To be able to write on your résumé that you worked for one of Porsche’s CEOs would be quite an achievement. Tilman Brodbeck can however do a little better than that, for in a 40-year career, he was assistant to no fewer than five successive Porsche presidents. But, as he tells us, he held other posts too. When he started at Zuffenhausen, the company was still ruled by Ferry Porsche, whose nephew and Technical Director Ferdinand Piëch, was literally snapping at his heels.
Unlike many of his contemporaries who went to Stuttgart University to complete their education, Tilman Brodbeck went further afield, to Darmstadt 100 miles to the north, for his engineering studies: “I wanted to get away from home,” he smiles revealing the slightly nonconformist streak that runs through much of his thinking. His speciality at Darmstadt was in airflow techniques, a subject then very little developed. Tilman’s background meant that after he joined Porsche he was promoted to body project engineer. “One of my tasks was on the 924 (Porsche’s first front engined model) where getting sufficient cooling air to the engine was quite a challenge within the overall shape we wanted for the car.”
Prior to this though and before even being assigned a title, Brodbeck had had to prove himself: he was handed the daunting responsibility of resolving the 911’s tendency to lift its front end at high speed. Simply adding weight to the front fender did not solve the problem. “We used to drive up to Ehra-Lessien (VW’s extensive proving ground), and after Kassel, the autobahn straightens out and you were expected to drive that section flat out. I always dreaded having to take the wheel on this stretch, because the 911 wandered about so much.” Experiments in the wind tunnel at Stuttgart university showed how air was lifting the front end of the 911, but at that time, no one was using spoilers or aerodynamic aids on production cars. Flaps and attempts at ducting airflow had however indicated some improvement when tried on race cars and inspired by this Tilman, developed a lip for the 911 front valance. The result was a 50% reduction in lift. “Ferdinand Piëch was delighted, but then he really piled on the pressure giving us three weeks to prepare a lightened 911 for the motor sport division.”
Glass fibre bumpers replaced the originals and thinner glass was specially ordered. With Brodbeck’s ‘lip’ the 911’s drag coefficient was improved, but the rear wheels now lacked traction. “This was a real headache,” recalls Tilman, “I literally couldn’t sleep.” Then he remembered his first car, a rear engined Fiat 850 coupé Spider and how its successor, the 900 turned out to have a much higher top speed than the 5bhp increase should have made. But that 900 had a lip, a sort of spoiler on the engine cover…Brodbeck hastily fabricated a rear spoiler and took a 911 so modified to the wind tunnel: the results were sensational. Rear lift went down by 60% and drag and top speed were also improved. The modification was presented to Tony Lapine’s design studio and Wolfgang Möbius produced the ‘Bürzel’ or ducktail. Proving runs at Weissach and Ehra-Lessien by Günter Steckkönig, in Brodbeck’s view as fine a driver in his day as Walter Röhrl, confirmed the improvement seen in the wind tunnel. Homologation would require a production run of 250 units.
The sales department baulked at this just as it had with the 911 R five years earlier and briefly it seemed the latest lightened 911 would remain a prototype too. However, newly appointed CEO Ernst Fuhrmann was keen to make his mark and in a dramatic scene which Tilman Brodbeck witnessed by chance, Fuhrmann asserted himself, telling his sales chief he would either sell 250 or none at all. “So that was how the Carrera RS 2.7 came to be,” said Tilman, “an entirely accidental success! I’m not an old car fan (a view shared by former design director Harm Lagaaij who believes logically that newer is always better) but that RS is one old Porsche I would love to own!”
Traditionally an engineering led company, in the early 1970s, Porsche had over 200 engineers, vastly out numbering the 25 designers employed by the styling department. When Butzi Porsche left the firm, his deputy Tony Lapine took over and in asserting the role of the Porsche design studio, at times made it appear like a separate company, sharpening divisions between engineering and design. Famously, he used to say to his cohorts that ‘if marketing likes it, ignore them and if engineering likes it, start again.’ Tilman Brodbeck has not forgotten what it was like to be caught in the crossfire between the machine shop and the easels. “Tony Lapine could be quite arrogant. He had great difficulty in accepting that you need studio engineers.” Part of Brodbeck’s role was liaising between engineers and designers. Sometimes this worked well from the outset, as for example with the whale tail. The German highway authorities objected to the ducktail on grounds of pedestrian safety. So, it was redesigned, largely by Wolfgang Möbius, with polyurethane edges to soften it; not only did this resolve the problem, but it expanded the spoiler sufficiently for it to incorporate the intercooler of the 3.3 version of the 930 Turbo in 1977.
“In 1979,” continued Brodbeck, “I was summoned to Zuffenhausen along with Ulrich Bez and another colleague. We had been shortlisted to serve as personal assistant to Ernst Fuhrmann. Bez joined Porsche a little while after me, but he really considered he was the man for the assistant job and was quite put out when I got it. (Bez would leave subsequently for BMW) He’s done alright since then as boss of Aston Martin. We still joke about it when we meet.”
