Dial 911 For Cute

There are a great many conflicting facts and inconsistencies surrounding the deity Porsche’s successor to the 356 has turned into over the course of a few decades. 


Above all else, there is the incontestable fact that its basic layout, the core of its engineering, is of the idiosyncratic kind. That in itself wouldn’t raise any eyebrows, but such eccentricity – despite oftentimes inviting critical acclaim, at least initially – usually excludes lasting success. That the 911 overcomes the usual reservations towards alien solutions may be due to two facts.

One, that it is a linear descendant of the Volkswagen Beetle, a car that, despite having since been proven to be antediluvian, is still very much present in the motorists’ consciousness. Two, that it has been constantly updated, employing the most conservative of treatments. These two factors, in conjunction with a great many less significant others, are among the main contributors to the 911’s sustained success.

They also highlight why the Porsche hasn’t gone the way of other automotive anomalies – its familiarity has turned its eccentricities into beloved quirks, rather than strange peculiarities to be viewed with unease. Maybe Citroen should have just called the CX the DS Avancé and offered a contrasting roof colour option.

With this in mind, it doesn’t come as a shock that the 911 also benefits from another inconsistency – or, it could be argued, outright oxymoronic characteristic. Unlike pretty much all its competitors, the 911 has maintained a visual aura that is, yes, rather cute. Butzi Porsche’s Ur-911 certainly wouldn’t have been described thus, but thanks to its reluctance to go with the times, the modern 911 has inherited the almost child-like facial expression of its forebears, which the competition had considered to be obsolete by the time pop-up headlamps had become de rigeur.

Without this evolutionary origin, the 911’s front would be considered merely outdated, if not outright silly – one only needs to imagine a Jaguar F-type with an E-type-aping frontal aspect that’s even more referential than the brand’s modern XK models, to see how inappropriate these kinds of shapes actually appear in a modern context. Unless one is already/still accustomed to them, that is.


So what we have in the 911 is, in some ways, a high performance counterpart of BMW’s New Mini – just with the added benefit of an uninterrupted bloodline (despite Prof. Fuhrmann’s best efforts). And like BMW’s retro smash hit, the 911 is considered “classless” in quarters paying close attention to such matters.

The quintessential respectable German business man, to name but one case, wouldn’t have too much trouble showing his face in either car. Behind the wheel of the Mini, he’d be congratulated for his cheek. At the Porsche’s helm, he’d be confronted with a few raised eyebrows, but not much more – and certainly not with the kind of indignation his peers would level at him if he dared driving around in showy foreign exotica!

And don’t for a minute believe this is a matter of costs – for back in the days when a 911 Turbo and Ferrari’s smallest offerings weren’t in totally different leagues, price-wise, the situation was the same. The squashed Beetle of Zuffenhausen always exuded an air of respectability the competition couldn’t – or wouldn’t – match.

This respectability obviously doesn’t rest on any one single factor. But there’s no denying that the Porsche’s sense of reliability is among its pillars. And nowhere is this reliability more clearly present in its aesthetics than the 911’s consistently friendly frontal aspect.

Modern LED strips might add some faint menace, but that does nothing to distract from the fact that the 911 remains a trustworthy, steadfast companion, while the competition indulges in trendy self-reinvention. A Ferrari 458 may be the far more challenging, exciting car in almost every regard, yet its aggressive snout not only flips the bird at the 911’s friendly wink, but also at its own ancestor, the 246 Dino, whom it refuses to pay unmistakeable tribute to.


In sharp contrast, the Porsche proudly exhibits its origins. And such reverence pays off, as proven by the thousands of devout believers in the 911, who happily reciprocate.


Particularly cute
Particularly cute

Author: Christopher Butt

car design critic // runs www.auto-didakt.com // contributes to The Road Rat magazine // writes a column for Octane France //

8 thoughts on “Dial 911 For Cute”

  1. Kris. Yes, you might be pushing the bow-tie-wearing-teddy-bear-bordered envelope of cuteness here, but it makes sense. I can never look at a 911 driver with the same disdain that I visited on the Gallardo Spider driver I saw in Central London today, pussyfooting his way through width restricters then flooring it unnecessarily. Sir, the strident noise did not stop me noticing that you haven’t learned your car’s bright yellow extremities yet. The 911 is indeed a social chameleon, but is it too grown up to be truly cute? Or is it cute, in a Clark Kent sort of way?

    Looking at the last image here, I realise that it is finally apparent that the 911 is morphing into another completely different design, only very, very slowly. Not yet, but there will come a point when, if you take someone who is design-literate, but completely unaware of all the generations of 911 that have gone between, then show them an ur-911 together with that year’s latest, they will not be able to make the connection. Only the people who have got old with the 911 will. I predict that will happen in ….2063.

  2. Sean, the demise of the 911’s cuteness is hardly set in stone, but the advancement of LED headlight technology means the lens as we know it is heading for a space in the museum. Porsche will of course cling onto the round shape for dear life, but the Neunelfer’s facial expression shall never be quite the same again.

