You wouldn’t guess it today, but twenty years ago, Porsche was a company that was on the ropes. Their unabashedly traditionalist and purist view of the sports car market had made them the stuff of legends within the enthusiast community, but didn’t sit well with the hedge fund managers whose frivolous purchases of such toys kept the lights on in Stuggart. The unrefined and raw 911 was a niche car for a true driving aficionado, and the 944/968 (origins of which dated back to 1983) were outdated and outclassed by the 1990s. Their manufacturing process was a messy affair more akin to a game of hide and seek than of an assembly line. Prices were going up while sales were going down – a mere 3000 US cars were sold in 1993. With the company lacking direction and a modern, competitive product line, Porsche was in trouble. Without a breakthrough new model, the future of the famed sports car builder and its independence would be dimmer than the lights of a late-night jazz club.
Porsche’s knight in shining armor was the Boxster, an all-new entry-level Porsche roadster. Unlike any Porsche since the James Dean-era 550, the Boxster was the first to be specifically designed as a roadster rather than a hardtop. Surprisingly, some of the influence for the roadster bend was that scrappy little Miata, the cheap roadster that had taken the auto enthusiast world by storm. Its debut had marked a resurgence in roadsters, letting fans of the body style finally put to rest their nightmares of devilish electronics and incessant leaks.
Seeing the success of the Miata, Porsche saw the opportunity for a similar recipe with a distinct German flavoring. A pinch of luxury, a dash of flat-six motor, and a touch of all-new, modern design. Much of this didn’t set well with enthusiasts, a finicky bunch that resist automotive change more than your average father resists his 16 year old daughter going on a date with the motorcycle-riding high school dropout. When this crowd heard the sweeping and revolutionary changes being implemented, they were aghast. They were awed that Porsche had the gall to use a water-cooled six, rather than an air cooled motor. Unlike almost any other automaker, Porsche had steadfastly stuck with an engine cooled by air rather than liquid coolant, and was one of those revered traits that made a Porsche a Porsche. Before the Boxster’s debut, the 924 had debuted water cooling back in 1978. Despite this, the air-cooled 911 remained the torchbearer. If it wasn’t air-cooled, many purists immediately knocked the car down a peg or two.
Of course, armchair enthusiasts aren’t writing checks. The market readily opened their arms to the modern looking and (relatively) affordable Porsche. The model was a large breath of fresh air in 1996, whisking the brand from stuck in the 1980s to ready for Y2K. The mid-engine design of the Boxster allowed it to be much more accessible than the rear-engine 911, which had a penchant for penalizing the uninitiated with snap-oversteer mid-corner.
Porsche knew they had to separate the newbie Boxster from the golden goose 911, and to do so they made sure that the new motor was sufficiently distanced from the 911’s powerplant. With 205 horsepower and 2.5 liters, the Boxster was down nearly 80 horses and a half liter from its bigger brother. It also offered a more forgiving and compliant ride compared to the 911, making the car easier to live with on a day-to-day basis.
All these traits proved to win over many an exec with a bonus to blow, and sales of the new car spiked when it went on sale in mid-1996. Porsche became so overwhelmed with production demand that it had to open a second plant in Finland. The first generation Boxster went on to sell well over 100,000 units during the eight year production run, before culminating in 2004. The succeeding generations have all continued to provide the classically romantic wind-in-the-hair feel with the sublime chassis that only a Porsche could deliver.
Today, the Boxster remains the affordable Porsche sports car, and has bridged the gap significantly between it and the 911. Though the car’s mission remains unchanged, the company that produces it is a very different entity than back in 1996. From a downward spiral of high costs and low sales, the Boxster confidently led the brand’s impressive turnaround. The lineup has grown from merely the 911 and the Boxster to a multitude of models spanning from a seven passenger SUV to a four-door sedan. As Porsche continues to reach for new market segments and maintain its growth, take time to remember the forgotten hero that gave the company a second chance for success.