What is your favorite Porsche vehicle design? The iconic Type 356, laid down by Dr. Ferdinand Porsche and Erwin Komenda in the late 1940s? The immortal 901/911? The lithe and sensual 904 GTS? The world-beating 917? Or maybe something newer, such as the sleek four-door Taycan? No matter, we all have our favorite, and certainly whichever Porsches roll out of the factory next year, over the next decade, or the next several decades, there will be a few that truly captivate us and capture the attention of the masses.
These newest creations, and some that we might never have imagined, will all have something in common: They will have been conceived by a very special team of talented men and women overseen by Michael Mauer, the director of Porsche Design in Weissach, a few miles from corporate headquarters in Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen.
The above serves to lead us into a sanctum sanctorum at Porsche, courtesy of a marvelous book entitled “Porsche Unseen – Unpublished Concept Cars from the Porsche Design Studios”. This fascinating hardbound volume from photographer Stefan Bogner and writer Jan Karl Baedeker is intended to give us a look at how Porsches are created, long before a single piece of steel, alloy, or composite is manufactured.
The Design Process
Bogner and Baedeker were given an unprecedented look behind the locked doors in Weissach, where mere mortals are rarely allowed. Their task was to document, with Mauer’s full approval and guidance, a selection of what the industry commonly refers to as “concepts”. Some of these, in both full-scale and smaller-scale, give us—and management—a good look at where the company is headed. We see features that have sometimes appeared on actual production versions—or might in the future—and the reader will quickly spot some of them.
In this volume, Mauer, who has served as Porsche’s Design Chief for nearly 20 years, provides an up-close examination of how he and his staff of visionaries work. He compares his unit to the engineers working in California’s Silicon Valley, where the best brains and imaginations are tasked with designing the computer chips of two and three decades in the future. Just as we adults did back when we were day-dreaming and sketching hot rods and customs at our desks in junior high school, Mauer’s designers and modelers are tasked with imagining where Porsche is headed.
What emerges from the notebooks, drafting tables, computer screens, and clay tables of Mauer’s team are dream cars. This book is also filled with fascinating little asides. For example, did you know that Mauer’s staff shared some ideas with George Lucas of Star Wars fame—and that the Porsche studio helped design the Tri-Wing Pegasus Starfighter?
Mauer explains that his team of over 120 workers moves not only between the present and the future, but the present and the past; working with ideas that are both evolutionary and revolutionary, inspired by both where the company has been and where it might go.
“Sometimes,” notes Mauer, “a project takes an unexpected direction, or leads by indirections to a point you would never have expected at the start of the conceptual work.” There is a great deal of thinking outside the box. “Our goal,” he says, “is not to implement every idea, but rather to give it a try…to open up new possibilities, to feel the future.”
Through the application of modern CAD software, Mauer’s designers can take initial paper sketches to virtual 3D form, viewable from every angle. Then, management takes a look and, if there’s a green light, the virtual design is reproduced by expert modelers in a 1:3 scale clay model, and then in a full-scale “hard” model that might also include a proposed interior. These 1:1 models allow the team to study proportions and other details. At this point, other parts of the company, such as body and drivetrain manufacturing, may become involved.
It is important to note that the vehicles in this book never reached production, but that’s not the point. Some good ideas may eventually appear somewhere else. My assignment from editor Greg Hudock was to examine all the fanciful designs in this impressive book, offer some comments on each, and then perhaps select a favorite, just as you would if this lavishly illustrated volume happened to land in your lap. Let’s get started.
Mauer and the authors separated these designs into four categories: “Spinoffs and Derivatives”, “Little Rebels”, “Hypercars”, and “What’s next?”
In the first group, we find an updated version of the featherweight 909 Bergspyder (Mountain Spyder), the tiny mid-engined racer that battled Ferrari for the World Hillclimb title in the mid-1960s. In 2014, Mauer’s studio offered a modern, fully driveable interpretation of the original Bergspyder, based on a Cayman GT4-powered 981 Boxster platform. Then there is a re-envisioned 1:1 scale hard model of the LeMans-winning 550 “coupe”, also based on a Boxster platform, which could serve as an “extreme street sports car.”
Next, we find a drivable prototype of a “911 Vision Safari” in Martini stripes from 2012, re-imagining the 911 SC Safari coupe that ran the 1978 Paris-Dakar, but this time on a 991 chassis. Finally, we are presented with a 2013 Macan that also received some “Safari” touches, including wide, bolt-on fender flares and roof lighting. This one is a 1:3 scale hard model that looks so real you’d want to hop in and drive it away. I’m a Macan fan and really liked this one!
Three concepts appear under “Little Rebels”, something of a play on words borrowed from the James Dean era, or in Mauer’s eyes, light, compact, and efficient sports cars equally at home on serpentine alpine roads and fast racing circuits.
First up is what the company labels a “Living Legend”, the 904 coupe, and a modern re-interpretation. We see how the company adopts architect Mies van der Rohe’s “Less is more” philosophy, clean and simple designs that don’t need gimcrackery or overdone scoops and vents to get the job done. Here again is a 1:1 “hard model”, breathtaking in its simplicity and charm. Interestingly, this new design had its origin in Volkswagen’s XL1, a proposed 1.0-liter sports car with a very light all-carbon-fiber monocoque chassis.
Rather than the original 904’s four-cam Metzger four-cylinder engine (a small number received flat-sixes from the 911), the new “Living Legend” 904 coupe would have a mid-mounted two-cylinder motorcycle engine. Hmm…possibly the 1,131 cc water-cooled Harley-Davidson V-Rod twin Porsche designed for the American motorcycle manufacturer?
Next up we find a 1:3-scale clay model of the “Vision 916”, a low-slung all-wheel-drive coupe with electric motors at each wheel, an idea that pays homage to the both Porsche-Lohner “chaise” of 1900 and shape-wise the 914-based 916. It is a stunning design. In somewhat of the same vein—but not as attractive to my eyes—is the “Porsche Vision Spyder” of 2019, carrying a mix of 914 and 550 styling ideas. Porsche calls this one “The Little Rebel”, and it carries a bit of a Carrera Panamericana and James Dean Spyder flavor and is perhaps a bit overdone.
In the “Hypercars” section, the three-time LeMans-winning 919 Hybrid is celebrated with what is called a “919 Street”, in this case a full-scale “hard” model. Porsche had toyed with the idea of producing a customer version of the 900-horsepower 919 for privateers to race, but shelved that proposal because the drivetrain proved much too complex (I learned it took factory technicians 45 minutes just to start the hybrid’s powerplant!).
Still, it was an intriguing idea…and by the way, the rear aspect of the 919 Street’s boxy tail is startlingly close to that of the nose of the space fighter that Mauer’s team sketched out for the Star Wars films. The 919 racer’s huge dorsal “billboard” fin, now pretty much de riguer for LMP racing machinery, is replicated, but to a much smaller degree.
Porsche’s proud racing pedigree is also carried to the present day by a full-scale “Living Legend” 917, an update of the famed red and white number 23 short-tail 917K that won Le Mans in 1970 as a Porsche-Salzburg entry. This fresh interpretation was constructed in just six months on a 918 platform. It is wide and very, very low.
“From the Porsche 906 to the 918, Porsche’s Super Sports Cars always give you the feeling that you are practically sitting on the road between the high wheel arches,” says Mauer. “We wanted to emphasize this even more.”
Another classic Porsche racer from the 1960s is celebrated with the 906 Living Legend. This one is a 1:3-scale hard model featuring a set of very interesting wheels and again emphasizing the 906’s high wheel arches. Front air inlets combined with front lighting present a very unusual appearance, and the tail-lamps are mounted in a pair of unique vertical fins. The use of LEDs allows some very intriguing designs. This model, too, strikes a very low stance on its 918 plug-in electric hybrid chassis.
The 918 itself gets a re-make via 1:3 scale hard model crafted in 2019. Described as “the ultimate variation of the last Super Sports Car to emerge from Weissach,” this design seems to these eyes as an amalgamation of several older Porsche racers, and I’m not sure all the elements work together that well. Vestigial tail fins, perhaps inspired by the Gulf 908/3, seem out of place on this one.
Porsche’s Vision E, also from 2019, is a single-seat electric racer aimed at privateer drivers. Rather than the semi-open-wheel formula-like car being raced today, this 1:3 scale hard body model has an envelope shell with a fully enclosed cockpit, as does its companion Vision 920. The 920 is based visually on Porsche’s LMP racer, with a central driver’s seat placed well forward. A taste of the old Auto Union GP cars of the 1930s? Some of the front suspension components, such as the horizontally mounted coil-over shocks, are exposed to the viewer, and the rear disc brakes are mounted inboard.
Finally, in the “What’s next?” section, we are shown a number of design proposals which run the gamut of “It’s here already” to “Hmm, that’s interesting”. Leading the way is the Porsche Vision Turismo, another full-scale hard model. This one has a backstory that might surprise most of you. Mauer reveals that the all-electric, four-door Taycan came to fruition in part because of what he calls “a chain of happy accidents and unexpected constellations that lead a designer in a roundabout way to achieve his goal”.
Mauer was passing another designer’s desk one day when he glimpsed the artist working on a schematic drawing of the 918. The designer had redrawn one of the car’s flowing lines to emphasize the sloping rear bodywork. The different line appeared to Mauer as a rear door cut, and he was quite taken aback. That, he says, is how the idea of a Porsche four-door sports car was born. A happy accident, indeed!
Finally, the book presents an idea that has long been a twinkle in the eye of just about every Volkswagen owner since the 1950s: a new interpretation of the much-loved Samba cargo van. In this instance, however, it would carry the Porsche name, and this concept is a full-scale hard model of a racing support, or “Renndeinst” vehicle that places the driver on a centrally mounted console in the middle of the nose with passengers and cargo behind. It would, of course, be all-electric. This is a shape that has been kicking around for many years, and not just at Porsche.
Hans Lapine, formerly the chief model-maker for VW-Audi in Los Angeles before moving to Genesis a few years ago, had a modern, and not dissimilar, small-scale VW van concept on display in the lobby of his office. Hans is the son of the late Tony Lapine, Mauer’s predecessor at the Porsche Design Studio and also spent some time at Weissach. VW-Audi declined to put the idea into production, but don’t bet against this new design seeing the light of day in the not-too-distant future.
While this volume likely just scratches the surface of what’s going on behind those closed doors at Weissach, it provides us a much clearer idea of the company’s direction and the path it will follow toward a destination that must always remain just out of reach.
I found “Porsche Unseen” to be a rewarding look at how Mauer’s design team functions. It is clear that Porsche’s designers have the freedom to explore new ideas, however far afield they might be. A new feature that customers might find pleasing might well have popped up in a youthful designer’s imagination years before and allowed to take root. There’s a whole lot of “What if…?” involved here. I wonder, how many unorthodox ideas are piled up on Mauer’s desk?
As far as my personal favorites among the designs that Mauer has shared, I am most partial to the modernized 904 and the updated Macan. I’ll take one of each, please, both in Signal Yellow. I want everyone to see me coming.