Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Greatness and the Profit Motive

 My internet meanderings this morning caused me to run across a vintage Car and Driver piece from the launch event for the Porsche 928, back when it was still intended as the 911 replacement and the Porsche of the future. 

It's a great article with classic writing from David E. Davis and L.J.K. Setright, among others, and includes this quote from Ernst Fuhrman, then-chairman of Porsche:

"It's not surprising that a car that is designed to be good at 230 kph would be good at 100. It would be very surprising if cars designed to be good at 100 kph could be good at 230. Our cars are not as they are because we are better engineers than General Motors. Our cars are as they are because Germany has no speed limits. If I was running General Motors or Ford, my cars would probably seem just as dumb as Estes's or Ford's. I run a small company with very few customers, and it is easy for me to look smart—only my risks are proportionately greater."
He warmed to his subject as we wrecked a perfect sea bass and ordered red wine for the cheese. "I design cars for a thousand people or so. I don't have to design cars for everybody. At Daimler­-Benz or General Motors, I would have to listen to this one or that one: 'The car is too small; it is too big; old people won't like it; it must have four doors.' I am in an enviable position. If I don't like it, it won't get built." 
"One man can design a car. A small group of men can design a car. But a large group of men will always design gray mice. I promise you that anyone who has owned a Turbo or a 928 for one year will never forget it. On the other hand, a man who has owned a gray mouse—no matter how good it is—will look back twenty years later and say to his wife, 'What was that car we had? It was a very good one, but I can't remember the name.' "

I was reminded of the flip side of that coin, a quote from Carroll Shelby regarding the Porsche 959, which I can't find online, but paraphrased was something like this: "The 959 is an amazing car, but Porsche is losing money on every one they sell. You think the engineering department at GM or Toyota couldn't design a car like that? They could, but they're in business to make money."