Alois Ruf Talks To Us About RUF’s Origins, Its Evolution, And Its Famed ‘Yellowbird’
Historical photographs provided by RUF
If you know Porsche, you know RUF. And if that’s not the case, then you have our pity. Anyone somehow still missing out on the madness that is a RUF automobile—whether being privileged enough to drive own, or even just admiring the photos—has a lot to catch up on. These aren’t Porsches with a few bolt-ons, no way: RUF is a bonafide manufacturer that has been producing physics-defying projectiles in the shape of 911s (and if you’re familiar with the CTR 3, some not-so-911-shaped cars as well) for decades.
Following the debut of their latest and arguably most ludicrously cool car yet, the carbon fiber, 700-horsepower CTR, we had the chance to speak with Alois Ruf himself about the company, the cars, and how it all happened. Plus, of course, the story behind Faszination on the Nürburgring.
Ted Gushue: So Alois, what was the first car that you ever drove?
Alois Ruf: That I ever drove? Oh, that’s a good question. Because my father allowed me to move the first cars in and out of the garage, I suppose it was at about nine years of age that I first drove. Those were Volkswagens, Mercedes—the typical one at that time was the 180 Mercedes. The Ponton.
TG: When did your family start working with Porsches and transition out of everything else like those Pontons?
AR: 1963 was the beginning of that, but the company has been around since 1939. I’m the second generation. In 1939 my father had just founded the company. And just three months later he was drafted into the war, as a soldier. So, the real activities began happening after the war ended. And that was a time of improvising things because those were very difficult times. But, my father being an excellent, brilliant technician, was capable of mixing things together from all the leftovers, and he’d made something work again. And in the ‘50s, there was a demand from people wishing to relive better times, traveling on the weekends in tour buses; people typically didn’t have their own cars at that time. So, he sensed this demand for travel and he built his own tour bus, based on a Mercedes chassis. For over ten years he took people on weekend tours with his bus.
To me, as a child, it was most impressive. I was five years old when he put two large steel beams next to each and said “My son, in one year this will be a bus.” And it happened. One year later it was a bus! So, those are things that impressed me. This is how I grew up. And, therefore, I was never scared of doing something that everybody else tells me I’m crazy to attempt: “This will not work.” The more they say that, the better I feel.
TG: Busses are a long ways from the cars that people now associate with the RUF name.
AR: Actually, it started when my dad was driving his bus: he was overtaken by a Porsche 356 Karmann hardtop. At that time, a very rare model, the notchback … the driver of that car lost control during his passing attempt and the car ended up in the ditch. Rolled twice. My dad stops, looks after the driver—he was okay—and brought him to the hospital to make sure he would be all right. And then he said, “Don’t worry about the car, we’ll pick it up, we have a garage at home. We will look after your car. And we’ll talk when you are calmed down again.”A couple of days later, my dad buys the car over the telephone as a salvaged vehicle. We fixed it. That car became our first Porsche.
TG: That’s quite the origin story. Is that 356 still in your family?
AR: Not the same car, no. Unfortunately. I have the same model now, but not that specific car. When we had this car, something very unusual happened. We were driving it on a Sunday afternoon through Munich, when a young man showed up and knocked on the window at a red light, asking us to talk to him.
So, we got out of the car and talked. He said, “I want to buy your car”. It was a Sunday afternoon and the man had the money, in cash, in a candy box. He gave us the money, but we didn’t have the papers for the car because we were not prepared to sell it to a stranger at a traffic light! Anyway, he bought the car on the spot, drove it away, and he gave us his Porsche 356 to get us back home. The next day though, we exchanged papers, he picked up his other Porsche from us, and my dad said, “I have never sold a car like that before, this is crazy.”
He explained to me that, “The people of that world, they must be a completely different species, because every kind of car I’ve been selling up to now, I have to trade in something, negotiate, usually bring the price down or whatever. It’s always difficult. It’s a process that takes days to sell a car. Here a guy pops up, has the money, in cash, buys it, pays a good price, and goes on his way.”
So, it was a very good moment for the future of our company. And then, being in the automobile business, and having this type of experience, as a teenager I now had the best argument to talk my father into the next project like the 356. And so we continued. Then we made a name, became regarded as Porsche specialists, as a place that can do a quality job on the maintenance and repairs of these cars. This is how we built up our name. From the local people at that time. This was in the 1960s now.
The ‘70s, that was a different story. I basically stumbled into something, because Porsche tried to kill the 911. I don’t know if you remember that?
TG: They called it the 928.
AR: I don’t want to give any more detail, but the people were furious. The 911 lovers that is. They came up with questions like, “Oh Mr. Ruf, can you build me a car in five years if I buy a body and bring it in right now?” And, “You buy all the parts, restore it. Then you can build me a car, and in ten years, another one.” After having requests like that, I knew the 911 was not going to die.
