At 27, Ferdinand Alexander Porsche took on a project that could make or break the family business. His challenge was to replace the outmoded 356, the car that gave Porsche its toehold in the U.S. The 356 had been a hit, but Porsche needed a modernized sports car to wage war with the Corvettes and Jaguars of the day. Ferdinand, an engineer who once dropped out of industrial-design school, delivered a design that would come to define the brand: the Porsche 911. Introduced in 1963, the 911, with its signature sloping rear end, quickly assumed its place in the upper echelons of sports-car royalty – a role it hasn’t relinquished yet.
In the world of design, timelessness is impossibly rare. Yet, through Nehru jackets and split-level floor plans, baroque Lincolns and candy-colored iMacs, the 911 has always remained a 911, exuding contemporary cool despite its adherence to a shape crafted during the Kennedy administration. It’s the rare luxury good that not only endures, but also lives up to the hype.
“A coherently designed product requires no adornment – it should be enhanced by its form alone,” F.A., as he was known, once said. Forgetting for a moment a few aesthetic detours like the slantnose (hey, it was the eighties), the 911 has remained true to that credo for nearly 50 years now. The 911 began as a tightly wrapped sports car with a horizontally opposed six-cylinder, improbably mounted where most cars have their trunks. That definition still applies, a testament to the inherent rightness of the original design.
Over the past five decades, Porsche has methodically honed F.A.’s signature design into one of the best driver’s cars on the planet. Somehow, the 911 still feels direct and elemental, even though that classic shape shrouds high-tech performance weaponry. In a 911, the computers are there, but they stay out of the way. On a winding mountain road, the invisible hand of Porsche Stability Management might be the only thing keeping you between the guardrails, but the car will make you think the heroics are all you.
F.A. went on to design other products. But his greatest triumph will always be the clean teardrop shape that leveraged rear-engine function into a singular poetic form.
On April 5, at age 76, Ferdinand Alexander Porsche died. He’s survived by the best damn sports car ever built.