Sunday, February 12, 2012

Flashback: Zuffenhausen, Germany - September 2010

Written by Adam
Sometimes the seeds that finally sprout to see a particular part of the world are planted years before you actually arrive.  Visiting Zuffenhausen, Germany is one of those exact situations, at least for me.
When I was about twelve years old, I went to the movies with my father and younger brother.  We all drove over to the Century 21 Theater in San Jose, California, home of a big screen and an even bigger sound system - at least in those days.  We saw a double feature way back when.  The first movie was Grand Prix, starring a youthful James Garner playing a Formula One racecar driver.  Open wheel racing, exotic European circuits and locales, but other than that, I don’t remember very much about the plot.

The other movie, Le Mans, starring Steve McQueen, had an entirely different effect.  Even though Steve McQueen had top billing, he simply could not begin to match the real star of the movie: the mighty Gulf Porsche 917, wearing a wardrobe of light blue and orange.
To this day it is still considered one of the most awesome racing machines ever assembled for that purpose.  While the plot of that movie is quite weak and the acting somewhat broody, it was a true spectacle of sound and color as Porsche squared off aganst Ferrari and Lola as they each vied to win the great 24 Hours of Le Mans, held each June in France.  Anyone who has ever stood trackside and heard a Porsche 917 roar past them never forgets the sound, nor what the car looks like as it hurtles by you in a skittish blur.  Impressions like that stay with you when you are only twelve years old.

The Porsche 917 as it appears when winning.
Millions of dollars worth of Porsche 917 racing machines.
Until I recently bought the DVD as a full-fledged adult, my only recollection of the movie was the indelible imprint that Porsche made upon me through watching that exotic racing car on the big screen.  As a younger man I was compelled to see what all the fuss was about, and as a response to my own curiousity I bought a used 1968 Porsche 912 for $5,500 - whose hometown just happened to be Zuffenhausen, Germany.
The hometown of every early Porsche - the original 356, the 912, and each and every 911 you see driving on any road in the world today - was manufactured in the original Porsche Factory in Zuffenhausen, Germany.  1969 911?  Zuffenhausen.  1979 911?  Zuffenhausen.  1989 911? Yes, Zuffenhausen.  You get the picture - they are still all assembled there to this very day.

Porsche dealership and the bridge linking two factory assembly lines together.
The old and new factories become one.
Every Porsche owner has their own unique story of how their engine disintegrated in a storm of acrid bluish smoke and oil-soaked parts vomitus, and I am no exception.  It was a very, very hot day, and I was stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic when the slow-speed tragedy occured.  It is more glamorous and glorious to have an engine fail at very high speed competing among the Ferraris and Lolas at Le Mans, but the tragedy is just the same.  Seized main bearing was what the mechanic told me - out of the race, and shit outta luck: How does a college kid begin to fix a Porsche engine?  Slowly, very slowly - as slowly as it takes to earn all the money.
But, for awhile at least, I was a Porsche owner and driver.  I cannot think of anyone that I have ever met that will admit that they used to drive a Porsche and now they choose freely to drive something else.  Sure, people buy and enjoy Porsches because they can, but life inevitably gets in the way, the kid comes along, and it gets sold and becomes the subsidy for the most practical minivan that they can find.  But, they don’t just switch - they just surrender.
I remember going to a Porsche-only wrecking yard in Emeryville, California and seeing all colors and varieties of Porsche 911’s being cannibalized there for their valuable spare parts.  Most of the time the cars sustained major structural damage caused most obviously from very intense crashes, where telephone poles and trees were the unavoidable obstacles.  You come to realize that jelly beans can be quite deadly: that’s what a group of racing 911’s look like when professionals thread around a track or the amateurs take to local rural roads for their thrills.  The 911’s are all born in Zuffenhausen, and they tend to die just about everywhere else.

911 design from the mid-sixties.
So, when we were planning our trip to Europe in 2010 to ride the rails, I got to thinking:  Maybe we could stop in Zuffenhausen and pay a visit to the Porsche factory?  So, I sent an email to the address that Porsche provides on their website and waited.  (Porsche Factory Tour)  From what I had read previously, it was often very difficult to secure a tour pass, as the number of people admitted to the tightly-confined factory floor was severely limited and demand was worldwide.

Early 911 headlight and bumper detail.
With typical German efficiency, I heard back from the Porsche representative with a terse message that informed me that two tour reservations were available to visit the factory on a Tuesday that was months away.  We were to promptly report to the lobby of the Porsche Museum at ten a.m. on the appointed day in order to meet our factory guide and then be admitted into Porsche heaven shortly thereafter.  St. Peter would have been impressed if he could get a tour spot.
So, we planned a European tour that featured Zuffenhausen, Germany as a specific stop for an equally specific purpose.  That’s not really how we travel, but we made the exception this time.  
Even though the hood marque of each and every Porsche bears the geographically specific locale of Stuttgart, the real action is in Zuffenhausen.  It is from this exact facility that Professor Ferdinand Porsche began designing and manufacturing his now-famous sports cars, and while over the years it has been expanded, it is still a very small place when you have the chance to take a look around.  It is almost hard to believe that so many cars have their origin from this postage stamp sized factory.  Today there is an adjacent museum on one corner, and on another is a full Porsche dealership most likely built for the ultimate expression of impulse buying.  The streets that run through the factory are city streets dedicated for use by the citizens of Zuffenhausen, not the company.

Porsche 911 Targa
One interesting fact that our factory tour guide mentioned was that every Porsche that was seen on the assembly line during the tour was already sold.  The company has the technology in place to build any car with any combination of options and equipment, color, interior finishes, and appointments on the same assembly line.  Employees that work for the company are selected from thousands of applicants from top trade schools in Germany, and less than one hundred new employees per year are hired.  If you are selected to work for Porsche, it is often for a career position - turnover is very rare.

Porsche 911 Carrera
Another interesting factoid is that the company has a goal of assembling only 160 cars in the Zuffenhausen facility per day - and that’s it.  They understand that the Porsche brand represents a quality product that is manufactured for a discriminating buyer who is charged a premium price in exchange for owning a high quality sports car and driving experience.  The pace on the assembly floor is relaxed, and the line workers are given plenty of time to accomplish the tasks that they are well-trained over the years to do.  They can even have one beer with their lunch in the factory cafeteria with the full knowledge and consent of the factory management.

Porsche 911 - simply classic lines.  
To bring the story here fully around the track, I never could afford to fix my wounded 912, but I still own it.  In July of 2003, I was privileged to become the owner of a brand new 2003 Porsche Boxster.  I test drove the Boxster S, but with the added horsepower of that model it was easy to describe the experience of test driving that vehicle as being atop a wild horse galloping out of control at full speed.  With that impression of what you could buy from Porsche directly from the factory, one can only imagine what driving a Porsche 917 is really like.

The Porsche 911 - Danger, big bucks, and pretty wild paint.
Many Porsche Boxsters were manufactured in the Porsche Boxster assembly facility in Finland, though all engines are assembled within the geographic borders of Germany.  I was curious as to the lineage of my own Boxster, and a quick look at my certificate of authenticity provided me with quite a surprise: my Boxster was among one of the very few that actually hailed from Zuffenhausen, assembled by perhaps many of the very same highly-skilled technicians that I had observed working leisurely on the factory floor.  I should have bought them all a beer - German, of course!         

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