Theme: Porsche – Should We Talk, Should We Pray?

So goes the old saying anyway. In the year 2000 when we were supposed to be floating on hover-drones and wearing alufoil skinsuits, Porsche still had the engine in the back even if air cooling was out.

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And BMW offered the 1950s-inspired Z8 while Aston pursued girth and heft with the Aston Martin Vantage Volante, a V12 topless GT. Where did the future actually go to? It is hard to be sure of if the three convertibles are comparable even if period reviews seemed to think so.

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The one thing Porsche seems to manifest is the truth that the one thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. Such is the 911’s presence in the minds of consumers, automotive writers and automotive makers that every car seems to be put up against the closest corresponding Porsche.

Somewhere out there is certainly a review of the Perodua Nippa and Porsche 911 (the Perodua wins because it’s cheaper, easier to park and not hard to repair). So, when the BMW Z8 broke cover with its rather beautiful but retro style, (allegedly by Henrik Fisker), some considered BMW to be chucking a glove down at Porsche because they made a convertible sports car too.

They may very well have compared it to the Dodge Viper, with its raw power and, shall we say, courageous appearance. BMW wanted about £84,000 for their car. Porsche wanted about £65,000 for the flop-roof 911. Aston Martin were thinking in pounds, shillings and pence when devising the £99,995 price tag of the Vantage Volante. Obviously not all that money went to the stylist Ian Callum.

The 911 convertible, by Pinky Lai, has a 3.4 litre flat-six which produced 296 bhp  but did so with characteristic sports-car touches, the rasp, clang and growl of an engine with a little too little sound-proofing. The Aston had twice the number of cylinders (a V12) plus refinements to distinguish it from the 6-cylinder version of before.

The three cars offered quite different interior style too: Porsche offered the usual drab mix of forced shapes and nasty plastic, Aston covered everything in leather and made it by hand while only BMW offered an interior that was almost bespoke but made to the same standards of a 535i (and nicer to behold).

Just how many customers did Porsche lose to the Z8 and Aston Martin Vantage Volante that year? The answer is likely to be nearly none. The Z8 might have poached some people who would have bought a second-hand Ferrari. The Aston people would not have anything else. And only Porsche fans will endure the Porsche’s characterstics of an unpleasant interior and wayward handling (like Subaru, Porsche likes to makes its interiors off-putting to keep out those who don’t buy into its faith). If you want a nice interior and sensible handling, there’s always a Jaguar, you know.

17 years on and the Z8 is essentially forgotten, BMW’s very own attempt to out-Renault Renault in making talked-about cars nobody truly wanted at the time (now a cheap one is €250,000 by goodness). The Volante can be had for €43,000. The Porsche can be had for €23,000.

It’s all upside down really, because the prices now suggest that the best driver’s car should have really held onto its value more. BMW did something though that eludes Porsche and eludes Aston Martin and says a little about Porsche. Porsche haven’t really got a keen eye for style even if some consider their cars well designed (which they are, in a way). But BMW has a vast pool of designers to draw on and permitted themselves to play as they did with the Z8.

There’s never much that’s playful with a 911 unless you think back to 1976’s chess board cloth. Aston did quite a fine job with the interior of the Vantage (Rolls as a sports car); like the Porsche, the exterior is verging on the banal. Only the missing panel gaps on the sills tell you it’s not made like a Megane.

It’s only theoretical so nearly meaningless. I’d rather try the Aston for its V12 and walnut cabinet trim or the BMW for its uncanny mix of modern and ancient plus a V8 in a two-seater car. Porsche are a funny bunch, for better and for less good. Honed, yes, and also nearly always touching on the banal or dangerous at the same time. You need to wring their necks so as to learn to play the car’s game.

The BMW offered all the performance in a sweet milk-shake package (with some very cute design details) and Aston packaged together hand-craft and straight line power. Even stuck in traffic you’d feel good in the Aston. Even stuck in a burning Z8 you’d feel good.

So, in that year Porsche lost no customers to the Z8 or Volante. The lesson here is that Porsche follows its own path and, for various reasons, nobody does well trying to match it. That also means that in this class, that year, there was real choice to be had.

[Slideshow credits: Porsche 911, Aston Martin, BMW z8 exterior.

Porsche 911, Aston Martin, BMW Z8 interior.]

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

18 thoughts on “Theme: Porsche – Should We Talk, Should We Pray?”

  1. “And only Porsche fans will endure the Porsche’s characterstics of (…) wayward handling ”

    Was that still true in 2000?

    1. Yes: the engine’s still in the back. No amount of engineering can remedy that. It isn’t as bad as it was but still there and ready to catch the unwary.

    2. Having driven a 996 Carrera 4 at some (but not excessive) speed, I can say that I never felt even remotely unsafe in that car.

    3. I think it’s been a while since a 911 was last considered vicious and unsafe in the wrong hands, GT-something-or-other variants excepted. Reputation is hard to shake off though.

  2. This is quite comfortably the ugliest 911 interior ever. And possibly the ugliest exterior too.

    But, to me, the Aston interior betrays the very worst of under-funded British design – ‘it’s got wood! and leather!’ – and the Z8 commits the cardinal sin of putting the dials somewhere other than in front of the driver. Oh dear me.

    1. I have a soft spot for the 996, simply because it dared to be different – that excludes its excretable interior, though, which was as ugly as it was flimsy.

      The Z8’s interior is a thing of beauty, and of high quality, too. I just wish they’d invested all that creative energy and effort into something properly modern.

    2. It’s okay that BMW had a go at a retro design. They had lots of money, nobody got hurt and it was only a kind of toy. As an image builder it did no harm. Today they are worth a lot too so they are a long-term booster of prestige.

  3. A bit off topic. Isn’t the Z8 heavily based on FIAT Barcheta? Same basic lines on a larger scale and budget? And of course the retrofuturistic styling was much better fitted for a cheap, fun roadster.

    1. Is a large, V8, RWD car related to small, I4, FWD Italian car? No. Aside from sharing the same vague proportions and silhouette they are no more related than me and a garden gnome with whom I share a silhouette.

      Also, first time I’ve seen the DB7s styling referred to as banal. I thought it was widely considered a beautiful car. Perhaps the Callum/XJ41 formula has been done to death now, hence that view?

    2. David, Richard likes Opels, for heaven’s sake! Do I need to say more?

      Christos, ‘heavily based’ is a bit of an overstatement, isn’t it? They shared rough basic parameters, what with both being two seat convertibles and featuring remotely similar headlights, but I can’t really imagine Wolfgang Reitzle, Chris Bangle and Bernd Pischetsrieder going downtown for some nice Ballabeni ice cream in Munich in 1996, only to spot a Barchetta there, with Chris pointing out what a fine job his old mucker Andreas Zapatinas had done with that one, prompting Wolfgang to think aloud that something like this would suit BMW just fine, ‘only with a lot more horsepower, an endless bonnet and lots and lots of concrete Jag E-type references, at four times the price’, before Bernd sealed the deal by handing out Cohibas to Chris and Wolfgang, after they were done with their scoops of dark chocolate (Wolfgang) and yoghurt/liquorice (Chris).

  4. If only the water cooled boxer engine had been any good. I’ve never understood the idea behind the design of the camshaft drive, one side in front of the engine, one in the back, with a poorly designed shaft in between.
    It is completely unacceptable that, of all makes, Porsche, failed to make a reliable boxer six. Of course, the single other contemporary engine of similar design, Subaru’s 3 liter six never had such a problem

  5. Nice post, Richard. I know the core of it is about the 911, since DTW is going Porsche in June, but may I suggest a comparison between the DB7 and the DB9? as they are the “more affordable” Astons one can buy (and the ones on my bucket list), I’m curious about how they compare.

  6. I don’t think it helps that the 996 is probably the ugliest and flakiest 911. The DB7 is also a bit flaky of course, but it’s a terrific looking car and can, at a pinch, pass for a more modern Aston. The Z8 is a bit of an outlier. I remember it being somewhat maligned at launch, generally adjudged too expensive and aloof to wear the roundel. Modern BMWs however are mostly all too expensive and aloof, which has the effect of throwing the inherent drivability of the Z8 into sharper relief. That and chronic under supply explains the now firm to ridiculous pricing.

    1. The Z8 fell victim to knee-jerk critiques about the style as if a) it was the last car ever b) it was the last word on styling c) it was a mainstream product. It’s supposed to be an indulgence to fit in with a luxury lifestyle along with workaday 5 and 7 series cars, a big garage and holidays on the Riviera.

    2. The DB7, particularly the early I6 cars, are hugely disappointing to drive. Once you get over the novelty of the big V12 and a manual gearbox you realise that it feels every bit as cramped and dated as an XJS, but far more haphazardly built than a late XJS.

      As Richard quite rightly pointed out above the detailing was very poor, which dates what otherwise is still a very beautiful shape.

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