Porsche’s engineering research and development efforts are legend. They have resulted in many modern miracles of vehicle dynamics and performance, both on racetracks and off, most of which we’ve covered extensively. We recently had the opportunity to go along on an R&D-related trip hosted by a different branch of the famous German manufacturer: Porsche Heritage.
Yes, the Porsche Heritage folks who maintain and share the company’s 770-vehicle back catalog conduct their own research and development. They do this by shipping significant vehicles to culturally significant locations around the globe to share with locals while observing ways in which different cultures protect, preserve, and promote their own heritage.
The first of what promises to be a biennial Porsche Heritage Experience took place in 2019 in China, where Porsche Heritage invited 20 local media representatives to drive through Yunnan province in the southwest. Yunnan is home to 25 of 55 recognized Chinese minorities—the nation’s highest concentration of such groups. Together they speak more than 60 languages and dialects, making Yunnan a challenging environment in which to preserve the heritage of any single group, so there were lessons to be learned.
The second Porsche Heritage Experience was held in late 2021 on Hawaii’s Big Island, where native residents have managed to preserve and foster their Polynesian heritage for millennia, despite extreme efforts undertaken by the U.S. government to stamp it out.
Over the course of two days, we sampled five pairings of old and new Porsche cabriolets—convertibles—piloting them through all six of the island’s distinct regions. We made stops at a coffee farm and an aqua farm, in Volcanoes National Park, at the Keahole Center for Sustainability, and even went stargazing on Mauna Kea to learn how the Polynesians navigated the Pacific. Here’s what we learned about how well modern Porsches channel their forebears’ history and heritage, and what lessons Porsche Heritage might have learned in Hawaii.
1956 Porsche 356 A 1600 Speedster vs. 2021 Porsche 718 Boxster T
Old: Did you know the first Porsche prototype featured a mid-engine layout? It was co-developed alongside a rear-engine variant that was completed after the mid-engine one. According to Porsche Car Collection manager Alex Klein, the main reason for choosing the rear-engine design at the time was that it drove and handled better. That’s largely because the 1948 mid-engine 356 “No. 1” roadster’s rear suspension was basically a VW Beetle setup flipped 180 degrees, with no changes. (The mid-engine 1953 550 Spyder featured a completely new and vastly better-handling rear suspension.) This charming rear-engine Speedster features a removable windshield, 1.4-inch-lower doors with removable side curtains, and a minimalist interior with bucket seats and no seat belts.
Our 356 A 1600 example makes 60 hp and features larger 15-inch tires and a front anti-roll bar. Our favorite features include a white tachometer-shading that spans from 3,000 to 5,500 rpm to indicate where the engine’s torque resides (accelerative force outside that range is negligible). The clutch and shifter require little or no acclimation, but the brakes demand patience and favor long following distances.
New: Imagine this modern mid-engine test car without the $3,730 PDK automatic gearbox and $2,320 navigation system, and it begins to look like a strong spiritual successor to the 356 A. The 718 Boxster T also gets standard upsized wheels (now 20-inchers) and a specially tuned suspension that’s lowered 0.8 inch. Inside, cloth seats and door-pull loops channel the older car’s minimalism. Even the slightly blatty turbo exhaust note is mildly reminiscent of the 356’s slightly Beetle-esque bark.
Porsche Heritage Lesson: While swapping cars at Kona Joe’s, we learned how this farm innovated the coffee-growing process by training the plants like grape vines—on hillside trellises. This gives more beans unshaded sun exposure, so they ripen sweeter. It’s almost as unique in the coffee world as rear engines are in the sports car world.
1970 Porsche 914-6 vs. 2021 Porsche 718 Spyder
Old: This VW-Porsche collaboration was designed to replace the four-cylinder 912 as the brand’s entry model, and the four-cylinder 914 won MotorTrend‘s Import Car of the Year for 1970. Those wheezy four-bangers felt and sounded too much like VWs, so a 914-6 variant was offered with the 2.0-liter flat-six from the 911T, good for 109 hp. The latter figure was up from the 79-99 horses produced by the 1.7-, 1.8-, and later 2.0-liter flat-fours. Porsche offered a limited 914-6 GT with the 911 Carrera’s 207-hp 2.0-liter, but because even the basic 914-6 cost almost as much as a 911T, examples of the car remained rare.
No surprise, we cherished the opportunity to drive this one. We were slightly disappointed by the wheezy performance, vague- and disconnected-feeling shifter, and the windy cabin. But we were bemused at finding the gas tank and filler under the front hood (showing its VW roots) and by the fixed passenger seatback and removable footrest for shorter passengers. At least the engine felt smooth, it sang like a 911, and the all-disc brakes worked great.
New: Porsche planned a range-topping 916 model (wearing 914 bodywork) for 1972, powered by the 2.4- or 2.7-liter 911 engines, with fat tires and a vastly improved transmission, but its anticipated high price meant the business case wouldn’t pencil out. The 718 Spyder proves Porsche no longer worries as much about price and performance overlap between models.
This variant of the brand’s “entry-level” sports car gets a 414-hp 4.0-liter flat-six from the 911 (with cylinder deactivation on three pots), a manual cloth top, and a lowered sport suspension. The starting price of $99,650 tiptoes right up against the 911. The Spyder feels special to drive—as the 914-6 undoubtedly did in its day—and it proves Porsche’s entry mid-engine chassis is more than capable of handling 911 power.