Fuhrmann was, in Tilman’s words, a true car nut, launching the 911 Turbo and expanding Porsche’s range with the transaxle cars. But by 1979, he was an isolated figure. His policy of phasing out the 911 in favour of the 928 (instead of making it a parallel model) was deeply unpopular. Matters came to a head the following year and Fuhrmann was eased out to become chancellor of Vienna University and Tilman found himself working for a new chief, Berlin born American Peter Schutz.
“Schutz was the right man at the right time,” asserted Brodbeck. “It was the first time that Porsche had had a real marketing man in charge. Under Fuhrmann, the Porsche family had been content with annual profits of DM 25million (roughly $10m in 1979.) Schutz had the outsider’s vision and ambition, seeing much more potential for the Swabian company. He recognised that the 911 was the cash cow and restarted the development process that his predecessor had stopped.
“Schutz made us understand customers: ‘never forget who is paying your salary’ he used to tell us.”
Brodbeck remained in touch with his old boss who, he said occasionally liked to sound as if he was still in charge at Zuffenhausen. And he defended Schutz against charges that the CEO was sometimes too ambitious, with for instance the aviation project, often viewed as an extravagance. Peter Schutz imagined an America where Porsche owners could drive their 911s to the airfield and take off in their Porsche powered private planes. Given that the existing Lycoming four-cylinder motor used by almost all small aircraft makers was a 1930s anachronism, the idea of the modern, fuel injected 3.2 flat-six replacing the antique Lycoming did not seem unreasonable.
“It wasn’t the price which killed it,” protests Tilman. “It failed because of Ralph Nader and all the product liability worry he’d stirred up. Porsche could offer the flat-six at a cost only a little above the competition. The problem was the insurance premium which pushed the final price out of contention. Piper and Cessna showed interest then turned away when this became clear. It was a pity. I saw a Porsche-powered Mooney aircraft take off from the skidpad at Weissach and fly over it: you should have heard it – it really was incredibly quiet, like an electric motor.”
Brodbeck, though, was critical of Schutz in the CEO’s last couple of years. “The dollar was equal to DM 1.80 in 1981 and by 1985 had risen to four Deutschmarks. Schutz really made hay during those years and he didn’t waste the money. He invested it in the production facilities and Weissach and the 959 which generated undreamed of publicity for Porsche. But when the dollar collapsed in 1985/86 and US sales with it, he didn’t have a plan.”
When Schutz left at the end of 1986, Brodbeck had already been working for some years as the link between the factory and the PCNA. For the sake of continuity, he was asked by the new CEO, finance director Heinz Branitzki and widely seen as an interim appointment, to become his assistant. At this time, Tilman was driving a 928 4S. “It was a great car, especially with the standard shift ’box. We took it on holiday to Norway one year. OK, you can’t drive fast there, but we got well over 30mpg! I really liked the look of the later 928 and I went to Rolf Sprenger (boss of the Exclusive department) and between us we secretly mocked up a 928 with wider rear wheels and arches with body coloured spoilers at the rear. We presented it to Branitzki who accepted it and prevailed upon Harm Lagaaij to design it. That’s how the 928 GTS was born!” It’s a classic Tilman Brodbeck story and it also undermines the perceived view that Branitzki was a mere bean counter who lacked imagination.
In his last significant appointment, Ferry Porsche chose the former Nixdorf computer salesman, Arno Bohn as Porsche’s new CEO. Again, for continuity, Tilman Brodbeck followed suit. This was at a time when Porsche was facing considerable uncertainty with a range that was beginning to look out of date in a depressed market. Technical director Ulrich Bez, freshly returned from BMW, was pressing hard to have his ‘Learjet for the road,’ the four-door 989 project, approved. Bohn was being pulled in one direction by the ambitious Bez and in the other by an understandably cautious Vorstand.
“Bohn was a totally honest guy,” recalls Tilman. “He couldn’t believe the salary Porsche was offering him. He wasn’t a car man and he asked me about the 989. I said I thought Uli Bez was a fantasist with this Learjet idea. I explained to Bohn how Bez had been behind the BMW Z1, a nice idea, but with those up and down doors, impossibly expensive to build (BMW made a mere 8000 units). The 989 project was going the same way. Initially it was supposed to retail at DM 70,000 but this number kept going up and up.” The DM 100,000 (around $50,000) threshold was passed. Testing of pre-prototypes went well, but then Bez, the 989’s advocate, left the company leaving Bohn in charge of a project he had inherited and which he had limited feel for. When the retail price was clearly going to exceed DM 150,000, the price of a 928 which was selling below 1000 units a year, an alarmed Vorstand finally said ‘enough.’ It was the end of Bohn’s Porsche career. Tilman Brodbeck remains critical: “The 989 project wasted over DM 150 million at a very difficult time. The 959 may have cost money, but at least the car was built and it generated massive publicity.” The 989 remained a secret, details of which emerged only a decade later.
