UK: Motor mouth - Cruising in a missile.

UK: Motor mouth - Cruising in a missile. - As a boy, I wanted a Porsche long before I had any real idea of what they did or what they meant. There was something in their lascivious austerity and quirky rationality that appealed very strongly. Hard to rem

by STEPHEN BAYLEY, Author and design consultant.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

As a boy, I wanted a Porsche long before I had any real idea of what they did or what they meant. There was something in their lascivious austerity and quirky rationality that appealed very strongly. Hard to remember now that the car we still call the 911 (although it was originally a 901 and is now, properly speaking, a 996) started life 35 years ago as a gawky thing on thin tyres with a puffy Volkswagen engine. Then a chorus of stern men in white coats orchestrated this very particular German Requiem.

No car better expresses a commitment to technical excellence and mechanical refinement than a Porsche. I didn't know when I was a boy that Ferry Porsche had briefed his designers to make a sports car that would mean 'driving in its purest form', but I know that a combination of expectation and association made me crave one. When I got to know them later on, the passion increased rather than diminished. There really is nothing quite like a 911. But now I can afford one, a Porsche doesn't make sense. My driving is fits-and-starts urban struggle, with weekend breaks involving four bulky tennis bags. That's personal progress for you.

The technical progress of Porsche is there for all to see. Its genes go back to the '30s when aerodynamics pioneer Erwin Kommenda sketched a body for the original Dr Porsche's People's Car. Ghosts of that unique shape still haunt the £70,000 996. You could line up everything from a 1936 Volkswagen to a 1999 Carrera 4 and there would be a visually seamless morphology that is heartbreakingly beautiful. Porsche's university-of-hard-knocks designer, Anatole Lapine, once described the Porsche style as possessing 'the winning look that weapons have'. At about the same time, Enzo Ferrari withdrew from international sports car racing because, in his view, 'Porsche don't make racing cars, they make missiles'. Of course, they made both: Hitler's infamous Vergeltungswaffe Ein (best known to Londoners as the V-1) was also a Porsche design.

So what's it like to drive a Porsche? Military associations come readily to mind. When you get into a Porsche, the old joke goes, you feel like you should invade Poland. There is certainly an awesome and tangible sense of technical authority, but it has nothing - well, not much - to do with the actual performance, exciting as that may be. Instead, the pleasure comes from the pervasive atmosphere of absolute precision that the car possesses. This applies to the way the doors shut and the quickness of the steering and the entropy-reversing power of the brakes.

The latest Porsche is a radical advance on its predecessor and includes a water-cooled engine, although I'm glad to say mad scientists have worked hard to maintain the unique sensual character of the old air-cooled engine it replaces. The compact size remains one of the car's best performance attributes. Other innovations include a modernised interior about which I am not quite so certain: 'over-designed' is perhaps an accurate description.

J Mays, head of design at Ford, says it looks Korean and you can't say unfairer than that.

The car has a drive-by-wire electronic accelerator. Impressive, but I'm not convinced it's quite as sharp as the old mechanical linkages. Again, old 911s used to howl into life the moment electrical contact was made.

While I'm positive that every available man in Robert Bosch's R&D department was involved in the 996's engine management system, I thought I detected a slight lag in ignition. Small things in themselves but ...

A Porsche is like nothing else in the same way as a Leica is like nothing else: both characteristically German and equally irrational - and madly, insanely desirable. The thrill of urgent authority you get from driving a Porsche is intoxicating (even though the harshness on the motorway is a tad tiring).

Happily for my thwarted addiction, I drove a new model Volkswagen Golf GTI just after the Porsche. Here's a car with one-tenth of the character, 80% of the performance and a quarter of the price. It's like saying you could buy a Samsung APS camera for less than a Leica M6. Progress, again.

I'm convinced that for a prosperous single man who likes driving there is nothing so satisfying as a Porsche. Just one thing. That car John Kennedy Junior used for his last trip to the airport. What was it? A Korean Hyundai coupe.

Go figure.

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