Dial 911 For Cute

The cute-car hotline is now open. 

2012-Porsche-911-Carrera-S-front1
Image: Autoevolution

Editor’s note: This article, originally part of DTW’s Cute Theme, was first published in April 2014.

There are a great many conflicting facts and inconsistencies that surround both Porsche’s successor to the 356, and what it has turned into over the course of several decades. Above all, there is the incontestable fact that its basic layout, the core of its engineering, is now of the most idiosyncratic kind. That in itself would not raise many eyebrows, but such eccentricity – despite oftentimes inviting critical acclaim, at least initially – usually excludes lasting success. That the Porsche 911 overcomes the usual reservations towards alien solutions may be due to two facts.

First, 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 motorists’ consciousness. Second, 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 has not 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 Citroën should have just called the CX the DS Avancé and offered a contrasting roof colour option.

With this in mind, it comes as little shock that the 911 also benefits from another inconsistency – or, it could be argued, an 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 in 1963, 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.

Seven generations of cute. Image: Porsche.com

Without this evolutionary origin, the 911’s front end would be considered merely outdated, if not downright silly – one only needs to imagine a Jaguar F-Type with an E-Type-aping frontal aspect even more referential (or should that be reverential?) than the brand’s latter day XK models, to see how inappropriate these kinds of shapes can appear in a modern context. Unless of course one is already/ still accustomed to them.

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 Nunelfer is considered classless in quarters that pay close attention to such matters.

The quintessential respectable German businessman, to name but one case, would not have too much trouble showing his face in either car. Behind the wheel of the Mini, he would be congratulated for his cheek. At the Porsche’s helm, he might 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 to parade around in some showy foreign piece of exotica.

And don’t for a minute believe this is a matter of cost – for back in the days when a 911 Turbo and Ferrari’s least immodest offerings were not in totally different leagues, pricewise, 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 does not rest on any single factor. But there is no denying that the Porsche’s sense of reliability is among its pillars. And nowhere is this reliability more clearly evident in its aesthetics than the 911’s consistently friendly frontal aspect.

Cute from every angle. Image: Topspeed

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 respect, 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 illustrated by the thousands of devout 911 believers, who happily reciprocate.

Author: Christopher Butt

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

17 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.

  9. Good morning, Kris. To me the 911 definitely has a face and the round(ish) shape make it softer than all of the more exotic alternatives, at least in my view. Does that make it cute? Non-aggressive might be a better word.

    I never really cared for the Targa or cabriolet. For me the line that runs from the top of the windscreen to the top of the rear lights needs to be an uninterrupted piece of metal, everything else makes the shape less pure. And I want it sans sunroof too. The Boxster would be my choice for an open top Porsche.

    1. Agreed, Freerk. Non-aggressive sounds more to the point (no pun intended) than “cute”. As Daniel points out, “flaccid” also works for the 1998 996 iteration, but generally, the design quality of the 911 is quite high, if very conservative.

      I also agree about the cabriolet: that has never worked for me. I do like the Targa though, and always have. I couldn’t really say why, though: maybe it’s the stubbiness created by the upright aspect of the roll hoop, or it could just be the imperfection of the design, something that I’m always drawn to.

      All the more strange, because I otherwise fully agree about the importance of the roof line (and the corresponding DLO) to the design of the car, as important as the frontal aspect, I think.

      Maybe that’s why I like the Targa a little grubby and the coupé rather immaculate.

  10. I know few cars has such a passionate following. Also, few sports cars in that price field that are used as an every day driver to such an extent than the 911.

    My step father worked as a psychiatrist and head of the department at the local hospital, and the woman in charge of all the cleaners, should we call her the cleaning lady? was a die hard passionate Porsche fan. And she probably mortaged herself to the hilt to afford one. At first she had a used 356 in red, later upgraded to a new late seventies 911 SC in Tobacco Brown. And she drove it to work every day putting it in the work car park outside the psychiatry wing. And everybody used to joke about that and the fact my step father was a non conformist driving a fifteen year old Volvo beater at the time that was usually parked next to her. But I have seldom seen someone that was so passionate about the brand as she was, it was quite an obsession.

  11. Good morning Christopher. The evolution of the 911 is fascinating to observe. Each iteration is modestly updated over its predecessor while retaining everything that makes the 911 distinctive and unmistakable for anything else. Thankfully, the 911 has never been subjected to the vagaries of automotive fashion. It has evolved hugely over its lifetime but still retains its core identity. I cannot think of another car like it in that regard.

    The only generation that is below par for me is the 1998 996-generation model, with the so-called ‘fried egg’ headlamps:

    Although it was the front end that was most often criticised, the rear end with its outsized tail lights is also a bit clumsy:

    Overall, the 996 looks rather flaccid and overweight to my eyes (and it had a really cheap and nasty dashboard shared with the first-generation Boxster). Even so, prices for second-hand 996s are supposedly on the rise as it’s by far the cheapest route into 911 ownership.

    1. An air cooled 911 (up to and including 964) was relatively tall and slim to make it useable on narrow back roads. They also had a very upright windscreen and upright flat side windows. Beginning with the 993 the car is ever wider and from the 996 it is much lower with the windscreen leaning back much more. The compactness of the old cars is lost. A couple of weeks ago I saw a pre-harmonica-bumper air coled 911 next to a current generation car. The difference is shocking and the modern example is simply fat in comparison.
      I dont’t get the idea of an 911 being cute. Maybe I passengered too often in an air cooled 2.4 S driven by someone who knew what he did when he catapulted the car along back roads. Maybe it’s because over here 911s always had lots of what Germans call ‘Überholprestige’ (overtaking prestige) – that’s what makes slower drivers get out of the fast lane when a 911 is approaching from behind fast.

  12. It’s an interesting set of observations and hypothesis – 911 being cute. Given what Disney did to it to create Sally in Cars, one can start to see it.

    More interesting for me is that it has made me think about other icons which have evolved over time, most specifically the Golf. The rectangular fascia with round lamps is long gone, and yet up until the Golf VII, it was still clearly a Golf (I can barely bring myself to look at the Mk VIII).

  13. Is it a question of the 911 looking cute or the trend for cars to look increasingly angry? Six months ago or so I was asked by a six year old why new cars look angry and all the same when old cars didn’t.

    The 911 always left me cold but that was because there were so comical looking in the 80s with their big spoilers, like a child’s idea of how you make a car look sporty. The later ones haven’t donw much for me either.

    About ten years ago I saw a really early model and it was just beautiful. It wasn’t flabby looking like a new one or OTT like an 80s one but looked lithe and poised, a beautiful design.

  14. I don’t think the 911 is endearing in the sense that cute is what comes to mind; approachable and discreet seems much more apt. A consistent level of restraint has played directly into those two descriptors over time, but it is also true when viewed amongst contemporaries in that a Porsche is almost never going to be the “loud” one. That design language of don’t over promise and under-deliver underlies the whole air of respectability a 911 carries around with it.

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