Porsche Heritage Lesson: After birth, Hawaiians believe the umbilical cord, which physically connected mother and child, can spiritually and metaphorically connect generations of their families. So local Hawaiians symbolically return the umbilical cords to the earth in the same place over generations, burying them under the same tree or casting them into the same volcano or lake, for example. This connects generations, in much the same way Porsche ensures each successive generation and new model of car or SUV looks, feels, smells, and works like a Porsche.
1992 Porsche 911 Carrera 2 Cabriolet vs. 2021 Porsche 911 Carrera S Cabriolet
Old: For 1988, the 964-generation 911 introduced AWD, the Tiptronic automatic transmission, and coil springs (replacing torsion bars) to the 911 while upping engine displacement from 3.2 to 3.6 liters. It also improved the 911’s aerodynamics markedly. This example, in full Gilbert Grape regalia (Amethyst metallic paint over purple hides) feels incredibly rigid for its age, and its classic five-gauge dash and simple, minimalist controls are a refreshing respite from today’s fully digital interiors. The four-speed Tiptronic really slows the car down, but in its second life as a weekend toy, maybe that’s less important.
New: “My god, this thing feels huge.” That was our primary first impression, whether sitting in and driving it or observing both on-hand new 911s from behind. There are those who may never forgive the transition of mainstream Porsches from naturally aspirated to turbocharged engines (just as some have surely never forgiven the pivot away from air cooling), but the power flows effortlessly, and periodic bursts of Hawaiian “liquid sunshine” remind us how convenient it is to be able to operate the power top at speeds below 30-ish mph.
Porsche Heritage Lesson: Mexican cowboys brought guitars to the islands and taught Hawaiians the rudiments of how to play them, but the typical strumming style used elsewhere didn’t suit Hawaiian music’s traditional rhythms and harmonic structures. Instead, the locals learned to slack three or more strings so that a strum across the strings would produce a major chord. They adapted Latin guitars to suit their music, just as Porsche interprets modern technologies and automotive fashions to make them its own—like all-wheel drive, automatic transmissions, water-cooled front-engine cars, and SUVs.
1991 Porsche 944 Turbo Cabriolet vs. 2021 Porsche 911 Turbo Cabriolet
Old: Behold the very last 944 built, and one of only 528 944 Turbo cabriolets. Its 2.5-liter turbocharged inline-four produces 247 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque and could reportedly propel the car to 60 mph in less than 6.0 seconds en route to a top speed of 162 mph. It pulls strongly and feels remarkably smooth for such a big four. It is a curious convertible, however, requiring two wrenches to lock and unlock the left and right header latches before powering the top down—with the ignition on but the engine off.
This is also a sawed-off hatchback convertible, as attested to by the over-flush body-cap pieces running right around the back of the car from door to door, to cover the scar. Its chassis also quivers a bit over bumps and imperfect surfaces. Modern eyes may be appalled by the heat-seamed vinyl door cards and otherwise downscale interior materials in such a pricey car (the 924 from which it evolved began life as an Audi project). But you gotta love that periwinkle paint job!
New: Nobody can complain about the performance of this 572-hp, 553-lb-ft twin-turbo beast, nor about the rigidity of its bespoke chassis. Complain about the near-$200K price and the puny rear seats if you must, but this is just about as good as top-down motoring gets at Porsche. It is a big 911, however.
Porsche Heritage Lesson: Foreign visitors to Hawaii also brought with them the banjo. The Hawaiians studied how both it and the guitar were built and how they created music, then invented the ukulele. Today that little instrument is as closely associated with Hawaiian music as the slack-key guitar. Museum curator Klein pointed out the many parallels between handmaking instruments and restoring vintage cars.
2002 Porsche Boxster vs. 2021 Porsche Boxster 25 Years
Old: In terms of driving fun, this little 11,000-mile gem was second only to the wee 356 Speedster. It just feels so tight and responsive, and its shifter so sublime—particularly in contrast with the 914-6’s. This example reflects the Boxster’s first modest face-lift, which brought with it new Motronic fuel injection that helped boost power by 8 horses and fuel efficiency by 2 percent. It’s only a 6.4-second car to 60 mph—slower than loads of Camrys—but it’s a joyous thing to run through the gears on the twisty saddle road between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea.
New: Sadly, the only vehicle to suffer a breakdown (after its photo shoot) was this new 2021 718 Boxster 25 Years anniversary model. No worries, though: You can read MotorTrend executive editor Mac Morrison’s feature about the car (and the original Boxster).
Porsche Heritage Lesson: Over a luau dinner on our last night, we asked Klein what overarching lessons he might bring back from this Porsche Heritage R&D trip. “The importance of listening to the elders,” he responded. Over the course of two days in Hawaii, we heard countless stories about how Hawaiian elders passed down their culture through various chants and storytelling, and how they taught lessons in caves and cane fields during the years when speaking the language or dancing the hula was outlawed.
Klein pointed to a contemporary example of how his group will implement this learning. The modern 919 Hybrid Le Mans Prototype race car is retired and being remanded to the Porsche Museum’s custody along with some 500,000 parts. Klein’s team has prioritized gathering every bit of data from the race team engineers immediately before they become fully immersed in their next project. This is crucial because the museum’s mechanics must keep these cars in running order without scurrying back to the race team every time something breaks or doesn’t function properly.
It sounds like a lesson well learned and applied. Meanwhile, Klein’s team is laying groundwork for the next Porsche Heritage experience, planned for Germany in 2023 to mark the 60th anniversary of the 911 and Porsche’s 75th anniversary as an automobile manufacturer.
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