993 in the light of what I knew was wrong with the 964,” claims Bez, who is especially pleased with the 993 C4. “The 964 C4 transmission was absurdly expensive. We got the cost down to 30%, saved 50kg and the car was like the C2 to drive! But the biggest achievement was to be able to sell the 993 at a lower price yet still make a far better margin on it!”
As head of Weissach, Bez inherited Porsche’s racing programme. “I had to trim budgets,” he said, “the company couldn’t compete everywhere.” Thus, he stopped the Le Mans programme with the all-conquering Group C 962; even more controversial was his decision to withdraw Porsche’s entry in the CART series. Helmut Flegl who had been deputed before Bez arrived to manage Porsche’s latest American effort was highly critical of his former subordinate for halting the operation mid-season. After a string of poor results, the Porsche engine seemed at last to be finding both speed and reliability, as witnessed by several third places, and by Theo Fabi’s win at Mid-Ohio. Flegl felt that such an abrupt withdrawal was unnecessary and a huge snub to Porsche’s American partners. “Bez wanted to get into F1,” said Flegl with some feeling, and Norbert Singer remarked that new bosses at Porsche always wanted to leap into a new high profile project. Bez however denies that he wasn’t supportive. “I was flying over to CART races every other weekend in the 1989 season. It was pretty exhausting and realistically Weissach couldn’t successfully support a team that far away.”
He believes the Porsche Cup which he set up in 1990 and very much in the ‘race on Sunday, sell on Monday’ idiom was far more important. “There was no support from the board for this. The Porsche race series used 944 turbos, but Porsche is the 911 and we needed people to be racing those, not the 944! The Porsche Cup has become perhaps the most successful one make series in the world. When I watched 100 911 Cup cars from all over the world parading at the Nürburgring for the 20th anniversary, I felt extremely proud.”
He makes a good point: the continued success of the Porsche Cup in all geographies certainly offsets the failure of the return to F1 which he promoted so enthusiastically. Unlike the great days of the Porsche turbo powered TAG McLaren, Weissach’s attempt at a naturally aspirated engine found neither a top-flight team to deploy it nor ever overcame persistent oil starvation problems. The wise Peter Falk would remark that “We made the same mistake as we had with the Indy engine, we were much too soon off the dynamometer and into the car and on to a track.”
Ulrich Bez is also associated with his energetic advocacy of the four-door Porsche 989, the car he liked to refer to as ‘the Lear jet for the road,’ but the svelte sedan would ultimately prove his downfall.
“Porsche had to be more than just the 911. You can’t succeed as a one model company. Weissach had looked at SUVs and we had them on the drawing board, but at that time the SUV wasn’t a direction for Porsche. But a four-door to compete with the BMW 7 series and the Mercedes S class was, hence the 989.” Harm Lagaaij produced a design arguably rather better looking than the later Panamera and the board was impressed. But the project was abandoned after a reported DM150m had been spent on it. What happened?
“The board liked it and Ferdinand Piëch (ever the power behind the throne at Porsche) said ‘I can’t see anything wrong with this car, the concept is right.’ So, we went ahead, but in the middle of 1991 they stopped it, or rather Piëch stopped it. He’d decided he simply didn’t want Porsche to enter this market. I had a one-to-one meeting with him, and you just can’t out argue Ferdinand Piëch in that situation. At Audi, he was developing the A8 and he didn’t want it to face competition from a Porsche.”
Bez’s commitment to the 989, combined with the persistent misfire of Porsche’s F1 effort with Jackie Oliver’s Arrows team, another project he had initiated, meant the knives were out. Despite having three more years of his renewed contract to run, he felt pressed to resign and left Weissach in September 1991. He regarded having to quit as somewhat unfair in the light of what subsequently happened: Wiedeking took over as CEO in 1993 and introduced exactly the cuts and production changes that Bez had intended, returned to the SUV theme (the 2003 Cayenne) and within a decade was working on the 4-door which would be launched in 2009 as the Panamera. With hindsight, it is hard to disagree with Karl Ludwigsen’s assessment that if he wasn’t welcomed by at everyone at Weissach, Bez’s contribution to the excellence of the 993 (and by extension continuity at Porsche) was unquestionable. He fought hard to give Porsche the “better 911” he felt it needed at a time when few others in the company were able or willing to make a stand on a new direction.
Whatever the politics, more than 20 years ago Ulrich Bez appears to hold no grudges and readily recalls some of the lighter moments during his intense three-year tenure:
“I crashed a 964 Cup car at Hockenheim and broke my back, so the engineering department made a perfect model of two vertebrae in alloy and mounted it on a little wooden base which was inscribed ‘genuine Porsche parts.’ It’s on my desk to this day.”
His glass cabinet also houses a shattered connecting rod, mounted on a rectangle of polished hardwood, another gift from his engineers, the result of a test drive he was conducting in a 928 GT. Bez recalls that the engine expired on the Autobahn near Karlsruhe: “They knew those rods were underspecified,” he claimed emphatically, then laughs, “I rang Peter Falk and he drove out with a rope and towed me back to Weissach. It was early on a Saturday morning and there was nothing about. He pulled me at ridiculous speeds!”
He sees his legacy as re-inventing the 911, both as a model and in the minds of the top brass at Porsche, “The 993 saved Porsche. Keeping and developing the 911 was the key to survival. I’ve tried to do the same thing here (at Aston Martin). When I arrived in 1999, they had one model and on the drawing board was a mid-engined design. I told them to scrap that, Aston Martin is all about a front engined coupé – that was the car and the image they needed to stick with. We’ve developed a range from that and even made the front mid-engined car successful as a GT3 competitor. The 911 will always have better steering and superior traction, but the front-mid engine has better weight balance. This is Aston’s strength.”
Effectively, Ulrich Bez spent about the same time at the helm of Aston Martin as he did in the variety of roles assigned to him at Porsche, though with the British company he has undoubtedly flown at higher altitudes and reaped more prestige. But in the garage at his home in Germany is a 993.
“Through Tilman Brodbeck (manager of the Exclusive department) I arranged to buy the last two C2 narrow body cars to come off the line. I had them specified with full leather interior and various other accessories that were only introduced on later Porsches. One car went to a friend of mine and the other sits in my garage with 0 kilometres on it! It is surely the best looking 911 they ever made.”
He would no doubt be very happy with this as his epitaph. Smiling broadly, he takes his leave of us, still at 73 a lithe figure, the result perhaps of his lifelong devotion to cycling. Retired he may be, but he is still chairman and right now he has another meeting to attend.
Written by: Kieron Fennelly
Images by: Porsche, Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale