A 1950s Porsche Type 550 Spyder, left, poses with a 1997 Porsche Boxster.
See more pictures of the Porsche Boxster.
That was no surprise. The Porsche Boxster here was not only the first clean-sheet-design Porsche in 20 years (since the Porsche 928), it was a two-seat roadster with looks and road manners recalling the legendary mid-1950s 550 Spyder. Not only that, the engine was a brand-new water-cooled horizontally opposed ("boxer"), six-cylinder, plunked right behind the cockpit. ("Boxer" plus "roadster" equals "Boxster.")
All this for an initial base price of around $40,000, the most affordable Porsche in years. How could it miss?
Yet success was by no means assured. When it debuted during 1996, the Porsche Boxster was viewed by some as just another "retro roadster" like the BMW Z3 and Mercedes-Benz SLK, both recently launched replies to the popular, less-expensive Mazda Miata, then in its seventh season.
The Z3, SLK, and Miata were classic front-engine/rear-drive open sports cars, and thus arguably less "interesting" than the Porsche. But they appealed nonetheless, suggesting the Boxster's success stemmed as much from high style and low price, not to mention the Porsche badge, as any engineering or performance distinctions.
The Porsche Boxster was part of a second-thoughts product plan hatched in the early 1990s after cancellation of the Type 989 luxury-sedan project. Porsche's sales and cash reserves were fast falling toward zero after more than a decade of price escalation from an ever-stronger German mark, plus waning interest in cars that seemed to change too little for too long.
Survival demanded new models that cut costs through greater component sharing, which is why the 989 was intended to parent a new-generation Porsche 911. But Porsche concluded that another high-priced low-volume car wasn't the answer. What it really needed was a low-cost sports car that could sell profitably and in far greater numbers than the 911.
No one understood this better than Wendelin Wiedeking, who took over as Porsche chairman and CEO in late 1992. Though a materials engineer by training and experience, Wiedeking knew his way around factories and balance sheets.
As he told Georg Kacher for the August 1993 issue of Britain's CAR magazine: "We must cultivate the 911 because it is the backbone of our business. At the same time, we must develop an entry-level car priced below [$40,000]. This segment is six times bigger than the one the 911 competes in. As soon as the new baseline Porsche is in the showroom, I guarantee you that our production will double to over 30,000 vehicles a year."
His prediction proved conservative. Just four years after the Boxster's debut, Porsche volume had almost quadrupled to nearly 56,000 units.
Wiedeking took charge as work was starting on the Boxster, designated Type 986, and a related new 911, the eventual 996-series. Though he endorsed the heavy parts sharing involved, he knew Porsche could never build a $40,000 car. As AutoWeek later observed, "Porsche never suffered from a lack of great cars. It was the process of building those cars that nearly killed [them]."
Accordingly, Wiedeking called in a group of retired Toyota executives to teach Porsche about "lean" manufacturing, "constant improvement" and other strategies that had made Toyota a world automotive superpower. It was a brave act in a tradition-bound company ruled by proud engineers, but Wiedeking knew Porsche must modernize or else.
The Germans were shocked and humbled when the Japanese faulted most everything from initial planning to final assembly. When the dust settled, payroll was cut from nearly 9,000 to 6,800, parts inventory slashed by 82 percent, and the Zuffenhausen plant completely reorganized. Another outcome was Porsche's first tear-down shop, where competitive cars could be taken apart and analyzed.
Meantime, Wiedeking ordered "simultaneous engineering" for the Boxster and the 996. That meant designers, engineers, manufacturing experts, supplier representatives, and others working as a team on all aspects of the programs, not just their pieces of it. No more botched communications, no more blame games.
The Boxster was thus "the first Porsche developed with a priority on efficient assembly," as AutoWeek noted. "The car is full of pre-assembled modules including the front and rear suspensions, [where many] components are the same, front and rear, reducing tooling and production costs." And because of its do-or-die importance, the Boxster came together in record time for Porsche, moving from drawing board to assembly line in three-and-a-half years, versus the usual seven or more. As they say, having a gun to your head tends to improve one's concentration.
In a late-1996 assessment for AutoWeek, efficiency guru James P. Womack, author of The Machine That Changed the World, termed the Boxster a "bet-the-company miracle car. Porsche wouldn't be around if they hadn't stared into the abyss and then eaten a lot of crow...They've [got it] in the range where core buyers can afford it. To make any money on the car, the old Porsche would have had to sell it for $80,000."
Base prices for 1997 were half that. This, after all, was a new Porsche from a "New Porsche." Things were looking up. To understand why, and to learn more about the Boxster, go to the next page.
New price of entry: The midengine Porsche Boxster replaced the front-engine 968.
For prices, reviews, and more on Porsche from the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, see: