This is a story of two cars. How they started, how they competed, how they thrived & died.
But this is not necessarily only a story about two cars. Because cars are also products. Very special products, of course. It takes time to build them. Usually years. A lot of planning. And collaboration. It takes interior and exterior designers, engineers, mechanics, researchers. In brief: it takes teams. And good management. And vision. And investment. Into something that would – possibly – bring future returns.
With this in mind: although the case revolves around cars, it might as well shed a light on other complex projects aimed at future customers (store development or new brand introduction or …).
THE BEAUTIFUL CONTESTANTS
Let’s look briefly at the two beautiful vintage cars bellow. Can you spot the difference?
Sure, the color and front radiator and some other details, but there are far more similarities than differences, aren’t they? Consider shape, body, the sporting attitude. Even the characteristics hidden bellow the hood show how close they are to each other. One a bit faster, the other a bit more vivacious.
The car on the left is UK-based MG, coming from one of the oldest car companies in the world. Following World War II, the American soldiers brought the car over the ocean – which made it the first affordable sports car in the world.
The car on the right has mostly been humbly produced in Austria, primarily sourced from wherever the manufacturer could find the Volkswagen engines – a result of post World War II scarcity and also the dubious role of its founder. His name was Ferdinand Porsche.
Speaking of differences between those two: in the early 1950s MG was considered as sports car par excellence. Porsche on the other hand – although having success domestically – struggled in the USA, the biggest market for sports cars. America gave MG a sure advantage.
THE NEW BEGINNING
At the end of 1950s Porsche designers lead by engineer Erwin Komenda – or Ferdinand Porsche’s son nicknamed Butzi, depending on a source! – have been summoned around the drawing boards again. Their goal was to start with the sketches for a new model, a replacement for 356 shown on the picture above.
It was to be a comfortable touring car,« recalled Ferdinand »Ferry« Porsche. »But, unlike the 356, parts from the large-series cars were not to be utilised as these were no longer suitable for further development.”
In Stuttgart the hard work has begun.
Various models were designed, even some with a notchback with the aim of creating a true four-seater. But finally it remained a sports car in concept, with 2+2 packaging.
We should stop here for a moment or two. The decision for replacing an old model 356 was certainly not an easy one. While 356 sure had some weaknesses (eg. cable operated drum brakes, stability due to engine position …), it was definitely not without its merits. Listen to the archive Car and Driver magazine report:
Porsche enthusiasts insisted that the 356 model was as nearly-perfect an automobile as had ever been designed, an immutable classic that couldn’t be improved upon.
With this in mind, we can easily imagine all sorts of doubts that Ferry Porsche encountered. Wouldn’t it be more suitable to just refurbish the old 356? Perhaps they should only the approach the US market differently? And how about the fact that 356 was the most significant, actually the sole, product of the company? Also, the decision for 2+2 seater was somehow counter-intuitive. 4 seater market was growing fast, while the 2 seater market was considerably smaller, probably already close to its limits. And the ever-recurring thought: Is it really necessary to change something that works fine?
How would you choose?
There were other critical decisions to make. In some cases, bold innovation was the team’s answer, in other only slight evolution of the 356. There were also some parts that were left unchanged. Let’s listen to Ferry Porsche again.
We didn’t want to allow the Porsche shape … to disappear. As a power unit, a 6-cylinder engine was chosen. But then it occurred to me, remembering our motorsport activities, that front engines were not competitive enough on a long term basis, and so we kept to the rear engine.
Finally, the public debut came in autumn 1963 on Frankfurt Motor Show. The new model was obviously a full package of innovations & updates & “evolutions”: the styling was made cleaner, aerodynamics, and handling improved, power has been added. The list of innovations went on: trunk, dashboard, modular approach, transverse torsion bars, interior space, increased glass area for 58%, spacious interior prepared for future enlargements.
All put together: the result was the car in the picture bellow. It was named Porsche 901.
Sure, pretty soon the car was renamed. It became Porsche 911. It went on sale in September 1964 and almost immediately established itself as an icon of ’60s cool. The old model 356 was put to rest in 1965.
IN THE MEANTIME … WHAT’S GOING ON AT MG?
During the sixties, MG entered into the peculiar holding of British Leyland. Under its umbrella were uncountable brands. In 1970s the crisis burst out. Then MG experienced the turmoil of labor unrest, financial problems, pending bankruptcy – the ownership structure changed, the government took control. After continuous problems privatization followed. And a takeover and another one … and a merger … and another takeover.
The long & winding road of MG brand is shown below. Can you figure it out? No? Don’t worry. Bankers didn’t as well. And management boards neither.
Caught in so many financial operations, energy was obviously not put to new and improved models. Also, the consumer preferences rapidly changed. One of the case studies talking about MG carries the striking title: Three Decades of Trouble. A good title to tell the story of MG.
MG AND PORSCHE IN TIME – BACK TO BACK
Timeline bellow summarizes what’s been going on during the years.
Two cars, two eternal shapes started at the same position – well, almost the same, since at the beginning of 50s MG was clearly in advantage.
But then they went different ways.
One decided to leave the safety haven brought by a pretty successful model called 356. It set sail on the difficult, perilous, unknown voyage full of constant innovation and evolution.
The other fell into a dream under a seemingly safe umbrella of a huge financial holding. Where it finally drowned in the cold currents of financial convolutions.
Porsche 911 became the heart of the Porsche brand. Today – more than 50 years after the initiation – the model is considered to be
the quintessential sports car, the benchmark for all others. The 911 is also the central point of reference for all other Porsche series. From the Cayenne to the Panamera, every Porsche is the most sporting automobile in its category, and each one carries a piece of the 911 philosophy.
That’s how Porsche sees it. But it seems modest in comparison to car enthusiasts. Flagship … influential … iconic … sublime … complete … perfect … eternal … thrilling … There are no superlatives that haven’t been glued to 911.
Up till now MG disappeared out of common perception. Today people think that MG is only misspelled GM – famous American car General Motors. No one thinks Porsche is misspelled for any other car.
The magazine Automobile prepared a list of the coolest cars of all time. Porsche 911 got to the 2nd notch. The discontinued model 356 took 53rd place. MG? Overlooked.
Two cars. Two great shapes. But only one survives. Not just survives. It thrives.
The one innovated & updated, the other lost.
And remember. Cars are also products. Special products developed for future users. Some even for future generations.
research for the article based on following internet sources:
I have also checked excerpts of the following books: Porsche 911 Book: 50th Anniversary Edition by Rene Staud, The Complete Book of Porsche 911 by Randy Leffigwel …
A kind recommendation: Anyone mildly interested in cars, design, biographies or history of Austro-Hungarian empire should definitely check the following site: http://www.komenda-porsche-designer.at/
This article has been instigated by a small remark in Peter F. Drucker’s book Innovation and Entreprenuership.
More articles from the series available on my web-site https://www.omnibus.si/vpogledi.Some in English, some in Slovenian.