TG: Yeah, it seems crazy now to think it could have disappeared, and I guess it was the same back then too: the 911 was already cemented as an icon.
AR: Of course. And I said, “I will stick with this car.” There will always be enough people to support the 911.
TG: When did you start adding to the performance of these cars?
AR: See, the 911 was downgraded around that time. They said, oh we can only have 180 horsepower, the engine can no longer handle more, and the air cooling setup is outdated. And there were so many marketing arguments around it. And we just went the opposite way. We said, okay 180 horsepower can become 230. And we also made a turbo version, so we were really pushing the 911 forward at that time. We were just going the other direction.
But then we stumbled into the niche we’re in now, as a manufacturer: we had to become an official car manufacturer because we had to have a car that had our own chassis number on it. Also, for legal issues with Porsche, that said we needed to take on the product liability to separate RUF from Porsche. That was the story behind it.
TG: Did you study engineering at school?
AR: I studied to be an automotive technician, which is one level under an engineering degree. But for more practical applications. This is what I studied. And it was the right thing for me I know now, and for the rest, I studied in the university of life! At any rate, beginning to modify 911s in the 70’s gets us to our first major project, which was of course the Yellowbird.
TG: Yes, the original CTR—can you walk me through the development process of the first Yellowbird?
AR: The Yellowbird project was originally called “945.” That was what we called that car anyway. Why? It was based on a 911 chassis and made 450 horsepower with forced induction. And that car would have had a completely new shape, with a chopped roof and a different windscreen too, more like a Speedster-type windscreen. And a flat nose of our own design, because I never liked the flat nose cars that Porsche made some 911s into back then because it didn’t match the steep windscreen. From my perspective anyway. So, I had all of this fixed to happen and be built, and we almost had the prototype ready. Then we gave up on it because we were scared of the 959. Today, I would not be scared anymore!
TG: How did that transition into becoming the CTR?
AR: Well, because the 959 was announced around that time, we said okay, we would take the technology, engine, drivetrain, all that we were putting into the prototype with the speedster style windscreen and put it in our regular-bodied car. This is the outcome, what you see out there.
TG: That famous film of Stefan Roser at the ‘Ring, can you speak to how that came about?
AR: That now-famous film was not meant to be famous. Because what we did was make a “RUF image” movie Which was available on a big cassette, on VHS. And we said “We have to make some footage on the Nürburgring.” So, we were at the Nürburgring, we already hired the helicopter, we already burnt tires. But then we said, “We might as well make one for some real nuts who want to see a whole lap of the Nürburgring. Let’s make one lap of the Nürburgring by helicopter.” So, we did one for the insiders, we thought. That was, because we thought it was too boring for the average person. We thought people would not watch a whole lap of the Nürburgring. And, at that time, the Nürburgring was not very well known, not like today anyway. Especially for the Anglophone people. They confused it with Nuremberg.
TG: Too many people still call it the “Nuremberg Ring.”
AR: Yes, they are close in spelling and location. But anyway, I think that movie did a lot to make the Nurburgring so famous.
TG: It also did a lot to make RUF famous.
AR: Yes. And, so that movie actually became this big hit, and it was not really meant to be.
TG: So, to skip forward to the newest yellow monster you’ve produced. Do you think that you’ll do a similar film for the new CTR, the one you debuted at Geneva this year?
AR: Actually that would be a good idea, wouldn’t it? I think we should do something like that with the new car.
TG: What was the development process like on the new CTR? The full carbon monocoque in the shape of a classic 911 is quite groundbreaking for you, isn’t it?
AR: I have had the idea for this car and this technology for over 5 years. Within that 5 years it took one and a half years for the engineering. And now we are here, and it took us two and a half months to build the show car. I tell you, it was crazy. The paint was put on on the 23rd of February. It’s now the beginning of March. To get the car done in time and up to our standard, on the engineering side of things we had a team of twelve people, and for the manufacturing processes we had eight people. Sometimes you can only do great things when you’re not too big!
TG: Everyone is excited about the car, as they’ve always been excited about your cars. But, as we alluded to earlier, they’ve always been curious about your relationship with Porsche AG as well.
AR: [Porsche] was here recently. They looked at the car, they smiled. It’s a positive relationship.
TG: That’s very unique. Singer, for instance, has to be very careful in the way they even use the word, “Porsche.” We have to sign legal documents in order to be able to report on their cars.
AR: Well, we are not using the word Porsche either. We are our own entity! We are RUF.
TG: So, after this car, what do you do next? How do you look forward?
AR: I don’t know at the moment—I have not even driven the new car yet! We were just putting it together for the show. The driving part, all of this happens now.
TG: I’m sure that will be a memorable first drive.
AR: I am looking forward to it you might say!