Author, journalist and doctor in philosophy, Ulf Poschardt, has written a book about the Porsche 911, the legendary sports car that turns 50 this year. 911 (Klett-Cotta, 2013) does not just give a historical account of the launch of the first model in 1963, and the advance in technical sophistication of the subsequent models, but rather depicts how it feels to be a 911 driver. Poschardt, the former chief editor of German Vanity Fair and current deputy chief editor of the German newspapers Welt and Welt am Sonntag, describes this as a feeling of ‘freedom and the courage to give it your all’. As the blurb to the book explains, Poschardt ‘lays his Porsche driver on the analyst’s couch and establishes that a bit of narcissism is okay.’ Indeed, 911 features the advice of Berlin psychoanalyst Rainer Kaus at regular intervals, who is allowed to say things like ‘you shouldn’t be concerned by the fact that you’re in love with a car. Especially not if it’s a car with feminine curves, a pert bottom, and a cleavage that would turn even the biggest car hater.’ Dr. Kaus appears to be the perfect therapist for the Porsche driver, as he has what Poschardt describes as a ‘low’ couch. If 911 were a sitcom: cue the canned laughter.
It’s a shame that these insights into the author’s own sexual fantasies and desires repeatedly smother background information about an exciting chapter of German automobile history. One that, at times, is very much worth the read. The passages that highlight how closely the genesis of Volkswagen and Porsche was interwoven, for example, are fascinating. The iconic Volkswagen Beetle was constructed at the end of the 1930s by Ferdinand Porsche. Its predecessor was the ‘KdF’ car; a key project of the National Socialist organisation Kraft durch Freude. The original Porsche was ‘actually a remix of Volkswagen parts’, Poschardt explains. You only have to look at the Beetle and Porsche 911 to see their similarities: the anthropomorphic, face-like front shared by both, say.
Poschardt has already written one book about cars, Über Sportwagen (On Sports Cars), published by Merve in 2002. There the author offered an eclectic potpourri of Postmodern car philosophy treats, but in 911 he revels in technical detail. Yet are dry facts about six-cylinder Boxer engines, top-secret camshaft know-how and issues of intricate rear spoilers really enough to support the author’s pro-Porsche argument? Clichés of the sports car driver as obscene, pretentious and intellectually subservient are surely far too engrained in the cultural semantics concerning such status symbols – compare with the owners of a Rolex for example.
Yet Poschardt reminds us that Porsche drivers weren’t always seen as over-compensators with inferiority complexes. There was a time when the Porsche was seen as the car of choice for nonconformists, pop existentialists and eccentrics. James Dean was killed in 1955 driving his silver Porsche 550 Spyder, encouraging the myth of the outsider rebel with a death wish. The high-risk glamour of a hedonistic life that never puts its foot on the brake reverberated with the car brand itself, as Poschardt notes: ‘with this existentialist cowboy and stage-ripe rebel, Porsche claimed anarchistic hedonists and show-offs as part of its brand identity.’ The brand ‘appealed to both the established and the unsettled’, says Porschardt. Furthermore, the Porsche design itself subscribed to an elegant functionality and a minimalist aesthetic concerned not with show, but with finer nuances. Porsche’s design in the 1960s in no way complied with the garish pomp, displays of power, and orgies of ornamental baroque that were in fashion at the time. It rebelled against an era of gull-wing doors, as was the case with the Mercedes 300SL, and the enormous tail fins found on American cruisers. Instead, Porsche was governed by a less-is-more aesthetic that saw ornamentation as a crime, opting instead for compact, light cars with spartan interiors and organically curved rooflines. The first Porsche models were expressions of a refined sensibility applied to car design. Rebellious in kind, 911 drivers abhorred eccentricity and held understatement in high esteem. As Poschardt summarizes, ‘nobody trying to make a social statement would have been happy driving a 911.’
Today, this characterization no longer entirely stands – perhaps because the 911 has grown fatter and more bulbous over the years, along with its drivers. Overloaded with rear and front spoilers as factory standard, it has become a car for retired advertising agency types, usually accompanied by a girl half their age in the passenger seat. All the more reason to think, then, that driving a 911 – despite all of this – may be a genuine sign of the driver’s healthy self-esteem and ‘true’ love. After all, as Romantic ideals have it, love doesn’t give a damn about what the world thinks, but instead grows with the very obstacles thrown into its path. There’s something irrational to loving sports cars, and the car’s speed is often little more than a statistic – subject as it is to traffic jams and road congestion. The myth of conquering speed and distance has long become fodder for nostalgia. Which is why Poschardt’s public support of a citizens’ initiative in Nikolassee, the fancy Berlin neighborhood he calls home – campaigning against noise from the Berlin Avus motorway, and to introduce a 60 km/h speed limit – is not really the gross contradiction it may appear to be.
Translated by Camilla Leathem