In 1993, Brodbeck found himself working as assistant to a colleague he had first known as a young production engineer almost 10 years before in 1983. “Wendelin Wiedeking was a genius, there was no question about that. He wasn’t the slightest bit emotional about cars. His object in life, maybe a reflection of being the eldest child in his family at 15 when his father died, was to make money. The trouble is it became an obsession and it clouded his last years at Porsche.”
Ambitious and energetic, like his patron Ferdinand Piëch before him, Wiedeking quickly established a reputation at Zuffenhausen, famously falling out with Helmuth Bott over the complete lack of commonality of parts between the 911 and transaxle cars and the size of the spares inventory and resigning apparently in disgust. Tilman claims that Wiedeking left because Branitzki would not promote him. However, with Piëch’s manoeuvring behind the scenes, Wiedeking returned to Porsche three years later.
“First, he was only the spokesman for the board,” says Brodbeck, “but within a year they made him president.”
Bez’s successor, technical director Horst Marchart and a thirty-year Porsche engineer, is the man usually associated with the idea of the shared 986-996 platform, but it was Wiedeking, says Tilman, who really encouraged them to go ahead with such a radical plan to the point where a normally conservative company could conceive one platform for two sports cars, an idea completely without precedent. Wiedeking’s message was irresistible: people don’t need Porsches, but if we can make money and invest in new Porsches, they will buy them.
“He entirely changed production: this was the period of ‘just in time’ inventory management and he brought in the Japanese to show us how to do it. It wasn’t just at top management level either. There were Japs here for months, some even for years, working with our guys late into the evenings. We had never seen anything like it.”
The eternal fly on the wall at Porsche, Brodbeck now saw Wiedeking at his lowest point. “Although he wasn’t a car nut, Wiedeking was a friendly guy. He knew a lot of the shop floor people by name and he never hesitated to greet people on his frequent walks through the factory. But one of his first jobs was to have to declare 1000 redundancies. He came back to his office after addressing the workforce and he was barely able to speak. He was extremely upset. I’d never seen him like that. Finally, when he could speak, he said ‘that’s the last time I throw out good people.’ And he was as good as his word: we made a contract with Valmet in Finland (to build the 986) which meant we could keep Zuffenhausen running all the time and turn the supply from Finland up and down as we needed. Valmet was a good choice, too, with none of the quality problems we used to get with 356s and early 911s built at Karmann.
“Wiedeking was also a tireless worker. I can’t imagine anyone else who could have persuaded the banks to support Porsche and give the loans they did at the time.”
Tilman Brodbeck’s last job at Zuffenhausen was running Exclusive, Porsche’s highly sophisticated and immensely profitable customisation arm, a department which developed almost by accident: when Porsche launched the 930 Turbo, well-heeled clients frequently expected a degree of individualisation of their new über Porsche. In recent years, one of Exclusive’s most striking offerings has been the Carrera Classic which reprises the Bürzel, an original Brodbeck inspiration but Tilman denies having any influence here, attributing the Carrera Classic to his successor at Exclusive, Karl Heinz Volz. Nevertheless, it was a good a way as any to round off a working life at the maker of the definitive sports car.
Today, Tilman still lives in his hilltop home at Leonberg. “It’s such a good spot here,” he explains as we stand admiring the views from his terrace. “Zuffenhausen is over there,” he says pointing east towards Stuttgart, “and Weissach is in the other direction, and it’s so convenient for the airport here too. Lots of retired Porsche guys live about the place: Heinz Branitzki is over there,” he indicates the hillside opposite, “Steve Murkett is on the other side of the hill and Helmut Flegl lives 200 yards down the street here.” His observations are a reminder that for so long Porsche was just a small local company where everybody knew everybody yet amazingly it competed on a world stage from its earliest years.
Today he owns a 997 Turbo and Mrs Brodbeck runs a 997 cabrio. Almost apologetically he adds, “It’s daft, we should have a Kombi (station wagon) to do the shopping, but we enjoy the cabrio so much. The 997 turbo is a stunning car, but what I can tell you is that the 991 Turbo is going to be even better, quite incredible.” And in a reflective mood, he continues: “When you think I could so easily have missed all this. You know, I got offered another position. I was young, about 28, and a supplier flew to Germany just to offer me the job. It was much more money too. I was sorely tempted and didn’t know what to do. I went to see Helmuth Bott, my boss, who said he couldn’t promise me anything, but as soon as something came up, he would put a word in for me. He was such an inspiring boss and always set such a good example, that I stayed…”
He has no need to go on. He might have made more money elsewhere, but no price could be placed on the variety and unrelenting excitement of the three decades he would have missed. And Tilman Brodbeck knows too that careers like the one he enjoyed simply do not exist in the twenty-first century.
Written by: Kieron Fennelly
Images by: Porsche Archives, Tilman Brodbeck and Kieron Fennelly