Interview: Ulrich Bez

The father of the 993 talks about what makes a great sports car, German engineering and the future of sports cars

Photo: Interview: Ulrich Bez 1
July 24, 2014

As head of Porsche’s fabled Research and Development department, Dr. Ulrich Bez was responsible for leading development of the 993—Porsche’s last and much loved air-cooled 911.

Bez’s first love was airplanes. He studied Aviation Technology at Universität Stuttgart and he later earned a Doctorate in Engineering from Freie Universität Berlin before going to work for Porsche in 1972. Bez climbed his way up to the position of Director of Vehicle Research before leaving Porsche for BMW in 1982.

In Munich, Bez started out as the Director of Vehicle Pre-Development before becoming the first director of BMW’s experimental development lab, BMW Technik. After six years and some notable projects, including the Z1 roadster, Bez headed back to Weissach in 1988, when he was appointed Director of R&D and Motorsport at Porsche, replacing the retiring Helmuth Bott.

The recession that started with the Black Monday crash of 1987 had softened the sports car market considerably, and Bez was given a strict budget for updating the model range. The positive outcomes of this ingenuity-over-big-budget strategy were the 993, 968 and 928 GTS.

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Bez also wanted to expand the product range to include a sedan, which would have been known as the 989. When it became apparent to the Board of Directors that the cost of that project had gotten out of control and the car would be far too expensive to produce, Bez was asked to leave Porsche in 1991. He ended up in an unlikely place: South Korea.

Eager to enter the expanding global auto market, South Korean automakers had set out to attract talent from around the world. In 1993, Bez became the Vice President of Strategy, Engineering, and Product Development at Daewoo. After five years in Seoul, Bez returned to Germany in 1998, where he served as the Chairman of Flender AG, an industrial gearbox maker. In 2000, Bez accepted the position of CEO at Aston Martin, a role he will soon be relinquishing for retirement once a suitable replacement is selected.

Excellence: What makes a great sports car? What is the core of a great sports car for you?

Bez: This is of course a question of individual taste. A great sports car for me is not about top speed or top acceleration. It needs to deliver sufficient dynamic performance, whenever and wherever the driver asks for it. Delivering high dynamics at low revs, for instance, meets the practical requirements of driving more than mere performance figures given in car documents that can hardly be put into practice under real conditions on real roads. A great sports car must give the driver the feeling that he can connect with the car, that he is the one who controls it and gets maximum fun out of it. This high level of usability is combined with comfort, great design, and lots of emotions. A car is great if it puts a smile on your face.

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Excellence: What makes Germany such fertile ground for prolific engineers?

Bez: Germany has a long tradition of engineering, which is respected and admired around the world. In contrast to other countries there is, alongside the big companies, a strong base of small and medium-sized companies in manufacturing that play a considerable economical role and contribute to the huge R&D activities of the German industry. There is a high demand for qualified people; therefore the emphasis on having a profound training system for engineers is very strong. The car industry is naturally one of the most attractive sectors for many engineers, as it is at the forefront of technological innovations and thus very successful in the global markets. Developing sports cars is an area where engineers have the chance to max-out technological opportunities and push new developments. Also, sports cars are highly emotional products, for those who build them and for those who drive them. This is probably the reason why I joined the motor industry after completing my studies in aviation technology. There is nothing that comes closer to flying than driving sports cars.

Excellence: Can you describe the biggest differences between working for a German sports car maker and an English sports car maker?

Bez: To be honest, the differences are not that big. Every sports carmaker is striving to create what they think is the perfect product, which presents the brand values. They all pursue one goal; it is the ingredients that differ and give the products their special character. These individual ingredients reflect the culture a carmaker is part of, its heritage, and the approach that engineers and designers take when creating a product. Hence, sports cars made in Germany will always be different from sports cars made in England as well as from those made in Italy. And so will be the culture in the individual companies. I think this is good, as it brings more variety to the sports car market as a whole.

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Excellence: Who has most influenced your engineering and management pursuits, both past and present?

Bez: In general, I try to act and decide uninhibited by external influences. However, if there is a person from whom I have learned a great deal and also gained a lot personally, it was Eberhard von Kuenheim, the former CEO of BMW, when I worked for him at BMW. It was a time of departure at BMW, and it was great to be part of that under his leadership. Of course there were other important phases in my professional life, such as my time at Daewoo in South Korea or my start at Aston Martin.

Excellence: Looking back, what was your favorite project at Porsche? What made that particular project special?

Bez: A very challenging and exciting moment at Porsche was when I carried through the 993. I was asked to lead the development of a 911 replacement. Instead, I proposed to stick with the 911 concept and morphed it into the 993, which marked the turnaround and long life of the 911.

Excellence: What do you think is destined to be the sports car of the future? Can electrics, hybrids, or even diesels be true sports cars?

Bez: We still have not found a real sustainable solution for alternative energies in the car sector, let alone for sports cars. I always said that when a diesel engine can win Le Mans, it might also be suitable for other sports car applications. What goes against the case for diesel for us is that in huge markets like China and North America, you can only really sell petrol-fueled vehicles. Hybrids do not convince me at all, as they add too much weight to a car, and this is totally counterproductive, especially for a sports car. As today’s battery capacities have not really improved, electric cars make sense for urban traffic, where you do not have to cover long distances and are always near a charging station or the next bus in case the battery dies. Therefore, an electric car currently is a useful addition to the car fleet of a family, but not a full replacement for the main family car. I do not see the sense in electric sports cars, as I think a sports car should be able to take you anywhere at any time. This is what traditional engines today still can do better than any other drivetrain. For the future, I see hydrogen as a very interesting alternative and I think we should look into this more intensely.

Also from Issue 222

  • TechArt 991 Turbo S
  • A 1957 356 A Coupe with gunslinger DNA
  • Porsche Parade 2014
  • A 964 Speedster gets turbo power
  • Rite of Passage Turbo-look 911
  • Porsche’s surprising role in Formula Vee
  • A 993 RSR gets a second lease on life
  • A 1977 911 becomes a Driver Education gem
  • Studiotorino Cayman
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