    I was aware that I’m pushing the pink pelt envelope with this argument, but being the daredevil I am I felt like inviting some controversy. If only some dyed-in-the-wool 911 nut was to stumble across this very website…

    As much as I despise the 911’s image and semi-religious glorification, I remain ambivalent when it comes to the actual car, rather than what it stands for. There actually are endearing qualities to Zuffenhausen’s Finest – it’s just a pity that they’re presented with such unbearable self-righteousness.

  3. I can see why one could (at a stretch) view the 911 through appropriately fluff-rimmed spectacles. After all, there is something friendly about the shape; those soft curves, those doe-eyed headlamps. The problem as I see it, is all those words, all that bombast, all that tumescent hyperbole uttered by legions of motoring journalists for decades, telling us how brave, how manly, how downright HARD you need to be in order to really give the 911 a thorough spanking. I’m not really sure how cute that is? Having said that, I fully accept the point about the 911 being capable of slipping by almost unnoticed. Whether this is due to the shape’s ubiquity, its visual appeal or any residual cuteness is debatable. Certainly the 911 is a bit of a shape shifter, which makes it clever as hell. But cute? Only in the original sense of the word…

  4. I’m somewhat strangely pleased that my thesis isn’t instantly accepted, actually.

    But then again, my argument was yet another of the ambivalent/wishy-washy kind, in that I see a cute quality in the 911, rather than that I consider it an outright cute car. Porsche themselves seem to be in two minds about it, as their struggle to keep the round headlight shape there and present (no more experiments post-996!) while simultaneously “going with the times” and adding aggressive flair through LEDs proves. It’s not quite the dashing entrepreneur’s New Mini/Beetle.

    Yet the new Targa seems to serve as the ultimate shot in the arm to Neunelfer nostalgists all over the globe. Turning the simplest of topless devices into the most elaborate, complex and compromised of mechanisms must rank among the silliest outgrowths of nostalgic, marketing-led engineering excesses. But there’s one advantage: not least the 20 kg weight disadvantage over the full-on convertible means there won’t be any doubts regarding the buyers’ commitment to misty-eyed nostalgia. If there’s a cute modern 911, it’s got to be the 991 Targa.

  5. Kris. There is a reasonably rich spectrum of put-down adjectives for cars that old-school petrolheads don’t quite get. Obviously ‘cute’ would only be used as approbation by them for something that they’d buy the girlfriend and, were they caught driving it themselves, they’d point out that “it belongs to the missus – the quad turbo Cobra is having its MOT”. But isn’t the Targa more ‘hairdresser’ that ‘cute’ in their vocabulary? Incidentally, isn’t it time that the Hairdresser’s Federation objected to this crass generalisation. particularly as it is usually reserved for convertibles, which are the very vehicles that anyone who wanted to maintain their coiffure would signally avoid

  6. Dyed-in-the-wool 911 fanatics would probably point in the direction of the convertible (their arms clad in Martini Racing blouson, obviously) as the coiffeur’s voiture, despite, in this case at least, not being the least “sporty” choice. But such disdain isn’t reserved to open-top motoring, for not just the Boxster, but the Cayman as well are often ridiculed in this fashion, too. Almost as much as the 924/944/968 were back in the day.

    I honestly don’t believe the Targa reaches for the “hairdresser” tag. It’s not the lazy, less athletic choice – well, it is, but not exclusively. It also acts as a reminder of a glorious past, when Porsche wasn’t known as Cayenne in China and Steve McQueen was alive.
    There will be Targas available as expensive limited editions with Fuchs alloys and in primary colours. And they’ll be darn cute (… the missus says, I just bought it ‘cos I love the sound, the performance and the handling, and ‘cos I saw a photo of McQueen in an orange 911T Targa, which was mighty cool).

  7. Kris. Bearing in mind that hairy 50s sports cars were frequently dropheads, I’m not quite sure why a convertible is now viewed as the poseur’s choice. Though as you point out, even a Cayman is viewed as being a bit Softy Walter. I admit I’ve always had a soft spot for the Targa, though despite Mr McQueen. Also, when I consider the list of ‘hairdresser’s cars’ it occurs that I’m tipping my barber too much.

  8. All this talk about the dos and don’ts of 911 ownership/reverence remind me of one of my few encounters with a proper Neunelferfahrer. He was a middle aged gentleman, owner and driver of a pristine G-series model, sporting the original WTL (Werks-Turbo-Look).
    I commended his car’s steering wheel, which was of the classic Porsche twin single spoke variety – still one of the great steering wheel designs, in my book. The Neunelferfahrer obviously disagreed, suddenly clearing his throat and looking the other way, mumbling something about not liking that particular steering wheel, as it was shared with the 944 and 928. Apparently, he’d have preferred the clumsy three spoke alternative, simply and only because it wasn’t shared with the despicable transaxle relatives. I didn’t ask, but I guess he wouldn’t have had many nice things to say about any of the mid-engined pretenders, either.

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