The Porsche 911 Was Not Designed Around Its Rear Engine
It’s an icon of a design if ever there was one.
I thought everything about the Porsche 911— the original air-cooled ‘proper’ one—must have been written and said before…until I had one for a few days. Sure, being with the car is a bit like living inside a film you’ve seen many times: the first hand experience speaks much of what I’d read and heard of the design. But there were other things too, including a perspective on the Porsche 911’s design that may not have been said before…
Walking around the car reminds of how the appearance of the 911 is ingrained in our mind unlike any other car design, because it is so distinct and we have known it for so long: there are no close references points (possibly the Alpine A110 was, once), and we can’t see the 911 with fresh eyes.
Sure, we know it has an echo of the Beetle, and the 356 that connects them. Yet we tend to forget that, fundamentally, this is a properly unusual-looking car; its core proportions and volumes are utterly unique, and always have been.
It seems very few people recognise that its unique proportions are because the 911 was designed to deliver on prosaic, even familial, function more so than any other sports-car ever: to carry two small people in the back.
No-one ever called it a GT (until the later, larger, water-cooled ones), yet the Porsche 911 is a two-plus-two—a notably unique position for a true sports-car. Because someone at the top of Porsche, presumably, dictated that the 911 would be for more than two people, the engine needed to be mounted behind the rear axle: in order to make space for the rear seats.
But this is not consciously accepted as the unequivocal truth it must be: the idea that the brand was wedded to an engine-in-the-rear philosophy is surely a product of the intervening decades of 911-centric Porsche myopia for which there’s no real evidence; the 911 was preceded by the mid-engine 550, and then followed by the mid-engine 914, the front engined 924, and the front engine 928. The period 904 race car was mid-engined, as were subsequent competition models. The 911 is essentially the second and the last rear-engine Porsche design, reinvented a few times since. Even the first Porsche—what would evolve into the 356—began life as a mid-engined car.
Anyway, this rear seat thing is also why the driver sits higher than other contemporary sports car designs: to allow a driver’s legs to be slightly more bent, which helps to gain some car length for the rear seats. In-turn, this makes the roof as tall as it is and the windshield as far forward as it is, afforded, also, by there being no engine in the front.
As its flat-6 engine is only three-cylinders long, the rear overhang is no more than most front engine sports-cars—but is significantly lower. The back of the flat six is shallower than a luggage-swallowing trunk for a front engined sports car, too.
Whilst people bang on about the car’s rear engine location defining its proportions, it’s more to do with the tall and far-forward windscreen, and the single sweep backwards from that point to the exceedingly low rear-most point, clearing the heads of two tiny rear occupants along the way.
All of this was built within a length 15.7 (40 cm) less than a 2+2 Series 3 Jaguar E-Type, the 911’s closest contemporary competitor in cabin package and performance.
In short, the 911’s proportions are more to do with it being designed to carry children than having its engine in the tail.
This, then, is the 911 design story headline: it is utterly unique and all the more compelling for being a product of clever, rational packaging that places function over form. It’s not a styled car design, it is a designed car design. Taking this to its natural conclusion, lightweight RS versions with no rear seats are arguably less purist designs than the first 2+2 Carrera!
This context to the Porsche design seems like it has been lost forever. But when you first walk up to an early air-cooled 911 with the keys in your pocket, it is likely that the first thing that grabs you is not the context of its distinct proportions but that it is an unusually tiny car.
There is something impressive about the compactness of the early 911 that pictures of it fail to tell: here is a fast car, one that seats the family and some luggage, and yet it’s as narrow as today’s Volkswagen Up! city car and only as long as a modern Golf (but looks and feels even shorter). Memory and reports of it in its contemporary years do not so much speak of the car’s petiteness—all cars were smaller then.
Things click when you realise that the original 911 is more than a foot shorter, 9 inches (23 cm) narrower, and 661 lbs (300 kg) lighter than today’s 991 C4—a car that, incidentally, is now longer, wider, taller, and heavier than the original front-engined 928 grand tourer.
An early 911 is a car far, far smaller than anything fast today. A Toyota / Subaru GT-86 / BRZ is about 4 in (10 cm) wider, taller and longer. It’s also heavier and, depending on the 911 you’re comparing it to, less powerful.
Inside, the Porsche feels even shorter and narrower than it is. Your feet are closer to the front number plate than anything modern, other than perhaps a Lotus Elise. The lumpen fenders taper forwards, giving the give the impression that the up-right round lamps are almost as close to each other as those of a Mk1 Land Rover, and its hood falls fast just ahead of its low cowl to bring the road right up to you. Glance over your shoulder, and the body appears to end at the base of the nearby rear screen. Driving a 911 is like piloting something someone designed to park in Tokyo—not monster the mountain passes and autobahns of Europe.
Yet, despite all that smallness on the outside, climb in and it’s got lots of cat-swinging space inside: the lack of massive centre tunnel and clear front floor space is enough to play footsy in; the low shoulder and deep, up-right glazing all-round; the compact but useful rear seats that flip to extend the rear parcel shelf into an anything-will-fit-in-if-you-push-hard-enough second boot. It’s a bloody small car, but it’s the opposite of cramped.
Considering just the aesthetic design of the 911, the headline is that most people find it attractive but few would call it beautiful. It’s a design most of us have seen all of our lives, looking at it objectively is impossible; the design signifies so much to each of its audience that we can’t see the wood for the trees.
But there is a simplicity and perfect resolution of form and details. There is elegance and sculpture to it—particularly its side-window and the rear haunches. There is a puppy-like keenness to the face, and, somehow, a planted stance, too. Ultimately, its squat shortness and not-quite-a-grown-up semantic mean that it falls just short of a classic, supermodel-like beauty conferred on the E-Type or Ferrari 275 GTB/4. From some angles, it does have a whiff of ugly ducking about it, though its charm and appeal is firmly down to the 911s not-quite-perfectness.
From a designer’s point of view, the Porsche 911 is a very rich thing, a very fine thing, and a design almost impossible to see with fresh, objective eyes. I enjoyed a few days in one, though, and reckon I’ve realized a few things that have, until now, been untold parts of the 911 design story.
Sam Livingstone is the founder of Car Design Research, a design strategy consultancy that works closely with the creative groups of many automotive OEMs and other organisations. For the past ten years he has also been a tutor at London’s Royal College of Art on the Vehicle Design, and sits on the judging panel of several important design awards: ‘World Car of the Year’; ‘Louis Vuitton Concept Classic’, ‘if Design’ and ‘Scuderia Zagreb’.