History of Porsche in the US
It began in a small workshop in Austria and evolved into one of the most iconic automotive brands in the world. But how did Porsche bring its brand to America, now one of the company’s most crucial markets?
Porsche’s relationship with North America is as long as it is fascinating. Find out the full story here
If you’ve ever been to New York then you’ll probably know that Manhattan’s Park Avenue is one of the city’s swankier addresses, and it also happens to be one that plays a pivotal role in the story of Porsche in America. That story begins back in the autumn of 1950, when the legendary Max Hoffmann put a Porsche 356 on display at his extensive showroom at 430 Park Avenue – a decision that led to the country becoming Porsche’s most important market. An Austrian ex-pat, Hoffmann knew that European cars were just what post-war, car-hungry Americans wanted and, having been encouraged by a Swiss journalist, Max Troesch, decided to add a Porsche franchise to his portfolio. Ferry Porsche himself was said to have been slightly less certain, reputedly telling Hoffmann when they met at the 1950 Paris Motor Show that he hoped he could sell at least five cars a year. Hoffman’s reply?
“If I can’t sell five a week, I’m not interested”. Giving two 356s to racer Briggs Cunningham was an inspired move, as profile-raising race victories soon followed, and although he imported just 32 cars in 1951, that number was about to expand beyond all expectations, least of all Ferry Porsche’s.
By 1952, 21 per cent of total Porsche sales were in the US (amounting to 283 cars), and two years later, 11 cars a week (30 per cent of production) were being sold. By 1955 it would be up to more than 50 per cent (1,514 cars), and in 1965, America’s sales of Porsche cars stood at an amazing 74.6 percent of production. Incidentally, such was Porsche’s impact on the American consciousness that 1953 saw a Porsche 1500 Super go on display at the Museum of Modern Art, and two years later the Porsche Club of America was formed. But we’ve got slightly ahead of ourselves here: the intervening years had also seen plenty of other developments, not least a vital expansion to the West Coast, courtesy of an old friend of Hoffmann’s, and fellow Austrian, Johnny von Neumann.
Already running his own business, Competition Motors, based in North Hollywood, the two met up in New York in 1951, and it would be von Neumann’s first taste of the marque, one which quickly saw California becoming Porsche’s biggest US market. But Hoffmann was far from finished. A dinner with Ferry Porsche in 1952 would reputedly lead to the creation of the Porsche crest that we all know today: according to the story, Hoffmann is said to have told Ferry that the company should have a crest, so Ferry sketched one out on a napkin. The Austrian importer also recognised
“In 1965 America’s sales of Porsche cars stood at an amazing 74.6 per cent of production”
the importance of promoting the brand with models that were unique to the US. It was that marketing acumen that led to the development of the 356 Speedster. Launched in 1954 at a cost of $3,000, it was soon attracting the attentions of America’s celebrities, including actor James Dean, who bought his from von Neumann’s West Coast dealership. Unfortunately, the 550 Spyder that he bought next would end his life the following year, but we should perhaps be dwelling on more positive news, and there was plenty of that to come. The following decade would see the beginning of Porsche’s racing success on American soil, starting with a victory in 1960 at the 12 Hours of Sebring with the 718 RS.
By 1968 the Type 907-8 had won the 24 Hours of Daytona, and in 1979 Paul Newman would bring a
935 Turbo home in second place at Le Mans, Porsche following this up with a 1-2-3 finish at Daytona in
1983. Tales of motorsport dominance have been told before in the pages of Total 911, so we should return to the middle of the 1950s, a time when Porsche were beginning to experience a degree of concern over the American operation.
Although sales were continuing to increase at an impressive rate, those concerns centered on the ability to successfully control standards when it came to sales and the support provided to owners, as well as future expansion. Those aspects were considered critical if Porsche was to grow successfully, and in 1959 it led to the formation of the Porsche of America Corporation (POAC) in Teaneck, New Jersey. Better able to oversee the entire operation on a corporate basis, it was a timely move, as the Zuffenhausen manufacturer was a just a few short years away from launching its most famous model. Although the 356 had been an undoubted success – giving the brand a foothold in a huge market – it was still viewed as a European curiosity by some buyers, but the
911 was to change all that. Delicately proportioned and exhibiting a depth of engineering that was a world away from that of many homegrown models, it improved on its predecessor in a whole host of ways. Compared to the 356 there was more space
(the 911 was now a genuine 2+2), improved handling, ample performance and it was easier to maintain, and American buyers took to it in their droves.
