Even the greats need a reality check from time to time. Porsche had just celebrated its 60th anniversary, but increasing production costs and a high Deutschmark, paired with an ailing U.S. market and increased Japanese imports, had all but decimated the company. From 1986 to 1991, North American annual sales fell from 30,471 cars to just 4,388. Porsche was on the brink of collapse.
A massive executive shakeup saw Wendelin Wiedeking take the helm as CEO. Just ten years prior he was working with the company as a mechanical engineer, but by 1993, the multi-talented 30-year old had already owned an auto parts manufacturer and made millions in real estate before returning to Porsche as the head of production. Now he was tasked with saving the company.
Wiedeking’s approach was simple: 1) eliminate inefficiencies, and, 2) reduce costs. According to a New York Times article published in 1996, he always intended on bringing in Japanese consultants to help streamline operations. The former Toyota alumni berated the company’s management, leading to more than 2,000 job cuts (including 100 managers) and production efficiency increases as high as 60 per cent on certain models.
The second equation in Wiedeking’s solution was to axe the 989 – a costly saloon concept that wouldn’t result sales high enough to save the company from financial ruin. Instead, a new higher-volume sports car would introduce Porsche to a wider audience: the Boxster.
Known internally as the 986, the first-generation Boxster was a radical change in direction for the Stuttgart manufacturer and its first clean-sheet design in almost twenty years (since the 928). Taking its name from its flat-six boxer style, horizontally-opposed engine and roadster body style, the Harm Lagaay design was created jointly alongside the new 911 (Type-996) and shared a wealth of parts with it as well. As a result, the Boxster entered the market nearly $15,000 less than any other Porsche.
The Boxster instantly infused Porsche with new life. It was equal parts progressive and fun, but also harkened back to Porsche’s heritage and specifically, the 550 and subsequent 718 race car.
Ten months before the car reached European streets in 1996, orders had already reached 10,000 units. When it arrived stateside in 1997, Boxster sales reached 6,996, selling more than the entire Porsche range from each of the previous five years.
Despite BMW’s Z3 and the SLK Roadster from Mercedes-Benz, the Boxster’s mid-engine layout made it distinctly different from the competition, and all the more attractive for customers wanting a unique sports car experience. Initial buzz from the Boxster’s 1993 unveiling in Detroit carried over to the road reviews: it was a virtually flawless, sub-$40K Porsche ($39,980 US MSRP). And mated with an all-new, air-cooled 2.5-litre flat-six that output 204 horsepower and a 240 km/h (149 mph) top speed, it performed and sounded just as it should. It was all new, but it was still all Porsche.
2000 marked the year the Boxster cemented itself within the brand, selling more than 13,300 copies in North America alone. By the time the new 987 generation was released in 2005, it was clear Wiedeking and the Boxster had aced their objective.
So well, in fact, that the Boxster was joined by a closed-top sibling, the Cayman, in 2006.
Together, the Boxster and Cayman have grown across two generations, sharing the same platform and nearly 40 per cent of the same components.
The latest 981 generation (2012-2016) has never been as consumer-friendly or as potent. Bridging the gap between affordability and top-tier performance, Porsche announced the Cayman GT4 in late 2015, aimed at circuit hustlers and racers, and equipped with an array of track-worthy equipment including six-piston front brakes, four-piston rears, sport exhaust, a six-speed manual, and a 3.8-litre flat six, capable of 385 horsepower and a 295 km/h top speed.
For the first time in decades, Porsche is offering the first non-911 factory-built racer with the Cayman GT4 Clubsport, which is already taking to the track by storm. It is indeed a full-blown, race ready machine and – get this – uses a completely bespoke six-speed PDK, where all of Porsche’s other PDKs have seven cogs. The PDK is one unfair advantage that’s causing the competition sleepless nights.
For the 2017 Boxster and Cayman (available mid-2016), Porsche is reaching back into its storied motorsport history, reviving the 718 model code that captured Targa Florio (1959, 1960), the 12 Hours of Sebring (1960), and class wins at Le Mans (1958, 1961).
Citing more than a design inspiration for the name, the flat-sixes that have been fitted throughout the Boxster’s history will give way to another 718 throwback: a flat-four powerplant – this time available in turbocharged 2.0-litre and 2.5-litre displacements – that make these new 718s the most powerful in the model’s – and the Boxster’s – history.
The 718 designation signifies Porsche’s earliest and most meaningful successes from its illustrious motorsport history. Twenty years removed from the company’s greatest modern day success, it only seems fitting that the Boxster is celebrated with an honour so distinct.
Images courtesy of Dr. Ing. h.c. F. Porsche AG.