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.
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.
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.