Let’s not forget that the US market would also influence the Neunelfer in ways that would prove pivotal to its history and development, and the first such model would arrive in 1967. The success of the 356 Cabriolet and Speedster proved there was a demand for open-top Porsches, but US legislators were threatening to outlaw convertibles on safety
grounds. This concern led to the development of the Targa, which is still with us half a century later. Come 1974 and the launch of the G-series, 911 buyers also had to contend with a new design feature – the impact bumper. They’d come about because of a requirement that cars survive a 5mph (8km/h) impact without suffering bodywork damage, and they’d remain a feature of the 911 right up until 1990 and the launch of the 964. And, as Porsche would discover, those weren’t the only challenges they faced when it came to selling the Neunelfer in such an important market.
While European enthusiasts were able to get their hands on the very best that Zuffenhausen and Weissach could produce, US buyers would be denied some of the finest 911s ever built. Notably more stringent emissions legislation was often to blame, meaning that many Rennsport models never made the journey Stateside, and the 2.7 RS was the first casualty. The mechanical fuel injection dispensed fuel with too much abandon for catalytic convertors, so the American 2.7 engine got Bosch K-jetronic injection, milder cams and cast, rather than forged, pistons – it lost 35bhp and a wodge of torque in the process. The 993 RS and
996 RS didn’t make it across the pond either, with both emissions and crash regulations playing a part, but at least a version of the 964 RS did go on sale. Known as the RS America, it wasn’t as focused as the ROW model but was still stripped out, featuring the M030 suspension and coming with a much cheaper price tag than the Carrera 2. The 930 Turbo didn’t escape the ire of legislators either: it was withdrawn in 1975 as tighter emissions rules began to bite, and then returning in 1985 armed with Le-jetronic injection and a catalytic convertor. And, as we detailed in Issue 158, the awesome 959 would prove another problem child. Reputedly Porsche knew from the outset that it wouldn’t be allowed, but tried to circumvent the rules by declaring them to be race cars, although neither the ruse nor the luxury specification fooled US officials, and the eight cars that did arrive (the original deal was for 30) were promptly despatched back to Europe.
It’s also worth rewinding to 1975 and the 912E, a four-cylinder model boasting a modest 86hp that was sold only in the US for just a year, a stopgap between the outgoing 914 and the soon-to-arrive 924. Indeed, the 914 – a joint venture with Volkswagen – had seen Porsche form a successful link with Volkswagen of America (VOA), but come 1984 that situation was about to change. With the need to maintain quality within the organisation paramount, particularly when it came to marketing, where there were concerns that the VOA network would be distracted by the volume needs of VW, the decision was taken to form Porsche Cars North America (PCNA).
Locating its new HQ in Reno, Nevada, that’s where it would stay until 1998, when another move took the business to Atlanta, Georgia. The company was entering a period of massive growth, buoyed by the introduction of the Boxster and hugelyprofitable Cayenne SUV, but by 2010 itchy feet led PCNA to start looking for a new HQ – one which reflected their ambitions for the US operation – and it would lead them to One Porsche Drive. Located at the ‘Aerotropolis Atlanta’ site in the southern metropolitan district, work on the new HQ began in November 2012, and it opened three years later to great acclaim (for the construction geeks among us, the main building’s frame contained 27,000 cubic yards of concrete and some 500 tons of steel).
The result of a 100 million dollar investment, the opening ceremony was attended by luminaries including then-ceo Matthias Müller and Dr
Wolfgang Porsche, and the complex was a stunning testament to Porsche’s status in North America. No mere office building, it would include the first Porsche Experience Centre in the US alongside a driving simulator lab, ‘Classic Centre’, gallery and fine dining restaurants. Along with a new Porsche Experience Centre in Carson, Los Angeles and the Porsche Sport Driving School in Alabama that had been set up in 1999, the German marque’s presence in the US had been thoroughly cemented. More than six decades have passed since the ‘funny little sports car’ had arrived to take on America’s sports car industry, and the country had shaped the 911 in ways that endure to this day, but it’s a story that deserves to be remembered. Who knows what the future holds for the automobile, but we can be pretty sure that Porsche’s US operation will be supporting its loyal customers for decades to come.
“While European enthusiasts were able to get their hands on the very best that Zuffenhausen could produce, US buyers would be denied some of the finest 911s ever built”
clockwise from TOP Former HQ in Reno, Nevada; 356 America Roadster was built to seize direct appeal among Stateside drivers; Stringent US exhaust regulations are adhered to at Zuffenhausen; new PCNA HQ at One Porsche Drive, Atlanta; Early picture from a Porsche Club of America meet; Collection of impact bumper cars sit bound for the States
Left GMC truck delivers new batch of Porsche imports BELOW 964 RS never made it Stateside, customers instead offered this 964 RS America