Denied: Porsche Boxster Concept

The Porsche Boxster we ultimately received in 1997 was quite unlike the Porsche Boxster we were promised in 1993. 

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(c) Auto-Didakt

Porsche has become so synonymous with success over the past two decades, it’s easy to forget that the erstwhile sports car maker form Stuttgart Zuffenhausen was on the brink of bankruptcy more than once.

On one such occasion, in the early 1990s – amid a significant recession, on top of internal issues (such as poor productivity and ageing products) – the powers that be at Dr. Ing. h.c. F. Porsche AG decided that the then-current range of products overstretched the company’s resources and therefore wouldn’t be replaced like-for-like.

The evergreen 911, incidentally the newest and best-selling model at the time, was to stay, but the 968 2+2 and 928 GT were to be axed. In their place, Porsche wanted to launch a product that would take advantage of the roadster craze that had been started by the Mazda Miata/MX-5 in 1989.

The first result of these considerations was unveiled at the 1993 Detroit Motor Show – then still one of the car world’s mainstay events – to rapturous applause.

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Even more than quarter of a century later, it is easy to see why. For the Boxster concept was not just very much of its time, what with its organic forms and some steampunk-inspired details that look endearingly quaint, but not necessarily attractive from today’s perspective. Predominantly though, it was an exceptionally well proportioned piece of design, with a muscular stance, whose surfacing featured perfectly judged volumes that lent the Boxster an athletic tautness rare among designs of the ‘soft’, 1990s kind, which tended to appear considerably more flaccid.

Responsible for this excellent exterior was American car designer, Grant Larson, whose German colleague, Stefan Stark, was in charge of the interior design, with both working under Porsche’s then-chief designer, Harm Lagaay.

The Boxster concept would be the first clear statement car created during Lagaay’s tenure, as the 993-generation Neunelfer, which was also credited to the Dutchman, still owed quite a bit to the stylistic legacy of his predecessor, Anatole Lapine.

photo (c) Interdev.com

The Boxster concept’s well-deserved acclaim inevitably resulted in considerable anticipation for the production model, which arrived three years later. And was considered a bit of a disappointment.

It most definitely wasn’t the loss of the peculiar horn details used for the concept car’s gear lever, steering wheel buttons and badge that grated. Nor the absence of body colour accents in the very plastic-heavy production car’s cabin. It was, above all else, the deflated volumes of the exterior’s surfaces, the somewhat less pert proportions and the resultant overall lack of poise, in contrast to the Boxster that had been promised three years prior. A combination of many, seemingly minor changes that resulted in great expectations not being met.

photo (c) honestjohn.co.uk

Some of these changes are quite easily explicable, as they are related to the dire straits Porsche found itself in during the Boxster’s development process. The cheap materials used in the cabin are the most obvious consequence. The need to share as many components as possible with the upcoming 996-generation Neunelfer, inevitably resulting in the less than clear cut distinctions between both models’ design, are almost as self-explanatory.

Yet why the production car appeared so significantly more limp than the concept remains far less obvious.

However, despite these reservations, the Boxster turned out to be a huge sales success that played a significant role in Porsche’s long-term survival. Maybe this could have been greater still, if the eventual production car had been more in keeping with the designer’s original intentions. Maybe the Boxster wouldn’t still be suffering from the stigma that it’s a car bought by people who ‘couldn’t afford an Elfer‘, if the first of its kind had not been so obviously styled as the 911’s smaller/poor relation.

Be that as it may – aside from any theoretical quandaries, the Boxster concept illustrates the power of seemingly minor details in car design. For better or worse.

The author of this piece runs his own motoring website, which you are welcome to visit at 

 www.auto-didakt.com

Author: Christopher Butt

car design enthusiast // the mind behind www.auto-didakt.com // contributor to The Road Rat magazine //

15 thoughts on “Denied: Porsche Boxster Concept”

  1. The Boxster *is* the car for people who can’t (or don’t want to) afford a 911.
    It is good enough to be bought but also deliberately made bad enough (whatever bad means) to keep customer lust after a 911. The last thing Porsche needs are customers buying Boxsters or Caymans instead of 911s because they finally found out that a Cayman is the better car.
    The production Boxster had to share its front half with the 996 which was a huge car compared with its 911 to 993 predecessors (last weekend I had an F-series 911 next to a current whatever it’s called now in front of me at a traffic light. It’s incredible how fat this car has become) and the Boxster became fat compared with the showpiece as a consequence.

  2. Interesting details in the interior. Are those booster fans in the HVAC vents ?

    On thing I can see is that the radiators and AC condenser would not fit in the prototype.

  3. everytime I see a Boxter I feel again the disappointment
    I felt when first seeing one and being dismayed by its fatness
    and proportions, regardless of its actual virtues.
    recent 911s are unattractive for the same reason.

  4. This is another of those production cars which suffer appallingly at the hands of their concept precursor. In isolation, it’s imperfect, but in relation to the concept, it’s a tragic let-down. The much recently discussed Honda e is another (I think the e is less imperfect than was the production Boxster), and one can add the Audi TT, the C6, along with many others, to that list.

    It makes one wonder why manufacturers do it? Maybe, one day, someone smart will do things the other way around.

    1. I just think the Boxster concept just had too many implausible details from the get-go.

      Where does the radiator and condenser go ? One could build a rear engine roadster the size of the concept – but likely not with a flat 6 water cooled engine and a front and rear trunk.

      The seats are too narrow for more than half of the target buyers – and that is just in Europe !

      There appears to be a structural piece that supports the base of the windscreen A pillar. That structural piece blocks entry and exit into the car. How many Boxsters would they sell if it was harder to get into than a Lotus Elise ?

      The tonneau cover disappeared, likely as a cost saving. Pop up roll bars likely for the same reason (
      although a fixed roll bar requirement for track days in America may have been a factor).

      The A pillars don’t look robust enough to support the car in a rollover.

      I think they could have built something the size of the prototype if they deleted either the front or rear trunk. The A pillars would likely have required non-conventional materials (or maybe pop-up roll bars in front of the front windscreen?). The price certainly would have been higher.

      A production Boxster that was faithful to the prototype would have certainly looked better, I’m not sure it would have sold better.

    2. I agree with Angel Martin on this one.

      I remember the disappointment at the time, but to me the fault was with the concept, not the production car. Given Porsche’s constraints, and the implausible-sounding plan of developing a successor to the iconic 911 and a new mid-engined sports car that shared so much body structure, the end result was something of a triumph.

      It was the 996 that was the real disappointment for me, although the 997 facelift (surely a candidate for best mid-life revision ever) rectified a lot of the problems.

    1. Ah, John, you’re missing me! We’re On holiday in Ireland, back home tomorrow.

      Regarding the Boxster, the Mk1 (986) certainly was a flaccid looking thing, with its “coming or going?” profile and those “fried egg” headlamps. The interior quality was also very poor. The Mk2 (987) was a big improvement, but still shared its front end and doors with the concurrent (997) 911. The Mk3 (981…don’t ask…) was the first Boxster to have unique bodywork, including scalloped doors to feed air to the engine vents. Finally, the Boxster/Cayman didn’t look like a cut down 911. As Angel said, the prototype Boxster was simply too small to share much with the 911. Ironically, the controversial flat-four engine in the latest (982) Boxster could probably be accommodated in a smaller car, but isn’t because the body is a direct carry-over from the 981.

  5. More interested in the Porsche Boxster’s 1980s mid-engined Flat-4 precursor aka Porsche 984 / Junior in spite of its styling needing more work, which was to be powered by a 118-148 hp 2-litre air-cooled Flat-4 and had an estimated top-speed of 137 mph.

    The Porsche 984 Flat-4 whether NA or turbocharged (including even a Ruf CTR Yellowbird analogue) would have been an ideal basis for a revived 964/993-based Porsche 912 (as well as even an entry-level Boxster model), especially in turbocharged form allowing the latter to capitalize both in markets where cars over 2-litres are penalized (e.g. TVR 2-litre V8S, Maserati Ghibli II, etc) as well as the popularity of 2-litre turbocharged cars like the Subaru Impreza WRX / Turbo, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo, etc.

    It would have also potentially prompted Alpine to produce their 2-litre turbo powered Alpine GTA prototype, also originally conceived for markets like Italy that utilized the engine from Renault 21 Turbo (and weighed about 60kg less than the PRV V6).

    1. The one off 884 has an ancient OHV ‘type 4’ air cooled four cylinder engine from the VW 411/412/VW Porsche 914 2.0 that was worked over by VW engine specialist Willibald for 2,4 litres and asthmatic 130 PS. No way this engine would have made a high power version possible.
      Porsche had no intentions to develop the proposed four valve four cylinder boxer for the 984 as they didn’t need another exotic engine in their range. Air cooling surely was not the way to go in the Eighties (it already wasn’t in the Sixties) and Porsche knew that.
      The last thing Porsche needed was a low margin four cylinder version of the expensive to make 993. What they needed were high margin versions of cheap to make 986/996s…

    2. Curious. So Porsche basically could not afford to develop the originally proposed 118-148 hp 2-litre 4-valve quad-cam air-cooled Flat-4 engine for the 984 (with turbocharging and scope for plane unit also being envisioned), opting instead for a warmed over 135 hp 2.4-litre development of the Type Four engine with help from Willibald for the 984 prototype that in retrospect would have been better off used in the Porsche 912 / Porsche 914?

      Would have to agree, there seems to be conflicting information on the Porsche 984 over the web as have also read of a water-cooled version of the Flat-4 considered at one point different from the SEAT inline-4 proposal prior to being cancelled. Is it known whether the SEAT version would to use the 1.5 or 1.7 engine*?

      That said, the proposed 2-litre engine (as opposed to the 2.4-litre Type Four-based unit used on the 984 prototype) is appealing in terms of concept (and potential applications) as someone who believes the Porsche 912 deserved better.

      *- Read the System Porsche Seat Inline-4 engines were based off Fiat-engines (leading to a question of whether there was room for the System Porsche engine to grow to 2-litres), along read that a rejected 900-1000cc(?) 3-cylinder version was considered at one point for possible use in the Ibiza I and Marbella before making use of the 100 Series engine.

