America has for decades been Porsche’s biggest market, and this was important for the young and growing company. In some ways, the importance of this market even influenced the development of certain models. In this feature, Porsche and the US, we look into that all-important relationship between Porsche and the American car-mad society.
One of the surprises of the 1948 Geneva Show was an open two-seater from Porsche, previously known only as an automotive engineer. Viennese Max Hoffman, a former motorcycle racer, now a New York car dealer saw the potential for this neat sports car in America. In 1950, he imported three coupés. With new distributors in Belgium and France and a growing reputation as a purveyor of competitive road racers, Ferry Porsche was happy initially simply to have an outlet in the US.
But Hoffman was much more ambitious: the 30 cars sold in the USA in 1951 became 600 in 1952 and Hoffman had no hesitation in telling Ferry what his cars needed to appeal to Americans. Hence the rapid development of the 1.5-litre engine from the original (and to American eyes, ridiculously small) 1131cc unit. Ferry took him seriously and despatched one of his right-hand men, Herbert Linge to manage customer service. Linge was soon joined by another Porsche stalwart, Rolf Wütherich who was beside Hollywood star James Dean in the Spyder when a car crashed into them, killing Dean and seriously injuring Wütherich.
Hoffman who also imported Mercedes and Jaguar cars, understood US tastes – he had Porsche redesign the dash with a prominent rev counter in the centre, and at his suggestion, Ferry sketched what would become that great Porsche identity symbol, the Porsche crest. Pressure from Hoffman led to the 1954 Speedster, a minimal-equipment roadster which sold 5000 examples in four years; another Viennese expatriate John von Neumann, did for the West Coast what Hoffman achieved on the East. Von Neumann was also a racer and sold the 1500 RS (which Hoffman told Ferry to brand a ‘Spyder’, a name which was more enticing than a set of figures). Ritchie Ginther cut his teeth on a von Neumann car and other racers improved the output of the flat fours. Chevrolet engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov who raced the works 1100 RS at Le Mans in 1954 and 1955, persuaded Porsche of the virtues of anti-roll bars and to create a skid pan, which would ultimately lead to the establishment of the Weissach facility. By 1959, the US was taking 40 percent of all Porsches – Germany came next with 23 percent, and the company set up its US subsidiary, Porsche of America Corporation.
If in the 1950s Porsche learned to understand American preferences, as the 911 took over from the 356 C in the 1960s, a bigger challenge was posed by federal regulators. Following Ralph Nader’s infamous ‘Unsafe at any Speed’ it appeared that open cars could be banned; in the climate of uncertainty, Porsche designed the famous Targa Top, creating an enduringly successful 911 derivative; Porsche introduced the Sportomatic transmission for the US only to find take-up in Europe was greater. North American requirements would lead to the creation of two types of 911: the US version and the Rest of World (RoW) model. Initially the differences were detail, like the famous US eyebrow headlamps, but became more complex when catalytic converters became mandatory. For 30 years, harsher emissions controls would deprive Americans of a succession of the fastest Porsches, beginning with the Carrera RS 2.7, built only as a RoW car. Otherwise Porsche engineers coped successfully with federal exhaust pipe legislation which asphyxiated the American ‘muscle’ cars; meanwhile the controversial impact bumpers designed to meet US 5 mph crash regulations quickly became part of the 911’s character.
However, concerns over the rear-engined 911s continued acceptability in the US threatened its long-term existence, and Porsche’s first non-family CEO, Ernst Fuhrmann believed the company should make a classic front-engined rear-drive sports car. To build this ‘better Chevrolet Corvette’, Porsche turned to its two designers who had worked at GM, Tony Lapine and Wolfgang Möbius. The result was the futuristic 928, a car which from any other manufacturer might have been an unqualified success, but because it came from a Porsche rooted in its rear-mounted air cooled flat six tradition, caused divisions both within the firm and among its fans.
By the time the 928 came to market, the external threat to the 911 had evaporated, but internally, an increasingly isolated Fuhrmann had terminated 911 development. This scenario changed rapidly under new CEO, American, Berlin-born Peter Schutz who brought his Cummins diesel engine salesman’s talents to bear, particularly in the US, and presided over an upswing in Porsche’s fortunes which saw a much needed 911 Cabrio join the Coupé and Targa. Schutz talked about buying a Porsche as buying into a lifestyle, where affluent owners drove their Porsches to the local airfield and took off in their private plane powered by an aviation version of the flat-six. It was a very Stateside vision which never quite made it into reality, for while attempting to break into the closed US aviation market was one challenge, sustaining US sales which by 1985 had increased four-fold in four years, was quite another. In fact, the dollar began to plummet and with it Porsche’s US profits to the point where by 1990, the company was only just solvent and rumours of takeover abounded.
Porsche’s US woes seemed unending: Schutz’s reorganisation of the dealer network had caused acrimony as did Porsche’s withdrawal from the CART; the refusal of US customs to allow importation of the 959 for which clients had paid a hefty deposit was a further humiliating setback and contributed to the premature and costly termination of the 959.
The return to Porsche in 1991 of Wendelin Wiedeking would begin a slow upturn. After being deprived of the Turbo ‘till 1987, once again US customers were disappointed not to be able to get their hands on the 964 RS or 993 RS (neither US-crash tested). However, a specific US-only 911, the RS America, was created thanks partly to Vic Elford, doing much to boost 964 sales. In a market where forty percent of Porsche sales were open cars, the 1996 Boxster was acclaimed and held the fort until the Cabrio and Targa 996s appeared. By now Porsche was homologating models for over 70 markets, so the old RoW/US distinctions had lost relevance. Nevertheless, US enthusiasts could not import the 996 GT3 until 2004 – the last time Porsche’s most important market would be deprived of a 911 derivative.
The commercial decision to build the Cayenne – Porsche needed to diversify and the SUV market was eight times bigger than the sports car market – went ahead only after wholesale support in the US for the Porsche 4×4 was confirmed. Strong sales there (the Cayenne outsells the 911 by 3:1) assured the continuity of Porsche’s sports cars. The introduction in MY 2009 of PDK did not prove more popular with US enthusiasts than the Sportomatic, and sustained US demand (25 percent of orders) for the manual ‘box justified its continuity and the development of the seven-speed transmission.
After 50 years as Porsche’s main outlet, some years taking up to fifty-five percent of production, the US yielded to China in 2016 as Porsche’s largest market. Here demand was prestige-led, the concept of the sports car was as yet undeveloped and it was no coincidence that forty percent of Panameras found homes in China.
For four decades, Porsche’s US sales were crucial in allowing Porsche to continue to develop the 911 and later the mid-engined cars, and provided the basis for its twenty-first century model diversification. Without America, Porsche is unlikely to have survived as an independent concern. In today’s global market, it is hard to imagine China, or any other territory, could ever wield such influence over Porsche’s cars as the US did.
Written by: Kieron Fennelly
Images by: Porsche-Werkfoto