    3. Nobody said that Porsche couldn’t afford the development of an air cooled four valve four cylinder. It just wasn‘t a viable business case and therefore it wasn’t done. Porsche already had enough experience with non profitable ‘cheap’ 911 derivatives like ~2,000 US-only 912Es and weren’t particularly eager to repeat the experience. Don’t know what the 912 deserved but it didn’t sell and most of the few that sold were quickly modified to 911 six cylinder engines, leaving only about 200 original four pot 912 sluggards with 86 hp.

      The 984 originated at a time when Porsche’s megalomaniac experiments with PFM 3200 flight engines had come to the inevitable sour (and very, very expensive) end and proposing an engine suitable for aircraft use maybe wasn’t the cleverest idea within Porsche universe.
      Nobody needed a two litre four cylinder Porsche at that time, anybody mentioning an aircraft engine was in immediate danger of getting fired and air cooled engines were an anachronism already twenty years before.

      The only thing I know about the Seat ‘System Porsche’ engine is that Porsche Weissach needed development contracts for one complete car and about twenty to forty minor contracts to fully utilize its capacity. Normally customers weren’t particularly eager to get associated with the help they got from Weissach because that would make them seem unable to do their development jobs on their own. Porsche faced a first when Seat insisted on showing the ‘Porsche’ script on the valve covers of the engine and Porsche tried to sue them to stop this. In the end the development contract came to a premature end.

    4. Fair enough. Jürgen Lewandowski’s 912 book mentions a few attempts at developing a flat-4 from the 911’s flat-6 before settling for the Type Four, which had it worked would have made it pretty straightforward compared to building an all-new flat-four or going for the Willibald-tuned Type Four solution.

      IMHO the Porsche 912 was a fine handling if very underappreciated sportscar in its own right and deserved both a better reputation as well as more power (e.g. 110+ hp) from its flat-four to carve out its own niche (instead of owners fitting 912s with Subaru flat-four engines), taking advantage of its low weight and improved weight distribution.

      The System Porsche engine seem to be based in some way on the Fiat 124 Series engines. Seem to recall Porsche working with Rolls-Roll / Bentley for some proposed update of the L-Series V8 engine.

    5. Developing a four cylinder engine based on the air cooled six wouldn’t have made sense. The old Porsche boxer is extremely expensive to build because it needs lots of very skilled labour time for its one hundred percent manual assembly. Engine specialists don’t charge 7,000 to 8,000 EUR without reason just for dismantling, cleaning and reassembling the engine. Cutting two cylinders off the engine wouldn’t have made it much cheaper but customers would have expected the car to be a lot less expensive. Investing in a new air cooled engine would have been plain stupid but a water cooled engine wasn’t a realistic proposal for the old 911 because there was no room for radiators.

      The 912 worked in the early years of the 911 because it was lighter and performance expectations weren’t as high as in later years. 90 PS from the old 356 SC engine were enough to propel 800 kgs of early 912 to speeds that were respectable at their time. At least it was a proper Porsche engine that was astonishingly sporty.
      Short wheelbase 912s also were a lot easier to drive than their lethally handling 911 siblings because there was a lot less weight hanging out in the back. The longer wheelbase changed this. The late 912E with its 914-derived Type 4 engine was too heavy and too slow and the engine was more suited to a VW van than a Porsche. The 912E really was a useless exercise.

      There is nearly no car manufacturer that didn’t use Porsche Weissach service one or more times over the years. It’s quite possible that they helped to update the old Rolls engine for current emission regulation levels. They reworked somebody else’s engines many times.

    6. From the accounts of those involved in the development of the 902/912 via Jürgen Lewandowski’s book, they were of the view it would be cost effective to develop a 4-cylinder version of the flat-6 engines on the basis it shared many parts with the larger engine and would have had the benefit of being a genuine Porsche development not rooted in the old Volkswagen designs.

      However it was the limitations of first the rejected 2.0-2.2 Type 745 flat-6 engine (that was envisaged to produce a 1.6-1.8-litre 4-cylinder plus fuel-injected version under Type 801/802) and later aspects of the production 901/911 flat-6 engine* which were ultimately responsible for Porsche ditching the idea and forcing it to carry over the 1.6 Type 616 engine as well as later use the 2.0 Volkswagen Type Four.

      *- Porsche were at least after a 1.6-litre flat-4 version of the 2.0-2.2 901/911 engine for the 902/912 however the biral cylinders limited displacements to 1334-1484cc with an output of up to 80 hp, not to mention the crankcase of the 2-litre 901/911 needing to be redesigned for the 2.2-litre version to prevent the crankshaft of a 901/911-based flat-4 coming into contact with intermediate shaft. Otherwise a 901/911 flat-6 with a different less troublesome development path have made the stillborn flat-4 a more viable proposition for the 912 and possibly later on even the 914 in place of the Type Four engine.

      Apparently Porsche’s earlier attempt at updating the Rolls / Bentley L-Series V8 with TOP heads via the 1970s experimental 5356cc L380 did not work out, as attempts to reduce emissions compromised fuel economy.

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